Tuesday 24 September 2019

The Hyde can be hell or paradise

Roscommon venue has been the scene of many famous days in the history of Connacht football

A general view of Dr. Hyde Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
A general view of Dr. Hyde Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The Hyde. That ground on the outskirts of Roscommon on a stretch of the Athlone road along which rival followers stream from the main town on the big summer days. At one end of the GAA venue catalogue you have Killarney with its arresting mountain backdrop and captivating scenery. Roscommon is different. You have the graveyard nearby. Next to that is the county hospital. You go to a match in the Hyde, they say darkly, and you could end up in one of them.

After some doubt, with haughty misgivings about the state of the ground's facilities, the Hyde hosts today's Connacht final where the best part of 20,000 people will see the home team face the county that all the talk is about in the province right now. Roscommon will be hoping to win their first Connacht Championship at the venue since 2001 when Gerry Lohan scored a goal deep in injury-time to stun Mayo. Many spectators had seen enough by then and were making their way back to the town when Lohan struck in the dying seconds.

In terms of traffic you will hear gripes from some visiting supporters and a long-running ownership dispute curtailed plans to develop the stadium over the years, leaving it with a patchwork finish. The stand doesn't run all the way down to the perimeter fence and there is an incongruous spread of terracing at its feet. Roscommon's county board has been spending its time working on the pitch which was unfit to host a number of their home games in the Allianz League when they were in Division 1 a couple of years ago. That has been sorted, but the rest of the ground still looks like it needs a makeover.

For the time being it has been given a pardon and granted licence to hold the province's premier football event. The last Connacht final in Dr Hyde Park won't compete for the title of 'most memorable' - that being Mayo's runaway win, 6-25 to 2-11, over Sligo in 2015. Roscommon's last appearance there in one was seven years ago when they surrendered their Connacht title to Mayo by just two points.

Today marks Galway's first Connacht final visit since 2007, an unforgettable day for Sligo when Eamonn O'Hara's wonder goal inspired them to a Connacht title after a 32-year wait. The Hyde will always have blissful connotations for Sligo followers for that alone. Galway's last Connacht final win there was against Leitrim in 2000. It is 20 years since they last defeated Roscommon at the Hyde in a Connacht final, after a replay, going on to win the All-Ireland.

Two years ago, with the Hyde unfit to host, Roscommon had to play the replay of the Connacht final in Castlebar after drawing with Galway in Salthill. This time they were determined to bring the final back to the Hyde but their record there is not bulletproof. Of the 12 Connacht finals Roscommon has contested in Hyde Park, seven were lost.

Gerry Lohan scored a goal with almost the last kick of the game to win the Connacht title for Roscommon in 2001. Photo: Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Gerry Lohan scored a goal with almost the last kick of the game to win the Connacht title for Roscommon in 2001. Photo: Damien Eagers / Sportsfile

St Coman's Park served as the county ground from 1936, with Hyde Park taking over in 1971. It did not prove a bright beginning. The first championship match was against Sligo who hadn't beaten Roscommon since 1926. On a windy day Sligo raced into a 0-9 to 0-2 interval lead and held on to claim a rare victory.

There was a deep irony attached. The Sligo team featured two players, David Pugh and Gerry Mitchell, who were on the books at Sligo Rovers, while Hyde Park takes its name from the Irish President, Douglas Hyde, a Roscommon native who in 1938 fell foul of the GAA for attending an international soccer match at Dalymount Park. Under the ban that existed at the time he was removed as a patron of the GAA at a meeting of Central Council. Hyde had attended out of courtesy as an invited guest. He was 78 and while he never had his patronage restored, the GAA in Roscommon saw fit to name their county ground after him.

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It took six years for Roscommon to feature in their first Connacht final in Hyde Park. That was against Galway in 1977 when they won 1-12 to 2-8 in front of 18,000 people, a little under the reduced capacity for today's final.

One of the most emotional of Roscommon's finals in the Hyde was a losing one. In 1985 against Mayo, a match on which one Dublin bookmaker was offering odds of 8/1 against a Mayo victory, the visitors prevailed by 2-11 to 0-8, their first provincial title in four years. The day marked Dermot Earley's final match in a Roscommon shirt. He ended it in a heavy defeat at 37 years of age. Current Roscommon manager Kevin McStay was Mayo's free-taker the same day.

There is a picture of Earley leaving the field for the last time as a Roscommon player holding the hands of his two young sons, Dermot and Conor. Pat Lindsay also announced that he was stepping down, but the Roscommon full back drew less attention than Earley, who was chaired off at the end on the shoulders of the Mayo players.

Then a Curragh-based army Commandant, Earley was seeking his sixth Connacht medal. He overcame a broken jaw suffered in a replayed semi-final win over Galway. Driving the 160 miles round trip from Kildare three times a week was one of the reasons why he stepped down, and the desire to spend more time with his family. In 1978, he moved from his native Roscommon club Michael Glaveys to Newbridge. On the same day he retired Mayo's Billy Fitzpatrick collected a Connacht medal as a second-half sub at 42.

The Roscommon captain that day, Seamus Hayden, will be at today's Connacht final match as a spectator before hurrying back to the pub he helps run in the local town, Down the Hatch. "I will be pulling pints on Sunday," says Hayden who was on the team beaten by Kerry in the 1980 All-Ireland final. "When you get a day like this you get behind the counter."

After winning in 1980, also at the Hyde, Roscommon failed to win again until 1990 when they beat Galway in the final at the same venue. Having missed the chance to captain Roscommon in a Connacht final win in 1985, Hayden was in America the following summer when Roscommon lost to Galway at the Hyde in the final, with Stephen Joyce scoring a late goal. "I watched it over there at seven in the morning," he says.

"I remember the 1980 final well (Roscommon beating Mayo 3-13 to 0-8), it was after John Morley being shot and I think the Mayo lads were wearing black armbands. He was stationed in Roscommon so a lot of our lads probably knew him better than the Mayo guys. We won easy enough that day." Morley was a member of the Gardaí and former Mayo footballer who was shot dead during an armed robbery in Roscommon in July of that year, less than a week before the Connacht final.

The 2001 final, Roscommon's last win at the Hyde, looked to be heading Mayo's way when Gerry Lohan struck the winning goal with virtually the last kick almost six minutes into injury-time. Lohan, now 38 and retired since 2006, recalls that priceless moment and the madcap scenes at the finish.

Up to that point in the match, Lohan, 21 at the time, had scored 1-2 from full-forward. The final pass came from corner-back Denis Gavin. Having scored his first goal with his right, the decisive goal was off his left foot after a neat side-step took out two Mayo defenders. Earlier in the campaign, they had beaten "a good Galway team" who would recover and win the All-Ireland, defeating Roscommon in the quarter-finals en route. "There were 30,000 at it," says Lohan of the feverish atmosphere, "and there were a good few thousand at the (Roscommon town) roundabout when the whistle went to be honest."

Mayo looked to have won when substitute David Nestor's goal in the first minute of injury-time, after Roscommon were caught in possession, put Pat Holmes' team two points up. "Ah, it was very special to be playing at home," states Lohan, "great atmosphere around the town and everything." Did they head down there afterwards to toast their victory and first Connacht title in ten years? "Jaze we did, big time," he admits. "And for the following week!'"

Today the winning Mayo Connacht final team of 25 years ago will be introduced to the crowd. In 1993, they edged out Roscommon at the Hyde by 1-5 to 0-7 in front of a crowd of 28,000, an all-ticket match in a recently revamped stadium. Jack O'Shea, manager of Mayo at the time, was carried shoulder high off the field by delighted supporters. The game was not one to inspire the poet, a dour low-scoring affair, with two sendings-off. O'Shea had managed to deliver a provincial title at his first attempt.

Liam McHale, part of Roscommon's entourage today, was sent off early in the second half for a late tackle on Seamus Killoran. His side trailed by five points and their prospects looked grim. But Mayo dug in and fought their way back. In the opposite camp, Dermot Earley, by now graduated to Roscommon manager, watched helplessly as a goal from Ray Dempsey midway through the second half re-energised Mayo. By the time John Newton was sent off a minute from the end, Mayo were ahead. Kevin O'Neill made his championship debut for Mayo at 20.

In 1989, the final went to a dramatic replay in Hyde Park between Mayo and Roscommon, and then to extra-time before Mayo got to the winning tape marginally ahead of their rivals, 3-14 to 2-13. The teams had drawn in Castlebar only a week earlier. A scrappy goal from Jimmy Burke finally killed off Roscommon's challenge in the replay after they looked to have won near the end of normal time when Tony McManus goaled from the penalty spot for the second time in the match. It left the home team one point ahead in injury-time. But Michael Fitzmaurice levelled with a last-ditch free. "Some of the team were in congratulating me," McManus said of the equalising score, "when they should have been back out the field."

The Hyde also had an indelible connection to Leitrim's greatest football day. A year after Jack O'Shea, as manager, won the Connacht title that will be commemorated today, Leitrim defeated his Mayo side in a dreadful match, where the poverty of the play was made up for by the historic reverberations of the result. Leitrim had not won since 1927 and while Mayo were dire in the final, and Leitrim decidedly nervous, they had already defeated Roscommon and Galway along the way, taking out the traditional heavyweights in the province. They'd earned their moment of glory.

The crowd was estimated at around 27,000 and Leitrim fans know they may never see a day like it again. The Hyde doesn't have the hills and touristic appeal of a venue like Killarney but on that day, for the Leitrim followers gathered in their thousands, there was no place else they'd rather be. It was paradise.

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