The GAA Championship: What About Roscommon?

Our Gaelic Games correspondent Mark Murphy was contemplating buying a sofa behind which to hide as his Gaelic Football team, Roscommon, visited National League champions Mayo at a ground where they hadn’t beaten the hosts since Doctor and the Medics knocked Spitting Image’s ‘Chicken Song’ off the top of the UK singles chart. Turns out he didn’t need it…

When the moment came, I nearly missed it.

There was one kick left in Connacht’s Football Championship semi-final between Mayo and Roscommon in McHale Park, Castlebar on Saturday evening. Mayo’s Kevin McLaughlin won an argument with three team-mates over who should kick the eminently-scoreable free-in to take an unexpectedly epic encounter into extra-time.

As McLaughlin set himself, I was telling my dad that “we” would have 15 men again for the extra 20 minutes, having been down to 14 for the previous seven. Hence my explanation ending “fcukin’ hell, we’ve won it!” as McLaughlin’s free headed for the posts before sliding, impossibly dramatically, inches wide.

Appalling personal bias aside, Mayo should have won. Roscommon were very good indeed. But Mayo made countless schoolboy errors and missed countless scoreable chances when under way less pressure than McLaughlin was. Nonetheless, controversialist pundit Joe Brolly was mystifyingly disrespectful to Roscommon in his analysis on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ evening highlights show, suggesting they played “superbly in their own way,” whatever that means.

Mayo, he said, were “the nation’s favourite tragi-comedy.” Watching them lose was “more enthralling than watching any other team win.” He quoted blogger Joe Gilroy: “(Mayo have) too many spuddlers,” who ‘appear to be doing the job but are not actually doing it at all.’” Their “sense of panic” caused “a kaleidoscope of disaster.” And it was “compelling as always but like watching a car crash, y’know.” After that tirade, we knew. Yet presenter Des Cahill had said “we’ll chat about Mayo in a minute.” And he twice had to ask “what about Roscommon?” to remind Brolly that Mayo lost TO someone.

Roscommon scored two early goals (”awful goals, both of them” – Brolly), a fabulous Geoff Hurst-1966 piledrive by Cathal Cregg (“easy goal” – Brolly) and a well-worked move after Mayo keeper Rob Hennelly’s baffling short kick-out. They scored wonder points from all angles (step forward Conor Cox and Enda Smith). And Mayo missed wonderful chances from all angles (step back Lee Keegan, Diarmuid O’Connor, Ron Hennelly again, Andy Moran, Hennelly AGAIN etc…)

But Mayo were a point up late on, having been behind for most of the match. And Roscommon’s David Murray was black-carded two minutes from the end of normal time. He could have been subbed…but there were no substitutes left. Manager Anthony Cunningham had named a strong bench so that six tactical substitutions would leave Roscommon at full strength in the closing stages. As Murray departed, the tactic appeared to have backfired. It emphatically hadn’t.

Two minutes into stoppage-time, Roscommon’s Niall Daly acrobatically blocked-down Andy Moran’s effort (“dumb shot,” “easily blocked-down” – guess who). And Roscommon countered with awesome composure, sibling subs Donie and Enda Smith helping set up sub Fintan Cregg (no relation to Cathal) to score the winning point from 40 yards. Roscommon kids of all ages invaded the pitch at the final whistle, thankful they didn’t need a Doctor and the Medics reunion for such a moment.

Roscommon will be lukewarm second-favourites for the 16th June final, against Galway, in Galway city suburb Salthill’s Pearse Stadium. They won 2017’s final there, playing superbly but catching a complacent Galway cold. After Saturday, Galway shouldn’t be coldly complacent again. And 2018’s four-point win for Galway in Roscommon is a better indication of current standings.

Roscommon have lost seven championship games to Mayo in Castlebar since ‘86. I was at the first )1992) and last (2013). In ’92, Roscommon’s keeper broke the crossbar, which featured on ‘What happened next?’ in BBC sports quiz ‘A Question of Sport.’ And they’ve drawn two, Derek Duggan levelling in ‘91 with a gargantuan, folklore-entering last-minute free. Hence Chris O’Dowd tweeting on Saturday about “some Derek Duggan shit going down,” puzzling those who only know him from ‘Bridesmaids’ or ‘The IT Crowd,’ unaware that he was Roscommon’s minor (under-18) keeper in 2008.

So, forget Brolly. Saturday was BIG. Celtic completing Scottish football’s ‘treble treble’ was, by a stretch, the second-best part of my sporting Saturday. But I now need €300 to make the final. Because, while I’d budgeted for a sofa, I had NOT budgeted for THIS.

Appalling bias aside, Mayo/Roscommon was probably the weekend’s second-most dramatic match, extra-time failing to separate Kildare and Longford in neutral Tullamore, as they battled for the ‘privilege’ of meeting Dublin in the Leinster semi-final. Kildare were favourites. But Longford recovered from seven points down after half-time, gifted a goal by another dozy kick-out, and hit the post with the last kick of normal time. They recovered from three points down to level again by half-time in extra-time. AND they hit the post again in extra-time’s second half.

That was all the football drama, though. Laois narrowly beat Westmeath in the Tullamore curtain-raiser. But in Saturday night’s double-header in Portlaoise, Meath beat Carlow by a street before Dublin beat Louth by an entire one-way system.

And Ulster’s championship, after last week’s thrills, reverted to dismal type with two games far less entertaining than the discussion on them between Brolly and no-nonsense fellow pundit Ciaran Whelan. On Sunday, Donegal beat Fermanagh by six points, in a turgid but, for a long time, close encounter. On Saturday night, while Carlow and Louth were coming third (above),Tyrone sauntered to a 14-point win over Antrim, having declared at half-time.

So, the debate was, should ‘lesser’ teams bore their way to narrow defeat in the mismatches routinely produced by current championship structures, or play expansively and lose heavily?

Brolly has long-despised Fermanagh’s ‘blanket’ defence (augmented with a winter’s supply of eiderdowns). And he relished Sunday’s opportunity to re-re-iterate his disdain, as Fermanagh “came out to nullify all forms of human excitement.” Whelan couldn’t argue. “You could have written the report before the game,” he noted, as Fermanagh “turned like a herd” into defence whenever Donegal won possession.

Thomas Niblock’s BBC Northern Ireland commentary continually referenced “13 players in their own half” or “14 players behind the ball” or “15 pl”…you get the picture. In contrast, Antrim ‘drew’ their second half, with a combination of star player Matthew Fitzpatrick and Tyrone subbing star players. No competitive edge but plenty of good football. However, on Sunday, Niblock referenced “a much better game than…last night…an exciting game because there’s nothing between them.”

Co-commentator, Donegal native Martin McHugh, wasn’t “excited. Fermanagh were “defensively very good but their attack is terrible.” And there was no atmosphere on Sunday, best highlighted by how often Niblock apologised for the “colourful language” as effects mics picked up Fermanagh boss Rory Gallagher swearing whenever joy threatened to unconfine itself, over a somnolent 10,447 crowd.

Whelan offered an interesting perspective. Donegal introduced blanket defence to Gaelic Football in 2011. And “players who set out that system,” remain in Donegal’s team but are “now playing a different brand of football. I’d love to get their opinion, as they’ve sat on both sides of the fence, on what way the players want to play.”

Brolly’s perspective was the one he currently offers on most football-related topics: “We need a tiered championship…teams playing each other at an equal level. As they do,” he sighed deeply, “in every other sport in the world that I can think of. He’s right, though. Paint would rather watch itself dry than endure Fermanagh’s turgidity in mismatches. So…eliminate the mismatches.

Brolly was ultra-animated on Sunday night. “Joe has a day off tomorrow as it’s a Bank Holiday in the North,” Cahill ‘explained.’ Brolly’s over-exuberance had Cahill looking into wrong cameras as he scrambled to get to ad breaks on time. And Whelan couldn’t always mask his frustrations, which can be quite a fearsome sight, even from the safety of a computer screen in another country.

But I still consider Brolly the best pundit in the sports I watch. Better than Gary Neville, Graeme Souness or the conveyor belt of insightful cricket analysts. Better even than, gasp, Robbie Savage. And he is certainly the most watchable. Much better than watching bloody Fermanagh anyway.

Unusually, the hurling didn’t overshadow the football. There wasn’t much on, mind. Munster had a week off. And the only Leinster match was Galway’s home draw with Wexford. It is never just ‘breezy’ in Atlantic-oceanside Salthill. And for most of Sunday, the hurling suffered. Galway, backed by a “six-point wind,” led at half-time by…six points, which hinted at the eventual outcome, if not quite how the game got there.

Galway were seven-up with 24 minutes left. Normally ‘nothing in hurling’ but something in this low-scorer. Then Wexford’s Damien Reck got an off-the-ball whack in the face. The match officials missed it. Wexford’s diminutive but ‘combative’ manager Davy Fitzgerald did not. And, as is his wont, Davy was on the pitch, remonstrating, arms waving frantically, with the referee, having got no joy from a portly sideline official.

Davy was sent to the stands, no effective sanction as he often watches first halves from lofty positions. But the kerfuffle, or relief at not having Davy screaming at them from the sideline, galvanised Wexford, who scored nine of the next ten points to lead with seven minutes left. And then, two late goal chances, Galway’s Conor Cooney denied by brilliant defensive stickwork from Jack O’Connor and Galway keeper Colm Callanan saving Cathal Dunbar’s low shot.

Wexford have drawn their two away games and face home games of ostensibly contrasting difficulties, Carlow and fiercest rivals Kilkenny. Galway have two away games, Kilkenny and Dublin. Kilkenny have…Brian Cody as manager. So, the three favourites will likely progress to the All-Ireland phase. But the Leinster finalists could be any two of them. And when ‘Davy’ is around, prediction is futile.

Still…what about Roscommon, eh? EH???