Wednesday 26 June 2019

Roscommon back at crossroads as fundamental issues resurface

Pressure on McStay's men to tighten up at back as Donegal face different concerns in do-or-die showdown

Kevin McStay has stepped down as Roscommon manager. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Kevin McStay has stepped down as Roscommon manager. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

After their fourth-round qualifier defeat to Clare two years ago then joint Roscommon manager Kevin McStay was typically forthright and honest in his appraisal of where the team was and where they had to go.

It had been a difficult championship for them, prefaced by a heavy league semi-final defeat to Kerry in April that was the first real 'eye-opener' they had been exposed to.

Emerging from Gaelic Park with a one-point win over New York didn't appear to have scarred them too badly when they drew level and looked poised to win their drawn Connacht final with Galway in Pearse Stadium a couple of months later.

But when they were opened up again for three goals by Galway in the replay, the walls caved in and six days later was much too soon to mount a successful recovery.

McStay spoke about the need for better conditioning and superior aerobic strength, particular for players in the middle third where they had found the going tough all season as they worked with 'sticking plaster' midfield pairings.

Fitness and injury had prohibited them from fielding anything that resembled a first-choice midfield but, in a broader context, McStay identified a lack of staying power as the challenge they faced.

There were echoes of that sentiment in Croke Park on Saturday evening as McStay once again found himself in the salvage yard, assessing what was recoverable as he dissected a double-scores defeat to Tyrone that, quite frankly, he or anyone else for that matter didn't see coming.

"We genuinely thought these days were gone, obviously they're not, we have so much more to do," he sighed, once again identifying the superior conditioning of opponents as something they didn't deal with.

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McStay also posed a fundamental question about the direction the team may need to take after yet another brutal Croke Park defeat, coming 11 months on from their 4-19 to 0-9 loss to Mayo in last year's quarter-final replay.

They had six months to reflect on that before they played competitively again and when he spoke at the launch of the Connacht Championship in May, Roscommon selector Ger Dowd suggested that the Mayo loss hadn't taken anything out of them.

Now, with just a seven-day turnaround, last Saturday won't be so easy to put behind them but the manager gave a strong hint that evening that a much more aggressive line would be taken before a home crowd this weekend.

"We fell off a lot of tackles, our fouling then increased dramatically and a couple of tackles, you know, I'd be very disappointed how hard a few lads went for them. That's what we're going to demand off them and see what pride we have left in ourselves," he said.

"We have to have a shot at Donegal, we have to keep the integrity of the competition as a priority. I'm sure we will, we're playing at home, we have to give ourselves something to hang onto for the match against Dublin."

But beyond this weekend and the weekend of the final round, McStay is already thinking of a future pathway that may need to be taken, a pathway that would not align with his own football principles.

Roscommon are a fine attacking team with generally accurate forwards but they can't keep making it as easy for opponents as they do and that requires fundamental change.

Will their supporters want such a game-plan implemented? Will the current management want to oversee such a shift?

Questions for another day. For now, they have to show a bottom line based around want. Roscommon are the county in the 'Super 8s' that the rest of the chasing pack will watch with most interest as the most comparable guide for themselves, even more so than Kildare, because of their vulnerability many other counties of a certain standard will identify with because they see something of themselves in them.

Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal and lately Galway have all been regular quarter-finalists in recent years and, with the exception of Galway, seasoned Division 1 teams, used to the cut and thrust of playing each other in a cut-throat top division.

So for 'next tier' teams, wondering what a Super 8s experience might be like for them in the future, Roscommon's experience is what they'll closely align themselves to.

For Donegal, the pressures are different. They won an Ulster title in a relative canter but there's a sense that all the provincial chips won over the previous two months are all being wagered on Hyde Park now.

To lose, suggested former All-Ireland-winning forward Manus Boyle, would "undo all the good work of the Ulster Championship." Boyle feels Donegal were a little undercooked going in against Dublin last weekend because of the nature of the Ulster win.

"When Tyrone and Monaghan went out of the Ulster Championship, it probably took the edge out of it," he said.

"Those three teams would be a good bit ahead of everyone else and it probably didn't help Donegal that they hadn't really one major opposition. They needed a big test to see exactly where they were.

"They probably didn't do too badly, the fact that Paddy McBrearty wasn't playing, but I don't think Dublin played too well either, not to their standards. Dublin might not have got out of third gear," he suggested.

The 'where to play Michael Murphy' debate re-opened after last Saturday but Boyle believes the Donegal captain is locked into a guiding role around the middle and Declan Bonner must continue to develop the team around that pillar.

"The way we play football, we do a lot of handpassing and the ball is too slow coming in. The likes of Murphy would have to make three or four runs before he would get one ball," said Boyle. "(To switch now) could change the whole way we play football which is keeping the ball, keeping possession.

"We had Tony Boyle in there along with myself and Declan and there were days when we needed fur coats the ball was so slow coming in. I think that comes from us playing so much football in the wind. I've played in Killybegs all my life and if we were two points up with five minutes to go, we would just keep the ball. It's just inherent in the way we play in this county.

"Yes, Murphy and Colm McFadden were superb in 2012 inside and with McBrearty out there's an argument there to restore Michael. But his game has evolved he's crucial around the middle, especially if you have McBrearty inside."

Boyle sees a Roscommon backlash but expects Donegal to keep their heads in the knowledge that defeat will effectively end their interest because of the score difference Tyrone accumulated against Roscommon last weekend.

"They won't be complacent, they're good fellas, sound, not the mad caps we were," he laughed. "They think they can go down and do a job. They don't just do that any more."

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