Monday 20 November 2017

'We always go with hope in our hearts' - Roscommon bid to relive their 1940s glory days


Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh in action during the Connacht SFC semi-final victory over Leitrim. Photo: Sportsfile
Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh in action during the Connacht SFC semi-final victory over Leitrim. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Ten years already since Jimmy Murray left this place, in January 2007, a few months short of reaching 90. The most famous Roscommon footballer of all time, captain for their two All-Irelands in the 1940s, had a name and legacy that resonated across the generations.

Roscommon are no closer to winning an All-Ireland now than they were when he died, a year after the county's minors scaled the summit and sparked some hope of better days, defeating Kerry in a replayed All-Ireland final in Ennis. That evening the celebrating party paused at Murray's pub in Knockcroghery as a mark of respect. He had been too weak to get to the game.

Those minors were reaching the summit for the first time since 1951 and they decided to bring the cup to Murray. Their goalkeeper, Mark Miley, was a local lad and a replacement when Roscommon ventured to Pearse Stadium in 2008 to face Galway in the senior championship. They were comprehensively beaten, 2-16 to 0-6. Earlier the same year John Maughan had left in a cloud of smoke following a string of poor league results. A year on Mayo massacred them in the championship.

The year after Murray died, soon after Maughan's controversial departure amid claims of abuse from sections of the Roscommon support, there were only three survivors from the last team to win an All-Ireland for the county in 1944. Now there is just one, Liam Gilmartin.

Canon Lavin, then living in the local parochial house in Knockcroghery, and a fervent Roscommon follower, recalled a meeting with Galway in Tuam in 1943.

"Roscommon were nobodies, and Jamesie [as Murray was known] turned to Hugh Gibbons and said, 'we'll win today or I'll be carried off on a stretcher'. Roscommon really tore into them. The most important thing in any team is spirit."

Roscommon's spirit has come close to being broken several times over since the Canon spoke those words in 2008. John Murray, Jimmy's son, continues to run the bar in Knockcroghery; he has seen Galway destroy Roscommon, winning last year's Connacht final replay comfortably, and scoring a record total against the Rossies in the championship, and a record score in Hyde Park, when winning in style in 2012.

"Galway will be out-and-out favourites," he says of today, "we are hoping for the best. We always go with hope in our hearts. Roscommon are great when you least expect to win it. The last two Connacht titles they won, they won when the other team were favourites - Sligo in 2010 and Mayo in 2001.

"We need one now. You need at least one every ten years. We have just about managed that since the '40s."

Thomas Murray, chairman of the St Dominick's club, is a distant relative of Jimmy Murray. Is the famous captain's legacy still meaningful today?

"Even though it is many years now - you are talking about the mid-40s - and to today's younger generation the name might not mean an awful lot, the likes of myself and older generations still talk about him and the memories live on and the hope that someday we will be able to bring Sam home again," he says. "The football is still hanging in the pub; it is a constant symbol reminding us of him."

He is talking of the ball from the 1944 final which is suspended from the ceiling in the family bar. Those days grow ever more distant. In the two championships that followed Jimmy Murray's death, Roscommon failed to win a match. The league preceding the second of those championships, in 2008, brought catastrophic results, including a 24-point mauling from Armagh in Division 2 and the end of Maughan's reign. Under Fergal O'Donnell they won a Connacht title in 2010 but were helped by not having to play Mayo or Galway along the way.

They lost the Connacht final to Mayo by two points in 2011, then slumped to heavy defeats to Galway and Mayo in successive years, before the recent climb from Division 3 to the top flight in the National League. Since Jimmy Murray passed on, they have played 38 championship games, losing 21, winning 15 and drawing two. The highest-profile team they've beaten in that time was arguably Armagh in 2012 or Cavan two years ago in the qualifiers.

Controversies and management upheavals are a familiar part of the Roscommon narrative. Are they a difficult crowd to manage? "When things are going well everyone is behind you, and when things aren't going well there are more critics," says Thomas Murray. "Kevin McStay is a good man and we will support him when he is there. It is always easy to be critical standing on the sideline. But when you are in the firing line it is not an easy position to be in."

Roscommon haven't beaten Galway in championship football since the 2001 Connacht semi-final and have lost seven times since. In Roscommon logic that might give them cause for optimism.

"If you keep knocking on the door it is going to be answered sometime," says John Murray. "We know we are capable of winning. If they can put it together they can beat anybody. But since 1982 no county with less than 100,000 people has won the Sam Maguire. And the back door doesn't do anything for that. Before, every match counted. You have to be in the Connacht final now before you have any excitement. The way they look at it is, 'sure if we are not good enough to beat Leitrim there is no point going any further'."

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