Roscommon’s record against Cavan this decade is excellent, but the Rossies would trade their recent prosperity against the Breffni men for two crucial league points next Sunday, writes Ian Cooney.
The goalposts have shifted. By being competitive in Division One, Roscommon have found out that positive results can become part of the package very quickly. Instead of being marooned near the relegation trapdoor, as was widely expected in January, Anthony Cunningham’s men have given themselves some breathing space with victory against Monaghan and a draw against Tyrone.
Now comes another potential sting in the tail. For probably the only game in Division One this season, Roscommon will be expected to go to Kingspan Breffni and beat Cavan on Sunday (throw-in at 2.30 p.m.). That brings about a different type of pressure and the sort of favouritism that never sits well on Roscommon teams’ shoulders.
Since Cavan’s 0-14 to 1-8 victory against the Rossies in a “dead rubber” in 2014 when the two teams were pretty much assured of their place in the Division Three League final at the time, the sides have met six times competitively since. Six Roscommon victories, including last year’s thrilling 4-16 to 4-12 triumph in the league final at Croke Park, and a draw in Kiltoom four years ago makes for pleasant reading. But Anthony Cunningham will be drilling into his players this week that Sunday is the only result that matters.
Win on Sunday, and Roscommon have every chance of spending another season, at least, in this sort of elite company. Lose, and it’s very hard to see where the remaining points needed for survival will come from, given the erosion in confidence that would be inevitable.
What’s more, it’s not as if Cavan have looked out of their depth in the division. Results haven’t gone their way but indiscipline was the key in losing to Galway. They had Kerry on the rack for 60 minutes before the Kingdom, thanks to Seán O’Shea’s accuracy from frees, ground out a hard-earned 0-16 to 0-13 victory. Then, they more than matched Mayo in the opening half of their encounter in Castlebar before Evan Regan’s goal on the stroke of half time changed the complexion of the contest.
So essentially Cavan are in last chance saloon. Sunday is their cup final, and Roscommon will be mindful that a tough afternoon at the office awaits.
But Roscommon are calibrated differently this season. The players have brought into the “no more Mr Nice Guy” approach under Cunningham. So far, Roscommon have shown enough resolve in their three matches to suggest that they’re capable of passing the test coming down the Breffni tracks.
The most graphic illustration of the togetherness among the players was Ultan Harney taking issue with Niall Morgan putting his knees into the back of Gary Patterson when the Michael Glavey’s defender was fouled deep into injury time against Tyrone last time out.
While Harney knows more than anyone that he should have told Morgan what he thought of him once the free was actually scored, the simple fact that he was hell bent on standing up for his team-mate represented the sort of “all for one, one for all” mentality Cunningham has instilled into these players.
Defensively, the team are unrecognisable from the unit that conceded scores for fun, especially against the bigger teams, last season. Building the defence around the Daly brothers — Conor, Niall and Ronan — has been pivotal in this regard. Evan McGrath has been the “bolter” in the same way Ciarán Lennon was the “new kid on the block” that impressed last season.
Conor Hussey has grasped his chance with aplomb at wing-back, and is getting better with every game. David Murray has refined his game to become more tenacious in his defensive duties at the expense of giving away soft frees. His snaffling of breaking ball set Roscommon on the front foot against Tyrone when they reeled off seven unanswered point in succession.
Tadhg O’Rourke’s workrate in the trenches has been complimented by Enda Smith’s ability to come up with a big play when it’s needed, as he did in the dying embers against Tyrone. However, there’s more to come from the Boyle captain before attention turns to the championship.
Up front, despite the gameplan being more defensively orientated, Roscommon’s scoring rate is just about good enough to give them a chance to win games. Strong winds have been a huge factor in two of this season’s contests, so it’s the 1-12 against Monaghan that offers encouragement that scoring targets will be met, albeit that improvement must be forthcoming.
Conor Cox has been a welcome find. Against Monaghan, it was the former Kerry player’s mental strength to recover from a couple of missed early chances on his debut that caught the eye. Against Tyrone, he demonstrated his ability from open play, kicking points comfortably off either foot to pick up the TG4 Man of the Match award.
Finally, Ultan Harney is enjoying a run of games injury-free, and Roscommon will need his feistiness going forward. But that aggression needs to be controlled, as is the case with every player on the panel, as the last thing Roscommon need is the hindrance of being a player down in their upcoming games.
Given that Roscommon have catapulted themselves into a position of strength, their recent record against Cavan suggests that their good run will continue. And therein lies the danger. Cavan folk will argue that they’re due to beat a team they perceive to share a level playing field with. As alluded to earlier, given the way Roscommon usually handle being favourites, nothing is guaranteed.
But the signs from a Roscommon perspective are encouraging. What we’ve seen so far is a group of players that on’t be allowed to get ahead of themselves under this particular management. Any sign of complacency will have been rooted out at training.
Given that a trip to Salthill, where Roscommon will quietly fancy their chances, will be followed by the visit of the All-Ireland champions, a win on Sunday would put Roscommon in the box seat for survival. Maybe if Lady Luck shines on the Rossies, the final game against high-flying Kerry at Dr. Hyde Park will be against a team already in the league final.
The stars are aligning themselves to leave Anthony Cunningham and his troops on the cusp of an achievement that scarcely seemed possible at the start of this league campaign, given the turnover of players from 12 months ago.
But the former Galway hurling manager has made little of the cards he has been dealt with. He has approached the challenge with vigour and enthusiasm, advising players to leave their inhibitions at the dressing-room door.
As a result, Roscommon have been transformed against some of the best teams in the land. But it will count for nothing if Cavan aren’t taken care of on Sunday. Expect a few roadblocks along the way, but there is a feeling that, by hook or by crook, Roscommon will find a way to get the job done.
HERALD VERDICT: Roscommon