By Ian Cooney
The Croke Park press box is often an eerie place away from the championship limelight. Upper tiers of empty seats illustrate the vast spectre of GAA headquarters for large tracts of the season. Getting the lift to Level 7 in the Hogan Stand catapults you away from the action towards the heavens or, in the case of this winter, closer to the North Pole.
The stewards that look after the press corps couldn’t be nicer — real “salt of the earth” individuals that greet you with a smile on their face. Whether you’re Marty Morrissey or a simple hack from a local newspaper, they couldn’t do enough to make you feel at home.
On Sunday week last as Roscommon’s four-goal blitz in the second half finally saw off Cavan in the Division Two League final, one of the chief stewards took stock of the type of football Kevin McStay’s side were playing. “Ah, that’s great stuff”, he opined, rubbing his hands together as Diarmuid Murtagh’s pinpoint pass set up Cathal Cregg for the Western Gaels player’s first goal.
You get the feeling that these people know what they’re talking about. They’ve seen enough action from afar to appreciate something when it is being done right. They’ve witnessed blankets being spread across the lush sward down below. They’ve watched on as Dublin have taken athleticism, conditioning and gameplans to a new level. They’ve joined the rest of the country in feeling sorry for Mayo, acknowledging that a great team have done everything but fall over the line on All-Ireland final day.
As the championship becomes more predictable, they crave something fresh, a team that the neutral can row in behind. Can Roscommon be that team?
The sentiments expressed by the man in the Croke Park press box is, for the large part, mirrored nationwide. Yet, within Roscommon, there are still doubts. Kevin McStay remarked after one of the league games in the Hyde that he could sense tension in the crowd, half expecting the players below them to “screw up”.
Nobody does extremism likes the Rossies — cook-a-hoop when we win; inconsolable when we lose. It seems that there is no in-between. Expectations often come crashing down around us. Sometimes, we can see no light at the end of the tunnel. We forget that next season comes around very quickly.
McStay is trying to change that culture. Thankfully, the nonsense that following him around like a bad cold throughout last year’s league campaign has now evaporated. The events in Salthill on July 9th, 2017, saw to that.
He sets targets publicly. He keeps hitting them. Promotion back to Division One has proved that the 22-point hammering against Mayo last August hasn’t left an enduring hangover.
He keeps reminding us about the age profile of the panel, that this is, essentially, a young team still learning their trade. For years, not enough Roscommon players took strength and conditioning seriously enough. It’s another battle that the manager is well on his way to winning.
Much has been made of the return of exiled players from last year. Their integration into the team hasn’t been seamless from a playing perspective. On the whole, however, Roscommon now have options on the bench that they could only have dreamed about a year ago.
Seán Mullooly will come back to the fold next September. The hope that Neil Collins will return from New York remains. Surely there is another Ciarán Lennon out there that will be plucked from the club scene or underage ranks to make next year’s panel even stronger. Hopefully, Ultan Harney’s injury woes are behind him.
McStay is strengthening a panel, the bulk of which will be around for the next decade. There will be bad days, but there will be plenty of good ones as well. Roscommon supporters crave success, but they’re coming around to the idea that they must place their trust firmly in this group of players and management, and see what happens. Stability is paramount.
There was a time in the nineties, apart from the double winning Connacht championship teams of 1991 and 1992, when trips to Croke Park were as rare as the ball falling into the €500,000 slot on Winning Streak. Now, having won three national league titles in five years and being involved in a number of high-profile minor matches, the Club Rossie bus doesn’t require a Sat Nav when making its way towards Dublin 3.
Roscommon will dining at the top table next season, and they’ll be better equipped to do so. They may or may not survive but they’ll be one of the favourites for another Division Two title in 2020 if relegation is their lot next year.
The league was a mixed bag but Roscommon improved when it was needed. There was little room for error after the disappointing performance against Down in Round Three. The team’s response was to win the next four games in succession when the pressure was on. The victories against Cavan and Cork to confirm promotion were hugely satisfactory in that Roscommon finished strongly on both occasions to dig themselves out of trouble, aided by the impact off the bench.
In other words, Roscommon haven’t been anywhere near their best for a full 70 minutes. They have been brilliant in games. They have been awful in games.
Yet they negotiated a challenge that it took a team like Galway years to master — get out of Division Two. To do it at the first time of asking points to the quality at McStay’s disposal, albeit the standard in the division wasn’t hectic.
As for the championship, Roscommon are the defending Connacht champions but there won’t be a word about them retaining the Nestor Cup. All the focus will be on Galway and Mayo, and how they’ll knock lumps out of each other in mid-May. The winner of that game will have confidence to burn ahead of a Connacht final but given the peaks they’ll have to reach to triumph next month, they will be susceptible to another Roscommon ambush in June.
The team’s spine is finally taking share. Ciarán Lennon has been the find of the league, and his qualities as a fine target at full-forward have been well utilised. The Clann na nGael player is young and he will learn that he doesn’t always have to lay off possession when it comes his way.
Niall Kilroy is one of the team’s most vital components, given the role he is asked to play. Tadhg O’Rourke and Cathal Compton look like being the preferred pairing at midfield. Ultan Harney has done well at centre-back on his return from injury. Peter Domican’s progress at full-back, given how long he was out of the intercounty scene, has been remarkable. The goalkeeper’s position is still up for grabs, but James Fetherstone has gained more confidence as the league has progressed.
Roscommon are playing a delightful brand of football — exuding the same sort of style and flair that bagged St. Brigid’s an All-Ireland club title in 2013. The stats in terms of scoring power this season speak for themselves.
There will be a day, probably against a Division One team later in the summer, when the forwards will struggle. How they respond to adversity will be interesting and shed some light if these players can think their way out of trouble and prove that they’re can ready to move to the next level.
The defence remains suspect when the opposition runs hard at it through the middle. But the management know this, and they have promised to “tidy things up” in the summer. Other teams will improve, but Roscommon will get better too.
There will be many more days when the lift in Croke Park takes us away from the action. But the air will be milder and the crowds will be bigger as an evolving Roscommon team strive to make GAA headquarters their second home. The neutrals will continue to rub their hands together in anticipation as the Murtaghs, the Smiths, the Lennons and company do their thing, overseen by a manager who knows what he’s doing.
It’s time to appreciate what we have.