By Ian Cooney
Martin McDermott has a wish — to pass on the baton to Kevin McStay as the last Roscommon senior football manager to lead Roscommon to successive Connacht titles.
Between 1988 and 1993, the Rossies reached six provincial finals on the trot. It was a great time to be a “Primrose and Blue” supporter as two replays were thrown into the melodrama in 1989 and 1991. Looking back, however, the double in 1990 and 1991 seemed scant reward for a group of players that were good enough to, perhaps, contest an All-Ireland final.
There were near misses either side of those memorable triumphs. Mayo full-forward Jimmy Burke somehow forced the ball over the line with his head in 1989 during extra time of a frenzied replay in the Hyde. Roscommon were soundly beaten in 1992 when more was expected on a day that Enon Gavin brought down the crossbar in Castlebar.
Even a year later — Roscommon now under the management of the late Dermot Earley — a desperate final in the Hyde swung in Mayo’s favour thanks to Ray Dempsey’s goal but, from a Roscommon perspective, it was certainly another one that got away.
Martin McDermott was at the epicentre of that era. He took the reins in 1988, and a place on Connacht GAA’s biggest day became a ritual. Backboned by the team that lost the 1982 All-Ireland U-21 final against Donegal, a team McDermott managed, Roscommon set about becoming the dominant force in the province.
The 0-16 to 1-11 victory against Galway in 1990 —the last time Roscommon have beaten the Tribesmen in a provincial final in the Hyde — represented sheer relief and made up for the disappointment of the previous year. Derek Duggan’s famous free into the teeth of a strong wind in Castlebar a year later earned a share of the spoils against Mayo before a nerve-jangling 0-13 to 1-9 replay success in the Hyde cemented that team’s place in county GAA folklore.
“They were great times,” recalled McDermott. “I took over the team in 1988. We were promoted to Division One in my second year and spent the following four or five years there. We were playing the top teams consistently, the likes of Cork, Kerry, Tyrone and Down. We reached two league semi-finals but it really was the high quality of games we were getting all the time that stood to us,” he continued.
While McDermott inherited the youthful enthusiasm of players like Pat Doory, Padraig McNeill, Paul Hickey, Gary Wynne and Eamon ‘Junior’ McManus from the 1982 U-21 team, he also had quality players like Tony McManus and John Newton to buttress experience levels. When Gavin and Duggan burst onto the scene in 1991, Roscommon had a team capable of competing with the best.
“I would say that we were a bit more mature than the current team. We were very seasoned, hardened and probably more physical. We had quality and technically good footballers. I think I had around eight of that U-21 team from ’82 on the starting 15.
“But most of the players on this team have enjoyed plenty of provincial success at U-21 level and contested two All-Ireland finals in 2012 and 2014. They went to Salthill last year and won by nine points, so that has to stand to them. If I’m being honest I think they’re another 18 months to two years away from reaching their potential,” he observed.
McDermott feels that Galway are very much developing towards something more substantial down the line as well, predicting them to challenge for ultimate honours sooner rather than later.
“They’ve got that blend of youth and experience. I would see them as more physical than us but it was the same last year and we managed to outfox them. If the Roscommon team that turned up in Salthill last year turns up again on Sunday, then I think we’re in for a cracking 70 minutes of football,” he predicted.
The difficulty in winning back-to-back Connacht titles for a county like Roscommon cannot be underestimated, according to McDermott, and the St. Brigid’s clubman believes that Kevin McStay will have to pull a rabbit from the hat to prevail on Sunday.
“To do the double in any province is tough, apart maybe for the more established teams. When we lost the finals in ’88 and ’89, it was just sheer relief to win it in 1990. It was far more difficult in 1991. We almost didn’t survive the first day in Castlebar.
“Teams know each other so well nowadays. I just feel that Roscommon will have to come up with a few surprises in terms of their gameplan. I remember we tweaked a few things for the replay in ’91, and it got us over the line.
“But I really feel that beating Galway last year has given this group of players a huge boost. If we had lost the first day to Mayo by a point in Croke Park, people would be saying what a great season it was. But the second game knocked the stuffing out of us somewhat.
“Still, what happened in Salthill means that Galway will be worried, despite being favourites. They won’t be taking anything for granted,” he suggested.
So, who’ll win? McDermott feels that Roscommon have every chance if they can replicate the intensity they demonstrated in the early stages of last year’s final.
“Roscommon will have confidence in their own ability. Like last year, they’ll need to lay down a marker early to show that this is the Roscommon team that showed up in Salthill last year. That will get Galway thinking. I really think it’s a 50/50 game.
“The prize is huge and I’d be thrilled to hand over the baton to Kevin and his management team if they can retain the Nestor Cup,” he concluded.
Wouldn’t we be all?