Friday 23 August 2019

Tomás O Sé: Another Connacht final loss could be ruinous for Galway and McStay will have Roscommon well primed

Another Connacht final defeat could be ruinous for Kevin Walsh’s talented side

Kevin McStay. Photo: Sportsfile
Kevin McStay. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás O Sé

I saw a side to Kevin McStay I wasn't familiar with in that fly-on-the-wall documentary, 'Behind the Gates with Roscommon', covering their championship run in 2017.

The dressing-room footage was a revelation. It showed a steel in the man, a defiance that was hard to reconcile with the calm, soft-spoken figure I've sat beside in a TV studio.

When the need was there last summer, McStay was on a war-footing for his players.

I remember specifically his half-time team-talk during the Connacht final against Galway. Against all expectation, Roscommon were seven points up and the big danger to them now was complacency. McStay knew it.

Circled by his players, he was like a man suddenly plugged into the mains. "We f*****g take it to them," he roared. "Whatever it takes, we're going to f*****g survive!"

I loved it. All the pent-up emotion of a difficult year came flowing out through him in those images. He'd spoken at the beginning of the programme of how so many of their own people had "given up" on Roscommon after losing six of their seven league games in Division 1.

"I'm going to try to turn that into a bit of anger," he said.

And there, right in front of us now, you could see McStay had succeeded. Roscommon were not for turning. Where did that anger come from?

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Well, Gay Sheerin's Shannonside Radio attack on McStay last year was probably an obvious starting point.

Sheerin's argument seemed to be that the county would be better served by having one of their own in charge, someone with pure Roscommon blood flowing through their veins.

McStay and Liam MacHale, he pointed out, had the gall previously to want Mayo to beat Roscommon when they were wearing the Mayo colours.

"They hated me and they hated Roscommon" he said.

Lord Jesus, I've seldom heard worse nonsense.

McStay was fairly restrained in his response at the time and I admired him for that. Maybe it was his army training because I'm not sure I'd have been as diplomatic.

I mean the obvious question to ask Sheerin was, 'Well Gay, what exactly were Roscommon doing before this management took over?'

Let's cut to the chase here. Roscommon isn't a county that's going to be winning the All-Ireland any time soon. But then who is apart from Dublin and, maybe, Kerry?

I'm just amazed at how stark everything has become for the modern GAA manager - how unrealistic.

Michael Ryan seems to be under savage pressure in Tipperary after drawing two of their games in the Munster hurling championship and losing another only in the dying seconds.

Fatigue seemed to catch up with them playing for the fourth week on the bounce, but Ryan's being judged now like a Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola. Winning is the only show in town.

And this isn't any new phenomenon. Bear in mind there was a move to get Micko out of Kerry after they'd lost in successive championships to Dublin in '76 and '77.

In fact, only for the determination of county chairman Frank King, the Micko years would have reaped just a single All-Ireland instead of eight.

Everything is extreme in the so-called big counties.

I could sense pressure building on Eamonn Fitzmaurice before the recent Clare game but now, having scored 32 points in an emphatic win, the vibe around Kerry seems to have changed completely. A bad Munster final performance and, trust me, it'll swing around the other way just as quickly.

But how do you measure success in a county like Roscommon? They won two All-Irelands in a row during World War II and haven't been in a final since 1980. So it's Connacht titles they aspire to and McStay has absolutely delivered on that front.

I knew little enough about him when I pitched up for my first night working on 'The Sunday Game', but I was an absolute bundle of nerves and he was the one who calmed me.

One thing that struck me immediately was how meticulous he was in his research. He'd have been comfortable coming at the analysis from any angle, so much so that he was happy to let me get first call on what I wanted to talk about.

Back then, I hadn't a clue how the programme worked and I'll never forget how he guided me through everything.

So after Sheerin delivered that outburst last year, I'll admit I was delighted that Roscommon went on to win the Connacht title.

In fact, I picked that as my moment of the year in the final programme of the season. Why? Because I just totally respected McStay's courage in stepping out of the TV studio to put his reputation on the line.

The easy thing would have been to stay in an environment where he was, clearly, completely on top of his game.

Roscommon won an All-Ireland minor title in 2006 and maybe that gave some people in the county notions about their status in the game. But the idea that McStay, who has spent most of his adult life living in Roscommon, whose kids are essentially Roscommon kids and who remains the only man to manage a club (St Brigid's) from the county to All-Ireland success, mightn't be worthy of leading them?

I presume Gay Sheerin recognises now just how idiotic his comments seemed.

McStay has made no bones about the fact that he'd love to have managed Mayo. But he's been rejected for that job twice and it's surely clear to everyone just how committed he is to the Roscommon cause now.

Look, I can say categorically that - even though I live in so-called 'enemy territory' and spent the last few years playing for Nemo - I couldn't countenance getting involved with Cork at inter-county level.

I'm not saying I'd ever be asked by the way, but I could just see the pressure it brings and the ease with which you become such a target for cheap shots.

So I had only admiration for McStay when I heard he'd taken on Roscommon.

And if any one thing is crystal-clear about his squad today, it's that they believe in their manager.

They believe in him because they're being led by a man who understands the importance of place, of a sense of identity.

Consider the way he's been so public in his insistence that tomorrow's game would stay in The Hyde. Or look at how he rejected any idea that, given so many of their players (22) are Dublin-based, Roscommon might actually train in the capital when it could have been the easier, even cheaper option.

McStay's response was, 'No, we are Roscommon, we'll train in Roscommon!'

That was smart. He wants that group to remain tight and closed, to hold on to a keen sense of who and what they represent.

I will say that I believe the Connacht draw has been kind to them in recent years, with another easy run to tomorrow's final. But these Roscommon players clearly buy into McStay and I get the impression he's really turned the county around in terms of the broader Roscommon attitude too.

When he dropped a few big-name players last year, I thought he might be in danger of losing the dressing-room. But that didn't happen.

Kevin knows what he's got here; an unbelievably offensive team, a team just programmed to attack, one that can mix it up and isn't afraid to go long if there's the right option inside.

Yes, there are question marks about the defence. Look at Cavan putting 4-12 past them in the Division Two league final.

That game captured them in microcosm. Leaking four goals in a final would be curtains for most teams, but Roscommon won because they went and nailed four green flags themselves.

Personally, I think they'll be delighted if Galway stick to a defensive style tomorrow. To me, Dublin and Kerry are the only two teams who really push up on the opposition's kick-outs and, while Kevin Walsh will talk of Galway still being in the developmental stage, this is a team that pushed the Dubs all the way in that Division 1 league final.

So they either kick on now or they don't. This isn't Carlow or Fermanagh we're talking about here and that's why I think Galway arrive at this Connacht final under monumental pressure.

Do they have the guts to push up tomorrow, go man-on-man and back themselves to take out Roscommon? I'm not sure they do.

Walsh knows that McStay will have Roscommon revved up like nobody's business and he'll know too the implications of defeat.

Put it this way, I think Galway would have been better off losing to Mayo in the first round rather than going down in a second successive Connacht final to Roscommon.

Because, psychologically, I just think defeat here could be ruinous. So the best thing Galway could do in my opinion is front up for a battle. Deep down, they probably believe Roscommon caught them on the hop in this game last year.

And, objectively, Galway should really be a step ahead of tomorrow's opponents right now, but Roscommon backed up their Connacht title by bouncing straight back up to Division 1 in the league when, just a year ago, it must have felt as if the whole county was pulling against him.

This, undoubtedly, is a game that could become a chess match and, in a perverse way, I actually don't believe that would suit either team.

That said, Roscommon's concession of goals in the league is an obvious worry. They leaked 12 in eight outings while Galway gave away just one in the same number of games at a higher level. So, logically, it should be Galway shouldn't it?

But I still believe they have an inclination to panic at times and end up overloading at the back with the likes of Damien Comer and Sean Armstrong retreating when they should be told to stay inside.

In other words, Galway have yet to find that patience within themselves, the trust that Dublin have in spades. Half of their own county still have doubts about this team and there's only one way of getting rid of those doubts.

But McStay's been steeling his men for this day, that much is obvious. His stance on not moving from the Hyde sent a message to Roscommon people everywhere of 'I might be a Mayo man, but I'll fight on my back for ye if that's what it takes!'

So don't be surprised if 'the outsider' pulls another rabbit from the hat tomorrow. But there's more in this Galway team, even if their self-confidence isn't yet quite there. I think they'll win this game by committing more to attack than we've seen them do up to now.

But it's going to be extremely close.

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