By Noel Fallon
Roscommon play their first Connacht final in Hyde Park since 2011 on Sunday next. All Roscommon fans will hope for a different outcome and different weather from one of the gloomiest, in every respect, finals ever played in the Hyde. Only the 1986 final was comparable — another dreary day when Roscommon suffered an excruciating defeat.
This is Roscommon’s fourth Connacht final in three years against Galway. The teams have won one final each. Yet this doesn’t have the aura of a defining match. Both teams are still developing and have probably not reached their peak. Both are determined to reach the Super 8s, whatever route they take. Both teams want to win the Nestor Cup but Sunday’s match also represents the shortest route to football’s new extravaganza.
While Roscommon romped to victory last year, it is Galway’s prodigious progress since the start of the year will make them warm favourites for this final, just as they were last year.
Kevin McStay’s team doesn’t have the same element of surprise as they had heading to Salthill last July but they have something more important in their locker now — the confidence that comes from a breakthrough win. The Roscommon players face into next Sunday knowing they are good enough to win a big championship match.
For the second successive year, Roscommon enter the final just as they wound like it — under the radar and with an element of the unknown about them, despite being the defending champions. Indeed, outside the county, it seems to have been almost forgotten that Roscommon are the title holders.
Another All-Ireland final appearance by Mayo and Galway’s barnstorming spring catapulted those counties centre stage. The rest of the football world sees Galway and Mayo as Connacht’s genuine All-Ireland contenders. That shouldn’t bother the Rossies unduly. What it does provide is the perfect motivational fodder that team managements relish.
In contrast, a major pay-off from the 2017 triumph have been the impact on the mood inside the county. The feel-good factor has returned to Roscommon football. Roscommon jerseys are in vogue among the children of the county. The U-17 and U-20 teams have been well supported in their home matches while the bulk of 8,000-plus attendance in Carrick-on-Shannon for a match that was a foregone conclusion were Rossies.
The big concern for Roscommon is that they haven’t been properly tested this year. The championship drubbings suffered by Clare and Tipperary along with the defeats of Cavan and Meath have raised renewed doubts about the calibre of the teams in Division Two this season. The counter argument is that it was Cork who meted out a heavy defeat to Tipp, but Cork are such an enigma — they don’t fit neatly into any pattern.
While the quality of the opposition in Division Two was suspect, Roscommon gained promotion while not even approaching full tilt. It was in tight matches against Tipperary, Cavan and Cork that the belief gained from winning last year’s Connacht title stood to them.
Another spin-off of last year’s win is stability — the turnover of players has stopped. A number of high-profile players have made a welcome return to a squad that has greater strength-in-depth than last year. The core of the team remains the same although it has lost pillars like Seán Mullooly and Cian Connolly while Seanie McDermott hasn’t been a regular starter so far.
Next Sunday is the day that will show if Mullooly’s absence is pivotal or not. In Salthill last year it was Mullooly and John McManus who made the early hits and laid down a physical marker. They were the bulwarks of a defence that successfully curbed Damien Comer, Shane Walsh et al that day.
To balance Mullooly’s absence, the return of Peter Domican has brought an infusion of experience and calmness to the defence. All through his career, Domican has been a player for the big occasion. Ultan Harney was earmarked to slot in at centre-back until injury intervened. Harney took part in the Open Day at Hyde Park last Saturday week but it’s far from certain he will be match-fit.
If Harney is available he would give Roscommon the physical presence they need to lock horns with the combative Galway half-forwards. A fit-again Niall Daly and Fergal Lennon are other possibilities for centre-back.
The plaudits handed to the Galway forwards have overshadowed how exciting the Roscommon forwards are. Galway’s stifling defensive blanket will be a different type of test to anything the Rossies have faced this year but the home team’s forwards have the ability to find a way through. It is crucial that good, quick ball is delivered to Diarmuid Murtagh and Donie Smith.
The Leitrim match had the sense of a dry run for what the forwards will face next Sunday as they chose to kick points from out the field. It’s essential that Cathal Compton and Tadhg O’Rourke hold their own against the Galway midfield while, as ever, the battle for the breaks in the middle third will be potentially decisive.
Just like last year, Roscommon have known since last autumn that, barring unforeseen circumstances, that they would be in the provincial final. Their season has been building to this match — the players and management showed last year they can peak on the day that matters. There isn’t any reason to doubt they will do the same last Sunday.
What is different from last year is Galway. Even if their fan-base seems to be getting carried away in the same way they were 11 months ago, the players are less likely to let idle talk affect them. It has been one of the stories of the football year — how Galway have overhauled their style of play, jettisoning their traditional free-flowing football for a methodical, ultra-defensive style. Their players have bought into the system because it is bringing success, even unnerving Dublin in the Division One League final.
In the course of one season under the tutelage of trainer Paddy Tally, Galway have morphed into Tyrone but with better forwards. They weren’t impressive against Mayo yet still eked out a win. Against Sligo they threw off the shackles and reminded everyone, particularly Roscommon, of how lethal their forwards can be.
Galway will target a Roscommon defence that conceded 4-12 against a Cavan side that was swatted aside by Donegal, but it would be wrong to read too much into the Division Two final, a match that had a surreal, exhibition match feel to it. Roscommon have had time to hone a defensive game-plan for the Connacht final, something they did successfully last year.
Last year Roscommon blitzed Galway in what was one of the Rossies’ stand-out championship performances in the last 40 years. It’s likely they will have to produce a similar display next Sunday. The stage is set for another watershed moment in the development of this Roscommon team.