By Noel Fallon
Sports fans — and journalists — love a sense of symmetry. We like eras to be bookended neatly and are suckers for the allure of history repeating itself.
Next Sunday’s county senior football final brings together the two dominant teams in Roscommon football over the last 40 years — St. Brigid’s and Clann na nGael.
Expect lots of ‘The El Clasico of Roscommon football’ references this week. Apart from the description becoming tiresomely overused — to the point where it is even invoked for parish league matches — it doesn’t ring true in this case. If Clann v Brigid’s has a resonant soccer comparison it is Liverpool v Manchester United, rather than Barcelona v Real Madrid.
For all the local derby antipathy between English football’s big two, they have met just four times in major finals in their fabled histories. More pertinently, after the 1960s their respective eras of greatness didn’t overlap. It has been the same for Clann and Brigid’s.
Given the fierceness of their rivalry it is a jolt to realise this is their first county final clash since 1997. Enter, stage left, the quest for neat historical symmetry. Twenty-one years ago Clann, who included Fergal Shine, were seeking another three-in-a-row and Brigid’s were the emerging whippersnappers with a precocious teenager called Frankie Dolan about to explode on the football scene.
Brigid’s knocked Clann from their pedestal that day. Now, two decades later, Clann, managed by Fergal Shine, have the chance to bring to take down Brigid’s, managed by none other than Frankie Dolan, and return to the pinnacle themselves. That’s the kind of narrative beloved by GAA observers — the problem is it isn’t accurate.
There are clear comparisons with 1997 — the obvious one being the role reversal of the long-time aristocrats and the noisy neighbours (another soccer analogy) determined to gain supremacy. However, there is one major difference between Clann 2018 and St. Brigid’s 1997 — Clann have already bridged their long famine without a title.
Their 2015 victory (which included a semi-final victory over Brigid’s) takes much of the pressure off them. It also gives Clann the inner-confidence of knowing they can deliver on the big day. It was probably the factor that carried them to victory in the chiffhanger against Roscommon Gaels. What will drive the Johnstown club next Sunday is the desire to beat Brigid’s in a final.
Even if Brigid’s lose next Sunday, it’s unlikely they will experience the fall from grace Clann endured post-1997. The sheer volume of underage success suggests otherwise, but for all the triumphs they have enjoyed this decade, this is one final they won’t want to lose. From Peter Domican to Senan Kilbride, the core of the team retains many of the players who brought Brigid’s to the mountain top.
The defending champions were not impressive in their semi-final victory Strokestown although observers of Roscommon club football have long ago given up reading too much into their pre-county final form. It’s a historical footnote now but when Brigid’s were at their greatest — between 2010 and 2013 — they rarely shot the lights out in county championships, instead conserving their energy to scale greater heights outside Roscommon.
The bookmakers have Brigid’s as clear favourites, with the respective odds for the teams averaging out at 1/2 and 2/1. It’s difficult to believe it will be as one-sided as that. The Clann defence was led a merry dance by Roscommon Gaels’ elusive pimpernel Peter Gillooly in the first half of their semi-final and will need to be much tighter next Sunday. They will do well to remember Brian Stack’s first minute strike in last year’s final as Brigid’s will surely try to go for the jugular early again next Sunday.
It was their talisman Donie Shine who guided Clann to victory against the Gaels. Since he was a minor, Shine has been a player for the big occasion and he will relish next Sunday’s showdown. They will also need big performances from Ultan Hanrey and Ciarán Lennon.
It will take time before historical perspective can be lent to next Sunday’s result. What can be said with certainly is it that victory next Sunday will hold a special place in the annals of whichever club emerges victorious.