THIS was one of the most exciting Connacht finals that I was ever at.
The mood in McHale Park was marvellous from an hour before the throw-in and Roscommon’s performance and one-point victory, their first Connacht title since 2001, had their fans in raptures.
Sligo were in a state of shock after the game.
It was not meant to be like this. No doubt there will be plenty of “Monday morning quarterbacks” who will tell you that they fancied Roscommon to win, but there was none of them in evidence in McHale Park before the game.
Roscommon’s victory was built on the back of a tremendous workrate all over the field. None more so than wing-forwards Cathal Cregg and David Keenan who were immense. Roscommon only played with four up front when Sligo had possession and those two men really clogged up the channels and gave Sligo’s attacking wing-backs Cawley and Davey nowhere to go.
Cregg was too physically strong for Johnny Davey and he was able to power up the wing and do a lot of damage. Charlie Harrison was eventually detailed to track him with Davey going to corner back.
Midfield was another major success for Fergal O’Donnell. Michael Finneran won some fantastic ball from both kick-outs and Karol Mannion was a good foil. Sligo never had parity there and both Tony Taylor (injured) and Stephen Gilmartin had to be replaced. Any time a team has to replace numbers eight, nine and six, they are under serious pressure. Kevin Walsh subbed out those three key positions.
The jewel in Roscommon’s crown yesterday was Donie Shine.
He was majestic. Particularly in the first half when he kicked 0-6 (5fs) and with his two late pressure ones. He gave Noel McGuire a torrid time and it was a little surprising that Sligo did not consider dropping the likes of O’Hara back in front of him for a few minutes to steady the ship as Roscommon burnt them badly and raced into a 0-10 to 0-4 lead just before half-time.
Adrian Marren did steady the Sligo ship with two late scores, but they were well rattled going in.
Another major reason for Roscommon’s win was the fact that corner back Seán McDermott did a very effective man-marking job on Sligo’s danger-man, David Kelly. The Western Gaels man was tenacious and tight. He sailed very close to the wind on a few occasions and I felt that another referee would have carded him and penalised him for some of his off-the-ball pulling. He got away with it and Kelly ended scoreless. Once their top forward and key goal getter was held, the Yeats men were always going to be in some difficulty.
You would have to ask too why Sligo kicked such high rubbish ball into Kelly. On at least three occasions in the second half, Charlie Harrison (twice) and Ross Donovan launched “Hail Mary’s” in on his head. McDermott and Peter Domican at full-back mopped that up and left Kelly a very frustrated and peripheral figure. On 55 minutes he had his one and only chance for a goal, but Geoffrey Claffey in the Rossie goal made a stunning save. Had that gone in, I think that Sligo would have kicked on and won.
It stayed out and Roscommon kicked on from there.
Roscommon footballers have great belief. They don’t really give a damn for anyone else’s opinion and despite being beaten by 3-18 to 0-7 last season by Mayo in McHale Park in the Connacht championship, they still believed yesterday that they would come and beat Sligo. Tradition is a queer animal and today that county has 20 provincial titles and Sligo still only have three.
You can say that history does not matter an ounce, I don’t know.
In the final few minutes and at 0-12 to 0-12, Sligo had just kicked 0-4 and seemed to have the momentum and yet it was Shine and Roscommon who produced the two winners. Admittedly I thought one of them was a very harsh free on Harrison. He just seemed to stand his ground but Jimmy White favoured the forward.
Criticising referees is a mug’s game, but I have no doubt that the Sligo management team won’t have been happy with the Donegal man after yesterday.
Sligo have worked hard all year on their tackling and yet they were penalised for at least 12 scoreable frees, with 0-8 landed.
That said, there is no taking from Roscommon’s superb display. They had heroes all over the field, with David Casey at wing-back one of them. He drove up the field from wing-back with courage and conviction all day and scored a fine point in the opening quarter. Left corner back Stephen Ormsby and centre half Cathal Dineen were also superb and never gave the Sligo man in possession a second.
Too many of Sligo’s big names like O’Hara, Breheny and Kelly never burst into scoring action. They will be sick this morning. It was left to Alan Costello to lead the way, with five awesome points from play.
Fittingly it was left to Donie Shine to land the last winning score for his county. They had started with him hitting the first two and most of them in between.
They will go onto the All-Ireland quarter-finals in two weeks time full of hope, but they will need some of the other forwards to shoulder some more of the scoring load.
For Sligo it is sheer heartbreak.
They beat Mayo and Galway and then slip at the final hurdle. Many a slip between the glass and the lip.
It will be incredibly difficult to lift them for Down next weekend and what was expected to be a glorious championship fairytale may end in tears.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved