Laois, Fermanagh and Clare — Roscommon’s opening three games that will mould a pathway towards a tilt at promotion or ignite a relegation battle with unthinkable consequences. While you’ll hear every manager throw in the phrase “one game at a time”, Anthony Cunningham knows that the hat-trick of matches ahead of his side over the next three Sundays are the ones that will shape this season’s Division Two campaign.
Win all three and Roscommon will be in great shape ahead of the daunting trips to Newbridge, Kingspan Breffni and Armagh. Anything below those expectations and one suspects that Division Two will become a slog rather than a schedule to be relished.
Those thinking that Laois in the Hyde on Sunday will be a cakewalk would do well to recall a Meath team low on confidence arriving on these shores this time two years ago. A straightforward Roscommon victory was expected. Yet it took a late Donie Smith penalty deep into injury time to rescue a draw.
In other words, Roscommon can ill-afford to be off-colour on Sunday. Laois, under new manager Mike Quirke, did nothing of note in the O’Byrne Cup. The absence of the Kingston brothers will hurt them as this campaign progresses. But everyone starts off with a clean slate this weekend. It’s up to Roscommon to make their perceived superiority count.
To this group of players’ credit, they’ve scaled similar summits over the years. While Division Two will be ultra-competitive, Roscommon are the one team with the experience of winning provincial championships and dining out consistently on Super 8 fodder over the last two years. Alongside Armagh, they’re slightly behind Kildare in the betting for the two promotion berths on offer.
Kildare’s positioning at the top of the pile for a return to Division One is presumably based on the expected bounce that new manager Jack O’Connor will give the Lilywhites. Armagh are certainly on an upward trajectory under Kieran McGeeney. Cavan will fancy their chances but the absence of a number of key players this season, alongside Cian Mackey’s retirement, could hurt them. A local derby against Westmeath in the Hyde also has the propensity to throw up tales of the unexpected.
As long as Roscommon do their stuff, and Anthony Cunningham’s ruthless nature will accept nothing less, they should be in the mix for promotion. But getting it right against Fermanagh in Brewster Park on Sunday week, a place where Roscommon always find it difficult to win — a contest sandwiched between the home games against Laois and Clare — will set the template.
What the FBD League revealed is that Cunningham has created an environment where the competition for places is fierce. A drop in standards won’t be tolerated, and while they won’t admit it publicly, there will be huge disappointment among the players and management if a return to Division One isn’t on the cards at the end of March.
But they must get points on the board quickly. Three games against Laois, Fermanagh and Clare give them the ideal opportunity to tick that box, leaving them in pole position for the more difficult challenges coming down the tracks.
But Laois will be no pushover. History has taught us that Roscommon don’t like being favourites and invariably struggle in games they’re expected to win.
Given this panel’s experience in big games, they will, most likely, find a way to prevail on Sunday. How they manage it might reveal a few things about what’s in store for the remainder of the campaign.