This time last year the country was basking in the Great Heatwave of 2018. On a balmy Friday evening a valiant Roscommon minor team lost to Galway, but despite the minors’ defeat the July air fizzed with anticipation. The seniors were playing Tyrone the next day in their opening match in the Super 8s.
By Noel Fallon
On the way out of Hyde Park, I met a knowledgeable football man. The two of us were buoyed along by the wave of euphoria which had swept the county after the win over Armagh a week earlier. We constructed a scenario whereby Roscommon could have an All-Ireland semi-final place clinched within the space of the following eight days. Within 24 hours those lofty ambitions lay in tatters. The Rossies were overwhelmed by Tyrone the next day and a week later they lost at home to Donegal.
By the time of the third match, a dead rubber against Dublin, a sense of dread had replaced the earlier enthusiasm. The Dubs cruised to a facile victory rather than bother to inflict an annihilation. Few Rossies made the journey to Croke Park and some of the Dublin fans left at half time to watch the Irish women’s hockey team in the World Cup final. On the way home, we wondered when Roscommon would get back into the Super 8s and, even if they did, how would they cope?
Those two conversations which bookended the team’s chastening Super 8s experience last year have sprung to mind this week. Roscommon have returned to football’s Big Show at the first attempt. It is an admirable achievement given how morale was shredded by last year’s trio of traumatic defeats. The next few weeks when tell if the lessons of last summer have been absorbed and can be utilised to propel the Rossies to a first All-Ireland semi-final in 28 years.
Last year was a steep learning curve. The drubbing by Tyrone was a shuddering shock to both the team and the fans from which neither recovered. This year everyone will enter the Super 8s with their eyes open.
The most important lesson is the first match dictates everything that follows. This is true across the spectrum of sporting competitions with four-team groups as part of the structure. For example, the World Cup began in 1930 and only once — Spain in 2010 — has a team lost their opening match and gone on to win the trophy.
The Super 8s might be played on a group system but the first match is effectively a knockout game as it either builds or demolishes momentum. It is a match they dare not lose while a win leaves them in pole position to reach the semi-finals. Roscommon can’t look beyond next Saturday.
The pulsating epic against Armagh was the highlight of 2018 for Roscommon football. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, two things were apparent that scorching day. Firstly, one week was too short a time to get back down to earth and recalibrate, especially after the mental effort that had gone into recovering from losing the Connacht final. Secondly, the warning signs about the openness of the Roscommon defence were there in Portlaoise. These weaknesses were ruthlessly exploited by Tyrone.
What was also obvious from the early stages of last year’s match is that Tyrone were intent on intimidating Roscommon just as they had in the 2015 All-Ireland U-21 semi-final. They believed key players could be got at. Whatever else happens next Saturday, it will be a shock if Roscommon are pushed around physically or psychologically.
From the opening quarter of the league match against Mayo, it has been clear that under Anthony Cunningham aren’t going to be a soft touch for anyone. It was the same against Monaghan and Tyrone, while markers were laid down at pivotal moments in the championship wins over Mayo and Galway, with the Daly brothers to the forefront as the enforcers.
Unlike last year, Roscommon have had four weeks to get ready for the Super 8s. They also go into the group stages as Connacht champions with the knock-on benefit of a having their opening match at home. The players were back in training quickly after the Connacht final and, after a series of public appearances with the Nestor Cup in the first week after Salthill, have gone back under the radar since.
Despite being Connacht champions, Roscommon are still seen as outsiders to qualify for the semi-finals. That will suit Cunningham and his team.
Ultan Harney and Conor Devaney are massive losses but Anthony Cunningham has never dwelt on the absence of any big-name players this year. Devaney was the game-breaker against Mayo. Yet when he went off injured in the Connacht final, the management turned to Hubert Darcy and he delivered.
Colin Compton and Cian McKeon also got their chance to impress in Salthill and took it. The return of Fintan Cregg would be another boost.
As was noted in many quarters after the Connacht final, the variety of contenders for the Man of the Match award was an indicator of how well Roscommon played. They will need a similar array of top-quality performances throughout the team next Saturday.
On the trek home from Dublin last year, the 2019 Super 8s seemed a long way off. That Roscommon would make such a swift return to the top table, especially as Connacht champions, was improbable.
This is a team that had defied the odds this summer — they can continue that pattern next Saturday.