Kevin McStay has delivered Roscommon’s rebirth

Whatever happens tomorrow, McStay will be among a select few managers that can look back on Championship 2017 satisfied that he was right and almost everybody else was wrong, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.
Kevin McStay has delivered Roscommon’s rebirth

As a snapshot of stoic man making a lonely stand in suitably gloomy weather, Kevin McStay braving the hailstones post-match in a deserted Hyde Park in March probably doesn’t resonate as much as Brian Lenihan, bailout-bound, beleaguered and alone in an airport in 2010, watching the snow thaw, realising that ‘hell was at the gates’.

For a start the Roscommon manager had Marty Morrissey for company and whatever about the original sin of McStay’s Mayo provenance, player defections and his team’s imminent relegation to Division Two of the Allianz League, nobody was laying the ruination of a country at his door.

Still, no matter what your view of either man, there is always something admirable about a little dignity in adversity, all the more so when the weather reflects the mood.

Pathetic fallacy, they called it in school.

Yes, there was something noble about McStay’s interview with Morrissey in Hyde Park, and, with the benefit of hindsight, a hint of what the summer might bring for Roscommon.

McStay began by addressing his detractors. Without resorting to the histrionics favoured by some managers, he addressed Roscommon’s bizarre answer to the Birther movement, led by Gay Sheerin who had recently questioned McStay’s fitness to govern in light of his Mayo background.

He scarcely flinched in the thickening hail and his tone remained measured as he set about unpicking the arguments of his doubters.

It was the “greatest load of nonsense” he ever heard and it “absolutely didn’t affect” him or his team.

It was “disappointing” rather than hurtful. He expressed the hope, maybe with a trace of irony, that Sheerin had “his day in the sunshine” and that on reflection he might “cop on to himself a small bit”.

The quiet tone of defiance was followed by a rhetorical flourish. Referring to the creditable performance in defeat Roscommon had just put in against Kerry, McStay briefly turned inquisitor: “Do you think, Marty, a team could go out there and play like we did today, if we’re not showing a unity and togetherness about what we’re trying to achieve for the summer? It couldn’t happen.”

For McStay this was always about the summer. A promising spring league campaign in 2016 ended in a huge anti-climax against Kerry in Croke Park, and last summer brought only more disappointment.

If McStay was surprised at last year’s misfire, his interview suggested, had we been listening properly, a steely resolve that this summer would be different. The unity and togetherness he talked about in March was very real, as we found out in the Connacht final three weeks ago.

On that miserable March day the Roscommon manager ended his interview by putting it up to the Birthers.

“What do you want me to do? I can’t rebirth myself, if that’s the word?”

It’s a candidate for GAA quote of the year and, having overseen the rebirth of Roscommon football since, whatever happens tomorrow, McStay will also be among a select few managers that can look back on Championship 2017 satisfied that he was right and almost everybody else was wrong.

He may not be the type of manager to snarl ‘I told you so’, but he would certainly be entitled to.

Snarling just wouldn’t be in his nature, though. He knows what he’s about as a football man, he knows what he likes and has a very clear idea of what he doesn’t like.

One of Kevin McStay’s pet hates during my time spent on The Sunday Game was foul play. He absolutely detested it. I always thought it might have been the result of his years as a quicksilver, stylish corner forward of the type often on the receiving end of some Neanderthal off the ball stuff.

I later learned that he had broken his leg in 1988 and 1990, either side of Mayo’s All-Ireland final appearance in 1989. I’m not certain of the circumstances that led to those two mishaps but it appears to have coloured McStay’s thinking on unsporting play to this day.

As an analyst he was scrupulously fair and even if his penchant for quoting the rulebook bordered on pedantic at times, it was always born of a desire to see justice being served.

He broke me up on The Sunday Game during the course of the 2010 season with his frequent observations on the underhand and overhand pass.

McStay was given special status in Kerry that season when the Kingdom had a legitimate goal disallowed against Down because of a perceived illegal handpass in the build-up. Kerry people probably gave him more grief than any others for his forthright views on TV.

Indeed, he is on record as saying that Kerry followers are particularly sensitive to criticism of their team.

Either way, a bit of perspective never goes amiss.

I think, in the end Kevin McStay left the punditry game for a number of reasons. The constant scavenging for facts, statistics and data that was becoming part of TV punditry mightn’t have appealed to him anymore.

The unforgiving world of social media and its attendant bile might not have been for him either.

In a world where players and managers are allergic to criticism and before people began to say things like ‘freedom of expression is one of the rights in the Republic but it’s not absolute’, maybe it was a good time to go.

Mostly, I think McStay wanted to challenge himself to walk the walk at intercounty level. He made no secret of his desire to manage his native county, Mayo, when the position became vacant at the end of 2014. I worked alongside him on TV for some of Mayo’s big defeats and sensed how much the whole thing meant to him.

Behind the scenes, he constantly challenged stereotypes of Mayo football and railed against the comfortable consensus that they might have lost those games because of an inherent softness or niceness. Whatever about principled objections to foul play as a pundit, McStay presided as manager over a St Brigid’s team that got over the line in a club semi-final against Crossmaglen a few years back in the most pragmatic way imaginable.

Even Cian Connolly’s second yellow card against Galway in the Connacht final bore all the hallmarks of a young player schooled in the realities of modern day football.

Needs must and all that.

Tomorrow, Kevin McStay, a modern manager promoting a modern brand of football, will have the gait of a man who is comfortable in his own skin, even if he is trying to plot the downfall of his beloved Mayo.

His has been a refreshing voice during this year’s championship and his time spent on the penny pulpits in the media circus have sharpened his sense of what makes good copy and what punters long to hear.

His frankness in answering questions about midfield selection last year (suggesting that one player didn’t reach the condition required to play midfield and others simply weren’t suitable) was a new departure from manager-spiel and his recent habit of naming teams a week in advance of matches is a novel and uninhibited approach in these cagey times.

In an engaging interview with Dave McIntyre on Newstalk last week he stated that lack of size and physical power could scupper Roscommon’s chances before the season is out and he also said that they were not yet ready to make a big statement. You can be sure that is not the message he will be delivering in the bowels of Croke Park at 3.30pm tomorrow.

He will know the Mayo mindset better than any opposition manager since their renaissance under James Horan in 2011.

Through the qualifiers these past few weeks, Mayo have been Mayo, only more Mayo than ever before. McStay gets that and he knows what they bring to the table at quarter-final stage.

He knows too that Roscommon players will use whatever tools they have at their disposal — clever game management, high skill levels and an ambition that matches that of their management.

The challenge Roscommon have set themselves as a group is to deliver a win for the primrose and blue in a senior championship match in Croke Park for the first time since 1980. It’s a big carrot to dangle in front of a bunch of young fellas.

They should be vivified by the challenge and their enthusiasm should rattle Mayo, just as it did Galway in Pearse Stadium.

There is a school of thought that Mayo’s time has come and gone and that Roscommon’s time is now, that this is their place and that there will be no second chances after tomorrow.

Being Connacht champions on a day of days for Connacht football has to count for something.

This is Croke Park, however, and perhaps only Dublin have played here more than Mayo in recent years. That, too, has to count for something.

Either way, Kevin McStay will be planning to win, and maybe even to win at all costs.

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