Tuesday 10 December 2019

'We had gone through the mill -- on the pitch and off the pitch'

Roscommon football has emerged from its darkest moment with renewed ambitions, writes Dermot Crowe

IN the pitch invasion that followed Roscommon's All-Ireland minor final win at Ennis in 2006, Jim Carney managed to get hold of Fergal O'Donnell. His captive struggled, understandably, to articulate the wonderland he now inhabited. The result was beyond their wildest dreams, he offered, but that couldn't possibly convey what it meant to someone like O'Donnell and the journey he shared with his players and selectors that summer.

Roscommon football's badly damaged brand had been regenerated and that day there was a sense that the descent into disrepute had been ended and the ascent towards a higher ground could begin.

But Carney -- canny ringmaster that he is -- had a job to do even if O'Donnell's was complete. He valiantly tried to prompt or guide, noting the massive attendance of 17,000. O'Donnell said he had anticipated a huge crowd, though maybe not quite that many. As he told Carney, "we came down the night before because we knew the traffic would be mental."

Being a dyed-in-the-wool primrose and blue, he knew, and long lamented, the grievously untapped resources of its football and its people. He understood the county's childlike animation when it sees a team worth following. O'Donnell captained the Connacht-winning team of 2001 and the last to defeat Mayo or Galway in the championship. The period between then and 2006 was the most trying of all. Salacious accounts of high jinks in a team trip up north threw industrial quantities of salt on the wounds left by a follow-up 2002 season which brought instant elimination in Connacht and the qualifiers. The county board disbanded an unruly panel, an extraordinary move by a body of officers obviously at the end of their tether.

In 2005, the county chairman resigned with a major financial debt threatening to strangle Roscommon, which was said to be €1.4m at the time but in truth stacked up to almost €2m. Croke Park intervened like the UN arriving in a country which had become ungovernable. And while people were down and despairing they could not trade their faith in football and so they clung on to all they had: an unquenchable trust that it wouldn't last.

Today sees their minor and seniors compete in the Connacht final at their own ground, Hyde Park, with the senior side defending their title. It isn't an earth-shattering achievement in the wider scale of things, even in the context of Roscommon's glories over the generations. But they are treasured steps being taken and landmarks claimed: the minors have been in four of the last five provincial finals -- that is unprecedented. The under-21s won Connacht last year and the county's recent form at that grade is their best in 40 years.

They are acutely aware of Mayo's potential to spoil their day in the main event and the caveats attached to last year's senior breakthrough. But they feel entitled to be optimistic at a level not felt for nigh on ten years. Everyone loves a good redemption story and Roscommon's ticks the boxes. They suffered humiliations and some very good men helped steer them back on a respectable road and they can go to Hyde Park today with heads held high. Already this year they have defeated Mayo at minor and under 21 level. Last year's under 21 title was their first in 11 years and they have contested four of the last five finals, replicating the feat at minor. In the late 1990s and into the next decade their results at those grades were a grave concern.

But even the appointment of O'Donnell as senior manager didn't immunise Roscommon from more distress and pain. Two years ago they were battered by Mayo and that is a driving motivation this afternoon, with many of the same cast involved, and they suffered relegation to Division Four in 2010. When O'Donnell won his Connacht medal in 2001 they contested that year's Division One league semi-final, having topped their section and beaten Dublin and Kerry.

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Former Roscommon footballer Tony McManus, an All Star winner and holder of six Connacht medals, will go to the Hyde today with a renewed optimism that the really bad times are behind them. His son John plays in the minor final.

"It was one thing after the next, a continuation; you'd think things couldn't get worse and then another thing would happen," he says. "We had really gone through the mill -- off the pitch, on the pitch, everywhere; it was embarrassing as a former Roscommon footballer."

In 2005, Michael McGuire stepped in as an interim county board chairman and later that year he was coaxed into taking it on full-time. As administrative short straws go, it took some beating. McGuire is a former minor and under 21 county player who had been involved in coaching and games development prior to becoming vice-chairman and then, in crisis, the man at the helm. He talks of infrastructural targets and five-year plans, work to be done on Hyde Park and a training centre, but he knows that in many respects they have achieved what they set out to do. There is some financial prudence, an efficient underage development system and, now, a team of ambassadors at senior level they can be proud to call their own.

Nobody has much appetite to dredge up the past misdemeanours and the wrecking balls that landed on their morale but they can't ignore them either or how they have shaped what Roscommon are striving to be today. "It was difficult to describe, and distasteful, and we have moved on from it and to a better place as it were," says McGuire. "There were lessons learned. A lot of lessons learned and I don't think Roscommon would be caught up in anything like that again, disciplinary wise and financially; we see a brighter future but we are realistic too.

"We bought in big-time to the development panels and each year it progressed and each year more and more people became involved. We were the recipients of some awful defeats at minor level, Galway and Mayo were feared, but we are able to compete with them again.

"Discipline has been at the core of every team representing the county; and we are blessed with the players we have representing the county. We had a hiccup a few years ago. Previous to that we had many exemplary people like Dermot Earley and Tony McManus, then we had a blip and breakdown to some extent. You couldn't say that discipline didn't exist until the development squads came along but how a player lives, what he eats and drinks and how he looks after himself, all that is preached from an early age."

Six of the team facing Mayo in today's senior final were on the minor team that won the All-Ireland five years ago and there would be more but for injury. A few others are on the panel. It is a high throughput and reflective of a smaller county dealing with the reality of a shallow pool. Those players suffered indignities but never surrendered. They were heroes for what they achieved in 2006 and yet the way they have carried themselves in the difficult transition to senior football is a source of admiration and pride among their followers.

In 2008, with John Maughan managing a young and inexperienced team, they suffered a 4-20 to 0-8 beating at Crossmaglen from Armagh. This was only weeks after drawing with Meath and being within two points of Cork. In the next game at home to Westmeath, they lost by 11 points and Maughan left, citing unacceptable levels of abuse as a contributory factor.

Paul Earley, domiciled in Kildare and not directly involved in Roscommon for some time, spotted the dilemma they faced and kindly offered his services as a stopgap. He took charge as an interim appointment for the last two league games. In the first of those they went down 3-20 to 0-7 to Dublin. They managed to win the last game against Cavan and by the summer Mike Ryan, another member of the 2001 team, had taken over. In the Connacht championship they were crushed by Galway at Pearse Stadium (2-18 to 0-6) and went out in the first round of the qualifiers to Donegal, an eight-point loss.

When O'Donnell took over there was a small surge in their share price. But it was emotionally-driven and even he has had to absorb the beatings and have his convictions tested to the limit. In the league they avoided relegation from Division Three on score difference, winning one match, and were relegated in 2010 with one win from seven.

His first senior championship match in charge was in Castlebar against Mayo two years ago. The final score read a blood-chilling Mayo 3-18, Roscommon 0-7. They were 3-8 to 0-0 behind after 20 minutes and 3-10 to 0-1 down at half-time. From there they managed to defeat Wexford in the qualifiers before exiting to Meath. A year later they were Connacht champions, playing some wonderful football.

"Roscommon were always regarded as very competitive, a county who got the best out of the players who were there," says Paul Earley. "Suddenly, all the controversies came together in a short space of time. It wasn't pleasant, but I'd like to focus on the way the county responded and what has occurred over the last five or six years. I think the response to the county's difficulties by everybody concerned -- county board, supporters, management and the players -- has been nothing short of magnificent and the results have spoken for themselves, though more at underage, possibly."

Even when Earley took charge for a short time in 2008, he was impressed by their outlook. "When they won last year it was a real victory for resilience and never-say-die, a lot of them lads had been through heavy and demoralising defeats, they probably got a lot of abuse from inside and outside the county, but still they were positive, still they were prepared to put in a huge effort. It would have been very easy to quit -- what amazes me was none of them did that."

Last year's Connacht win almost crept up on them. If they retain their title they will have consolidated what they've gained and if they lose they will know they have come back from worse. The team is young and improving; it has time on its side. "We are back to where we are excited about football," as McManus says, "we can talk about it again."

In Earley's view, the team is three or four points improved on last year, with wider options. "I think they are getting there. Even at the lowest point, you know things can get better provided you do something about it. They did something about it."

Michael McGuire, having vacated the chair, is looking forward to today's double-bill. He mentions the support he received during his term from members of the 1980 team and survivors of the glorious era of the 1940s. "It hurt those people, too, to see us down in the depths," he admits. "Everybody put their shoulder to the wheel."

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