Roscommon Herald Sports Editor IAN COONEY tries to make sense of one of the great Roscommon performances of all time…
The greatest ambush since William Wallace upstaged the English at the Battle of Stirling? During those epic Braveheart battle scenes, it is often overlooked that Wallace displayed a wonderful tactical acumen alongside fire and brimstone to stun Edward Longshanks’ army.
It’s doubtful whether Kevin McStay and his management team have been ever compared to the 13th century Scottish patriot, but what the All-Ireland winning St. Brigid’s manager and his players achieved on Sunday was nothing short of remarkable.
It was the day that McStay silenced his critics and delivered on his promise. He could have put the boot in afterwards but, to his immense credit, he kept his counsel. He promised that Roscommon would be ready for the championship. If that meant departing Division One, so be it. He copped plenty of flak for such an approach, but does anyone really remember being relegated from the league now?
Roscommon came to Salthill with a gameplan that was ambitious but, crucially, played to the players’ strengths. What’s more, they had the stomach for the fight. They knew that the rewards would be great if they could get inside Galway’s heads.
Preparations had pressed all the right buttons with the players. They stayed in the Abbey Hotel on Saturday night. Little things make the difference. The spirit in the camp was buzzing. They knew that a serious opportunity was on the horizon if they played to their potential. Galway were there for the taking because there was always the chance that they would believe in the hype engulfing them since their victory over Mayo. Something special was in the pipeline, if Roscommon were good enough. Thankfully, they were.
What transpired on Sunday at a damp and windy Pearse Stadium was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Records tumbled as Roscommon beat Galway for the first time in the Connacht championship since 2001.
On that faithful day in Tuam, Seamus O’Neill’s one-handed catch that propelled him on to the national stage was an abiding memory. On Sunday, the performances of Enda Smith and Conor Devaney were just as influential.
We’ve been waiting for the Boyle player to do something like this. Every time he emerged with possession, Galway were simply stumped. They backed off, afraid that an attempted tackle might leave them with egg on their face. Devaney was also sublime, showcasing a cockiness in possession that underlined a belief and trust in his own and team-mates’ ability.
But everyone contributed. Niall Kilroy’s attitude was wonderful. David Murray was immense. Tadhg O’Rourke hardly put a foot wrong. Colm Lavin’s kickouts reaped a handsome dividend. There were heroes everywhere, primed to deliver.
Back to the records and when was the last time that Roscommon won a Connacht final with nine points to spare? Historians flirted with the 1980 demolition of Mayo. But that was a team in their pomp, winning a fourth provincial title in succession. Every triumph since then has been defined by “edge of the seat” stuff — by the odd point of two.
So, really, we’re talking about one of the great Roscommon performances in the county’s history, given the backdrop to this final. To come into a game as rank outsiders and play with the swagger and confidence that they did will shorten the winter. But this was part of Kevin McStay’s vision, and he will now be faced with the challenge of convincing his players that there’s no turning back now, whatever the rest of the season entails.
It’s often dangerous for a manager to set targets. In his programme notes ahead of the final league game against Cavan, McStay honed in on a Connacht title during his three years in charge. On his own, he has delivered in his first year.
He holds all the aces as to what other Roscommon players will be involved during the remainder of his tenure in charge. He knows that he will need greater stre
ngth-in-depth going forward, but that debate is for another day.
What he has done in 2017 is to get the players he has at his disposal thinking like intercounty players at the top level. He has challenged them in an effort to get the best out of them.
Fears about a lack of physicality were unfounded on Sunday. Players like John McManus, Murray, Niall McInerney and Seán Mullooly hit everything that moved. How many times was a Galway player knocked back on his heels by a shuddering Roscommon challenge? It was a delightful spectacle.
Look at all the top teams now and they’re playing a positive brand of football. Defensive stability is a cornerstone but the ability to move the ball quickly and accurately is the key. Roscommon were superb at times in this regard on Sunday. At other times, they were patient, teasing Galway to come out of their defensive shell. At the back of the players’ minds, they were always mindful of delivering a “killer” pass. The one that Diarmuid Murtagh delivered for Cian Connolly’s 14th minute goal was right out of the top drawer.
In the lead-up to this final, many of the Roscommon players, who had experienced minor and U-21 success, referenced the desire to have senior medals in their back pockets. In their own words, it will be their legacy. It is what they will be remembered for.
Given that the age profile of the team is so young, what beckons can be as wonderful as these players want the future to be. They know that it can’t be another seven years before another provincial title is delivered.
It’s up to them. The GAA world is their oyster now. With Kevin McStay, Liam McHale, Ger Dowd and their management team steering the ship, they’ll be in good hands.
Ros Comáin gu bráth.
PS: A word for Sligo County Board PRO Gavin Cawley who confidently predicted some weeks ago that Roscommon would defy the odds on Sunday. Word about Roscommon’s All-Ireland quarter-final prospects is eagerly anticipated.