Gaelic Football: Roscommon, From Rags To Riches

by | Apr 1, 2017

Last March, Roscommon were touted in Ireland’s media as Gaelic Football’s “Leicester City.” This March, Roscommon were Gaelic Football’s Sunderland…with a worse defence. A “quick and awful” decline. An inexplicable, un-necessary waste of a LOT of talent.

Roscommon is one of those Irish counties which need locating on a map to most non-Irish people. At school in the mid-1970s, I had to explain that it was in “Southern Ireland” and I wasn’t in danger of “getting bombed up” during my summer holidays there.

It sometimes needs locating on Gaelic Football maps too, with only two All-Ireland titles, both in wartime (1943, 1944). President Trump’s…erm…’unpredictable’ world-view maybe our best hope of a third All-Ireland. So, the Leicester comparison was because Roscommon came from semi-obscurity to beat some high-profile names.

The comparison ended when Leicester changed managers and, co-incidentally of COURSE, regained their form. Roscommon changed managerial structure, having become, in controversialist pundit Joe Brolly’s illogical-yet-appropriate words, “useless…and getting worse.” But their slide continues. And last Saturday, they were “beaten out the gate,” to use Irish phraseology, by All-Ireland champions Dublin. Lapped…in a one-circuit race. Third…in a two-horse race.

The 2-29 to 0-14 scoreline was a Gaelic Football equivalent of England 61 Scotland 21 in Rugby Union. The spectacle was the equivalent of an England “B” team casually picking off scores merely to pass the time until the final whistle.

Roscommon’s on-field problems are clear, even to an Englishman with two Roscommon parents who never kicked a Gaelic Football in anger. Their forwards regularly shone even on Saturday. “Remember the name Diarmuid Murtagh,” if Roscommon appear on Sky Sports’ largely-execrable Gaelic Games coverage this summer. But their defence might as well be replaced en masse by strategically well-positioned traffic cones.

Gaelic Football has a tackle rule, though you’d not think so after the lengthy bouts of Greco-Roman wrestling from Donegal and Tyrone in a recent “game” (Greco-Roman mud wrestling, given the weather). That rule is irrelevant to Roscommon. No Roscommon defender has got near enough to an opponent to even FOUL one since last July.

Roscommon’s off-field problems are as clear as that Donegal mud. As Malachy Clerkin wrote in Saturday’s Irish Times newspaper, elements of Roscommon’s decline “require a code-breaker’s facility for reading between the lines.”

John Evans managed Roscommon from 2013-2015, during the last two of three promotions through football’s four “National League” divisions in five seasons. However, the League plays second-fiddle to the summertime provincial and All-Ireland Championships. And Evans’ championships were disappointments.

In 2015, he resigned after Fermanagh hit a near-impossible six scores in the final six minutes to knock Roscommon out by a point. But he “revealed” an “active canvass” to remove him. “I don’t know how it started,” he claimed, despite “knowing” that “two or three” canvassers “had sons that I didn’t bring onto the team.” He referenced lots of “rumblings that we could be doing a lot better,” adding: “You need YOUR chairman. He must be your right-hand man.” Familiar sentiments to soccer managers. Cryptic criticism from Evans.

The endearingly-oddball Kerryman had managed Tipperary to two league promotions, among many other successes. However, the idea that Roscommon “could be doing a lot better” had merit.

Inter-county football has high-profile minor (under-18) and under-21 championships. And underage success can positively impact county “senior” (first) teams, with county eligibility and transfer rules strongly-based on birth, parentage, club and/or permanent residence (Roscommon “legend” Dermot Earley was Kildare-born but played and lived in Roscommon).

In 2006, Roscommon became All-Ireland minor champions (check “Roscommon v Kerry 2006 final” parts 10-to-12 on You Tube for joyous details). And that team raised Roscommon’s previously-struggling seniors to a rare-ish provincial (Connacht) title in 2010.

They were soon augmented by under-21 teams reaching seven Connacht finals in-a-row (a sequence broken last Wednesday), winning four. They lost All-Ireland finals in 2012 and 2014 to Dublin sides containing many of Dublin’s current seniors, for whom Saturday completed an all-time record 35-game unbeaten run.

However, a talented youth and experience combination was becoming a capable-looking senior team. And a talented management-duo emerged in October 2015.

Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell appeared on the afore-mentioned You Tube clips. McStay the television pundit, O’Donnell the rightly-lauded-to-the-skies team manager. O’Donnell played, captained or managed in Roscommon’s only two senior Connacht titles this century. Ex-Mayo footballer McStay, Roscommon-domiciled since 1989, turned regular provincial club champions St. Brigids into All-Ireland club champions in 2013. He was also county champion with Roscommon Gaels as captain in 1994 and manager, with O’Donnell playing, in 2004.

Their task was huge. Roscommon won a statistically slightly-freaky promotion from a weak-ish Division Two in 2015. The enormous gap to Division One was exposed when they won a Division Two final which was miles off-the-pace of the Division One final, which immediately followed.

Without extensive training and conditioning, Roscommon were set for a morale-sapping relegation. With it, they impressively won at football-powerhouse Kerry, Cork (scoring two points more than Dublin last Saturday) and Donegal. The headlines had “irrepressible” Roscommon “going places quickly.” But they were then heavily-flattered by narrow-ish defeat to Mayo and overwhelmed by a better-conditioned Kerry in the league semi-final.

The warning signs had been there. In Cork they conceded a score which would win most matches. And they were comprehensively out-muscled by Mayo. Worse, Roscommon nearly lost in the Connacht Championship to New York, a game normally without competitive merit, staged to maintain links with the city’s huge Irish diaspora.

And a month later, live on telly, they were badly losing to Sligo, with an animated Brolly claiming: “I cannot tell you how atrocious Roscommon have been” (he could…and he did). Roscommon recovered magnificently, winning by nine points, just within expectations.

They then drew the final in Galway, who had “giant-killed” a Mayo team going for their SIXTH title in-a-row. The game was awful, as Brolly inevitably noted, and the weather was worse, with half the nearby Atlantic Ocean blown across the pitch by omnipresent gales. Even standing watching was difficult without athletic training. I know…I was there.

But Roscommon’s 12-point replay thumping was their first tackle-free performance. Cue Brolly’s “useless…and getting worse” quip, with which you couldn’t argue. And they were equally non-tactile six days later, when exiting the Championship altogether to Clare, who meekly and weakly exited the Championship against Kerry in the quarter-finals.

Galway were thumped in their quarter-final by Tipperary, the surprise heart-warming story of an otherwise dismal Championship. “Maybe a false impression was created (about Galway) simply by how colossally awful Roscommon were,” suggested you-know-who. But Tipp’s progress had direct significance for Roscommon.

Roscommon and Tipp consistently reached All-Ireland minor and under-21 semi-finals from 2011-2015. Yet Roscommon graced Division One in 2016, while Tipperary failed to get out of Division Three, before suddenly out-performing their so-recent equals. And Tipperary is a “hurling county,” currently All-Ireland champions in Ireland’s other “national” sport, which leaves football losing internal battles for the county’s resources.

Just before the Connacht final, Roscommon lost their best defender, Neil Collins, to injury. But the absence of one player, however good, could alone cause the collapse of an entire defensive unit. And when O’Donnell resigned in September, he revealed “a concerted effort (outside of management and players) to undermine and disparage us” by un-named people “purporting to be concerned about the promotion of GAA within the county.”

O’Donnell’s departure was designed to “remove the inevitable distraction” of a previously-unheralded “potentially divisive contest” for the manager’s job “between myself and Kevin.” But selectors Stephen Bohan and David Casey also resigned, leaving McStay and his brother-in-law, fellow ex-Mayo footballer Liam McHale, in charge. They had brought St Brigids to All-Ireland glory. But the moves were reported as ‘Roscommon lads’ resigning and ‘Mayo lads’ staying.

Ex-player and All-Ireland under-21 finals’ manager Nigel Dineen showed a brief interest in the manager’s job. He modestly called his backroom team “one of the best…Roscommon has ever seen,” with “four former Roscommon players of the highest calibre who know what it’s like to wear the jersey” and shared his “passion for Roscommon football.” But he had “strong reservations” about the contest’s “integrity,” citing “damaging influences behind the scenes.”

And it emerged that “a slight majority among 30 polled” players supported McStay. Hardly “the will of the people.” Outside Brexit referenda, anyway. But while McStay…er…stayed, many players didn’t. There were some suspiciously early retirements amid the genuine ones. Many had loyalties to Dineen and O’Donnell. While some were dropped on current form.

But whatever their situation, players remain amateurs, able to walk away unsanctioned anytime, for any reason. Collins co-founded a fashion label in 2015. “He’d love to have a go (with Roscommon),” McStay claimed, unconvincingly. “But he has a life outside football that he wants to live.” The name of Collins’ label? Cryptic Clique. There’s a message there somewhere.

Saturday’s slaughter formally relegated Roscommon but they arguably needed metaphorical snookers from game one. McStay wanted the team to peak for the Championship, a welcome reversal of recent fortunes, when they’ve been magnificent in March but sh…ocking in the summer. And he called it “a calculated gamble…with a view to having the team in good shape around April, May and June” (a bit bizarre, as they play NO games between next Sunday and…June 19th). It hasn’t worked…yet.

They’ve been intermittently competitive. They should have beaten a subsequently much-improved Donegal. And in a heavy defeat to Mayo, Mayo keeper David Clarke was an undisputed man-of-the-match. Even Dublin keeper Stephen Cluxton, who could read and WRITE a book during some games, had to make three fine saves on Saturday.

However, fellow relegation favourites Cavan improved week-on-week and can genuinely “take” the cliched “positives” even if relegated. Roscommon cannot, even if they relegate Cavan by beating them this Sunday, a game for which they were favourites in February but clearly aren’t now.

McStay has played the easy “judge us in the summer” card. Yet Roscommon’s Championship WILL hinge on one game. They should beat Leitrim or London in June. London are no New York but they and Leitrim are Division Four teams to their current core. And even if Roscommon lose the Connacht final, as expected, they will be one match from an All-Ireland quarter-final, which would BE “success.”

Meanwhile, certain current criticism has looked dismally familiar. Roscommon ex-goalkeeper and manager Gay Sheerin offered a self-confessed rant to local radio station Shannonside FM. He didn’t “like Mayo men on the sideline for Roscommon.” He “fought for years” against McHale and McStay. And he said “they hated me,” probably making the feeling mutual, before insisting that with a Roscommon-born manager “a lot of players wouldn’t have walked.”

This was drivel. Especially from Sheerin, who played alongside the…Kildare-born Dermot Earley and happily took two Connacht titles and an All-Ireland final appearance from the relationship. And McStay delightfully suggested that when Sheerin reflected on his “nonsense…he might cop onto himself a small bit.”

“I trained Roscommon minors twenty years ago,” McStay added. “I’m almost of Roscommon, my three children are from Roscommon. What do they want me to do? I can’t re-birth myself.” Some commentators saw a man under pressure. But it was personal criticism and McStay was right, and had the right, to respond.

The bottom line, however, is that Roscommon, somehow, somebody, somewhere, are horribly wasting what O’Donnell rightly called “a hugely talented group of footballers” in his resignation statement. They would have to do another “Leicester City” to be All-Ireland champions in the foreseeable future, as the gap between the top inter-county teams and the rest is of Premier League-proportions. But with their best players fit, available and doing THEMSELVES justice, Roscommon can be a fine side, making regular trips to the 83,000-capacity Croke Park (Saturday’s “crime” scene).

This matters. From next year, the quarter-finals will be replaced by a highly-lucrative, high-profile “Super Eight” competition, which could hasten an eight-team “elite” at the figurative and literal expense of teams such as Roscommon are capable of being, let alone the shambles they currently are. “A private club for the big counties,” said who-do-you-think.

The angry frustration for fans, especially those hundreds of miles away, is having little idea who or what is responsible for wasting this talent. Or why. Nothing should be so secret in Roscommon football that it prevents rational analysis of its prospects.

Roscommon have been lauded for underage-team structures producing the conveyor belt of talent which has only (temporarily?) stopped rotating after over a decade. Likewise, Roscommon’s official fundraising arm “Club Rossie,” producing a conveyor belt of…well…funds. Yet successive managers have alluded to negative influences “behind-the-scenes,” made just as effective in their own field by their continuing obscurity.

From this distance, it is insane. And surely…SURELY un-necessary. Who/what is more self-satisfied with their own machinations than by a successful Roscommon team (and the chance to see Brolly eat his atrocious, colossally-awful words)?

“You have it in you lads,” said the fan next to me, as Roscommon nearly beat a Galway team who became 1998 All-Ireland champions two wins later. And the current team DEFINITELY “has it in them” too. So, whoever/whatever is in their way…please get out of the way…PLEASE. Not just for the players’ sake, the managers’ sake or the fans’ sake. But for F**K’S sake.

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