A first season in Roscommon colours defined by progress, provincial silverware and an All-Star nomination, Conor Cox reflects on a whirlwind few months in the “Primrose and Blue”, telling Roscommon Herald Sports Editor IAN COONEY that improvement will be paramount if Anthony Cunningham’s charges want to reach the next level…
The confidence embedded within Conor Cox’s game isn’t surprising. Call it cockiness or an innate belief in one’s ability, his Kerry genes have been reared on a staple diet of Gaelic football in its purest form. Put simply, there is no other world worth living in.
Yet the Listowel Emmets forward prefers to deflect attention away from himself when it’s put to him that Anthony Cunningham made him the focal point of Roscommon’s attack this summer. In his own words, he wasn’t the one that made the difference, highlighting that other players on this year’s panel, who often saw little game time, were among the best he has ever soldiered with.
Cox, a Project Manager with software company Cora Systems in Carrick-on-Shannon, is softy spoken and unassuming. The 26-year-old prefers to do his talking on the pitch, a mantra that has endeared him to Roscommon folk in a short space of time.
Once his father Martin moved back up to Roscommon from Kerry when Conor was nine or ten, summer sojourns to Loughglynn and Ballaghaderreen became more frequent.
“I think I was 16 and I went to see Western Gaels play Éire Óg. I’m not sure if it was a league or championship match. I saw this lad Cathal Cregg playing wing-forward for Western Gaels and I couldn’t get over how good he was. I thought to myself that day that Roscommon had players as good as Kerry,” he recalled.
But there was another obvious attraction for Cox. In an era where blanket defences and negative tactics were threatening to overpower attack-minded teams, Roscommon never wavered from their principals.
“I would have always found that Roscommon played a very good, exciting brand of football. It was sort of gung-ho, all-out attack. I think that’s why teams from Roscommon have always been popular, even outside of their own county.
“Teams have tried to evolve by concentrating on the defensive side of the game, seeing how they can stop other teams. But Roscommon have always maintained that tradition of going for it, and that makes them instantly likeable,” he explained.
Yet Kerry remained Cox’s homestead. He enjoyed a successful underage career with Listowel Emmets before things began to “disintegrate” as players drifted away to college or opted to see what the world had to offer.
But everything revolved around Gaelic football for Cox, and he was soon called into the Kingdom’s U-14 development squad. The Kerry minors came calling in 2010, and he also spent three years with the U-21 team afterwards.
In 2012, he scored 0-7 in a Man of the Match display as Kerry beat Mayo by 0-19 to 1-7 in the All-Ireland junior football final. Three years later, Kerry saw off Mayo again by 2-18 to 0-10, although Cox retired injured with 0-2 to his name after just 35 minutes.
He went on to compete his hat-trick of national junior football championship triumphs when another Man of the Match display helped Kerry dislodge Meath by 2-19 to 1-14 in the 2017 decider at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise. Cox scored 1-8 that day.
During that time, he also saw game time with the Kerry seniors in 2014, 2015 and 2016, ironically coming on as a substitute during the Kingdom’s 0-14 to 1-10 loss against Roscommon in Killarney during the Kevin McStay/Fergal O’Donnell era.
“I suppose there was always an expectation to win every game in Kerry, whether it was McGrath Cup, league or championship. Internally and externally, there was expectation. Second best was never good enough.
“To be fair, it has been the same in Roscommon. We never went out to stop the opposition. Our aim was to win every single game because we believed that we were good enough.
“We were positive going into every match. We had some good victories along the way but obviously the defeats to Tyrone and Dublin in the Super 8s stick out like a sore thumb,” he admitted.
Still, externally at least, not winning the Sam Maguire Cup isn’t a hanging offence in Roscommon, although Cox points out that prevailing in a provincial championship containing three Division One teams counts for a lot.
“You do have that feeling in Kerry where they’re expected to win the All-Ireland final every year. Among the supporters over the last few years, it has been a case of trying to figure out if they can stop Dublin. Maybe you don’t have that up here because, traditionally, Roscommon haven’t been challenging for All-Ireland titles.
“But they have been in the mix at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage over the last three years. This year in Connacht, we had to beat a team that have been there or thereabouts in terms of winning the All-Ireland and a team that got to an All-Ireland semi-final last year.
“So the plan was to get to an All-Ireland semi-final, and once you’re there you have to believe that you’re going to win it. That’s why we had been putting in the hard work since last November. In the end, we didn’t tick that box.
“But look, for the supporters, both young and old, to see Enda (Smith) lift the Nestor Cup, I’m sure it was very inspiring. But, for us as a group of players, we want to get to the next level,” he highlighted.
Yet, is that realistic when Dublin, and now perhaps Kerry, have stolen a march on the remaining protagonists? Can a county like Roscommon ever bridge the gap?
“I’ve seen some of the stuff written about Dublin concerning all the advantages they have. Personally, I don’t buy into it. I’ve played against them at intercounty and colleges’ level, and they’re just phenomenal athletes.
“Money doesn’t make you get up at 6 a.m. in the morning to do a gym session or the extra running you need to do. They’ve an unbelievable group of players and in Jim Gavin they have a great leader. The respect he commands is incredible.
“They’ve a core group of 40 players that are working extremely hard, and the best of luck to them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch them. I’ve nothing but respect for them,” he said.
Donning the green and gold of Kerry, Cox obviously wanted to establish himself as a frontline player but there came a point when he simply had to explore other options.
“Dad always grasped on to the possibility that I’d come and play for Roscommon. He always had a massive interest in the game and he kept saying to me, wouldn’t it be great if I came up and togged out for the Rossies.
“I felt that I wasn’t getting a fair crack of the whip in Kerry. I went to Chicago in the summer of 2018 and I really enjoyed my football over there. I became good friends with Darren McCurry from Tyrone and he couldn’t understand how I wasn’t making it at intercounty level. When you hear that from a forward of his calibre, it gives you an extra bit of belief.
“I would have always questioned myself, wondering was I good enough to make the Kerry team. But when I came back from Chicago I was buzzing. I really wanted to prove myself at this level. Then Anthony (Cunningham) contacted me, and I just jumped at the chance. It all happened very quickly,” he outlined.
“As amateurs, we not in it for financial gain. You just love the game, and that’s what drives you on. As I said, I felt I wasn’t getting a fair crack of the whip in Kerry. It was a personal decision. You end up confiding in close family and friends, and you make the best decision. For me, coming to Roscommon was the right decision and I don’t regret it,” he continued.
Cox made his debut in the 1-12 to 0-13 league victory against Monaghan at Dr. Hyde Park in February. Not surprisingly, after scoring 0-5, he has fond memories of the day.
“I missed the first few frees but there’s a strange wind in the Hyde that takes getting used to. Luckily, a few of the frees went over towards the end. Some days, they don’t go over.
“I remember the supporters, young and old, coming out on to the field after that match, and I could see their passion straight away. The supporters have always been good to me,” he remarked.
The first few months in a Roscommon jersey are hazy in Cox’s mind, simply because his elevation from a fringe player in Kerry to being the focal point of the “Primrose and Blue” attack happened very quickly, although he underplays his importance to the Roscommon set-up.
“I wouldn’t say that Anthony made me the focal point. Roscommon have always had good players that have been contesting Connacht finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals long before I arrived on the scene.
“I envisaged coming up here and having to prove myself with a club before I got near the team because there are magnificent players here in Roscommon. Fellas who haven’t got game time this year are among the best I’ve ever played with.
“We received great guidance along the way from Anthony, Mark (Dowd) and Iain (Daly) who are geniuses when it comes to tactics. Noel (Flynn) has us in great shape as well.”
As the Connacht championship loomed in May, Cox wasn’t aware of the significance in beating Mayo in Castlebar until he was told afterwards that it had been 33 years since Roscommon defeated the hosts at MacHale Park.
“We were disappointed after the league but we had to quickly focus for Leitrim. They had enjoyed a great league, so we saw them as a confident team that would present a major challenge. I don’t think the scoreline did them justice. We got the goals at the right time.
“For me, Mayo was just another game. I wasn’t aware of the Castlebar thing beforehand. They were obviously going to present an unbelievable challenge for us but, and I don’t want to sound cocky, we were quietly confident.
“Our management were great tactically, in terms of spotting some weaknesses in the opposition. It ended up being a horrible evening in Castlebar but the scenes on the pitch afterwards were unbelievable. Knowing we had that support behind us gave us great inspiration for the final.
“But, overall, I would like to think that the rivalry with Mayo is healthy. We have great respect for them and I would hope they have great respect for us. I’m looking forward to playing them again soon,” he enthused.
A Connacht final against Galway, in Salthill, presented another sizeable challenge. It’s fair to say that things didn’t look good at half time when a second quarter scoring blitz left the Tribesmen in the driving seat at half time.
“We had spoken about holding on to possession and not rushing things in the first half. Then, in the last 15 minutes of the half, we seemed to rush everything. We were trying to move possession too quickly.
“To Galway’s credit, they kicked some monster points. Shane Walsh was running the show for them.
“I think the half-time scoreline was a fair reflection on how things had gone. But we didn’t panic because we knew that we hadn’t stuck to the gameplan. So it was just a case of getting back to trusting the structures we had.
“The goal came at the right time — Cathal’s eye of a needle pass and a ‘screamer’ from Diarmuid. It was a brilliantly-worked goal.
“Then you had the fans coming on before the full-time whistle. It was all a bit surreal but any day you win a Connacht final is a good day,” he reflected.
A home game against Tyrone presented a great opportunity to propel Roscommon into uncharted waters. But that loss and the mauling against Dublin that followed meant that Roscommon were never in the running to break the last four ceiling.
“We would have been disappointed against Tyrone because we viewed it as a chance to cause an upset. I missed a few frees and a couple of goal scoring chances were spurned. To be honest, they’re a top two or three team, and their experience told in the end,” he lamented.
Soon, thoughts will turn towards another season, and there’s little chance that Conor Cox will be resting on his laurels.
“We just need to improve. We’ve no goals at the minute. I’m sure when we meet up there will be some new faces. I hope most of the lads are still there from last year but it’s an amateur sport. If fellas want to take a year out and try something different, you can’t stop them.
“But when we meet up, I’m sure we’ll chat about targets and stuff like that. But, at the moment, you’re just looking to be better than last season. I’m sure when Dublin meet up later in the year, they’ll be looking to improve as well. That’s just the way it is,” he pointed out.
Another decision looming is the prospect of transferring to a club in Roscommon. At the moment, Cox is happy with his lot at Listowel Emmets as the North Kerry championship looms. But he does admit that it’s probably not ideal playing his club football in Kerry and throwing his lot in with Roscommon.
“I’m not thinking about it at the moment but it is something I’ll have to discuss with the management down the line.
“The intention last year was to come and play for Éire Óg but it didn’t work out because of the GAA’s transfer rules.
“But everyone has been very helpful and supportive. It’s a three-hour drive from Carrick-on-Shannon to Listowel. There’s no real pressure on me at the moment but eventually I’ll have to make a decision to see what’s best for me and for the rest of the team,” he concluded.
If his thought process is anything like the way he operates on the edge of the small square, trust Conor Cox will make the right call.