How the West was won

WILLIE HEGARTY, who has sound-tracked the journey for all those Roscommon supporters who have had to stay at home, has called it a great adventure.

The places that great army of custard shirts have visited this summer reads like a mini-tour of the west and midlands.

"We have travelled the country, from Salthill to Hyde Park to Carrick to Mullingar and Portlaoise."

If Fermanagh are the summer story heading into the weekend's All-Ireland quarter-finals, Roscommon are the intriguing sub-plot bubbling below the surface, ready to eclipse. Last Saturday night, a television audience watched breathlessly as Frankie Dolan played the game of his life before embracing Tommy Carr, as the barriers of O'Moore Park fell to the excited hordes from Ros.

Dolan had credited Carr earlier in the week with changing the landscape for the county team. "He has brought new ideas, which the players have responded to. He is a high-profile name, but the best thing about Tommy is that he lets the players express themselves, come up with their own ideas."

Roscommon players haven't only been expressing themselves in the dressing-room. Supporters, who have been one step away from dementia from the frustration of following Roscommon, can't recall a time in the past 20 years when a Ros side played with such verve.

"There was a school of thought that Carr was brought in here for discipline and discipline alone," says Hegarty, whose finger is kept near the pulse by trailing the team for local radio.

"Obviously, he has stamped his authority on the team. But, he has also allowed the team to express themselves on the field, especially the younger players."

Hegarty says the entire team is living and breathing proof of the difference Carr has made, but settles on a few examples. "A measure of Carr is the transformation of players like Karol Mannion and Morgan Beirne. These lads would have been considered club footballers last year, not county men. But Carr has changed them, he saw something in them to make them flourish as footballers.

"All the players have a similar confidence now, to try things rather than going for the safer option. Frankie's equaliser in Portlaoise, an audacious point which brought the game into extra-time, was a perfect example; he wasn't looking to make a pass, he was just looking at the posts."

Carr is a personable character who easily builds a rapport with his players. The stance taken by the Dublin team, and the outrage spat out by some players, at his acrimonious sacking by the County Board illustrates the respect Dublin had for him. It seems to have continued in Roscommon.

When he took charge of Roscommon, Carr set about installing a back-room team that ensured all his team would worry about was playing football. Like many managers this year, he was following the lead set by Joe Kernan in Armagh. The squad even went to La Manga for a week of intensive training, two sessions a day. And not a drop of alcohol passed anyone's lips in those seven days.

"If you ask most people in Roscommon what Tom has brought, it has been discipline and organisation," says Sean Finnegan, ex-Mayo minor skipper and Carr's logistics officer for the team.

"He is an organised individual and brings the same level of organisation to the team he manages. He never dwelt on last year, coming in. His attitude was that it was a blank sheet of paper and no effort was to be spared."

Cutting Paul Noone, David O'Connor (goal-scoring hero against Leitrim) and John Nolan from the panel after they were spotted in an Athlone night-spot was a case in point. It was a gamble that had every chance of back-firing.

"That is Tommy. There is no bullshit with him," Finnegan says. "He could have kept the lads in the panel, and that might have caused some internal strife because there are certain players not pulling their weight.

"But he took the decision to discipline them, telling them to take a hike until they were willing to work on his terms. And if it meant that Roscommon went out of the championship as a result, so be it. But I think the team responded to that, they saw the bravery in that decision. And it has been a fantastic unifying factor."

In other years, disharmony would have split the Roscommon dressing-room in two. Not now. It was another point Dolan alluded to before giving his finest performance. "With Tommy on board, we decided it was all for one and one for all this year. After we got relegated, we had one clear objective, to play in Croke Park."

That wish has now come true. That Roscommon haven't played at HQ for 12 years rankles with this proud footballing county not least because they have played in three league semi-finals and an All-Ireland quarter-final in that time. On Monday, the fans who have enjoyed the odyssey of the summer will get their chance to stand on the Hill.

"Roscommon needed a rallying cry, especially after what happened last year," Finnegan explains. "Tommy saw that, so he made the one objective for them to get to Croke Park. That was it, to get a championship run that would show-case the county and end up in Croke Park."

Carr's honesty when assessing Roscommon's chances at the start of the year endeared him to the supporters, too.

"He said the main thing for this team was a championship run," Hegarty affirms. "He wanted the team to have four or more games, in Connacht or outside it."

As it happened, it was outside the confines of Connacht, but that too has benefited Roscommon. "It has been good," Hegarty says. "They have carried no baggage or history into any game. In Connacht, there is always something like they can't beat Mayo. It is significant that it was Leitrim who came closest to beating them in the qualifiers. When they went out and played Kildare and Offaly, nobody was talking about recent meetings.

"This has been a better year for Roscommon supporters than 2001. I know, we beat Mayo and Galway that year, but it was fall down when we drew Galway again. There has been much more excitement this year, more games."

John Tobin won that Connacht title with Roscommon in 2001 and recommended Carr strongly for the position as his replacement. "I'm not surprised by the recent successes. I have huge respect for Tommy Carr as a person and as an inter-county manager. He was treated very harshly by Dublin and he is one of the top managers in the game.

"After all, he is a very experienced manager. And he has learnt a lot over the past few years. The whole Dublin experience would have taught him an awful lot. All the top managers have a few years experience in the game and Tommy's experience is standing him in good stead now. He has brought Roscommon to another level.

"He is improving all the time as a manager and he is very cool, calm and collected no matter what is going on around him. That's vital to be successful at this level. If you look at Joe Kernan, John O'Mahony, Paidí Ó Sé or Mick O'Dwyer they are all the same. Cool under pressure and Tommy is too.

"Despite being relegated in the league, he kept his composure and stuck at what he believed in. Many of their defeats in the league were close calls and the relegation had no serious consequences. In fact in one way it was a blessing in disguise in that there was no major expectation on the team starting out in the championship. Expectation is very difficult to deal with and again next Monday the onus to win is on Kerry. This suits Roscommon perfectly."

CARR himself has spoken of the qualities that he admires in football teams being prevalent in Roscommon. "Their grit, determination and toughness. They have a great never-say-die attitude and really know how to dig deep."

Tobin stresses this point too. "They are honest, hard-working lads and they give you everything they have. A collective culture prevails in Roscommon. Soccer, Hurling and other sports don't really feature. Gaelic football is the top sport and Tommy has tapped into this vein of true support and built on it.

"Being manager of Dublin is like managing in the abstract. It is not as intimate as in many other counties. 90% of Roscommon people will be in Croke Park next Monday. They are terrific supporters and they will travel in their droves. That adds a new dimension to being county manager and I think it is an aspect that Tommy really enjoys. This enjoyment and belief has been transferred to the players."

Watching Carr hugging Frankie Dolan on TV after their game with Kildare gave an insight to the relationship that has evolved between manager and players. What Dolan said too was revealing, "we have done it for Tommy. He has worked his guts out for us this last year and we're all delighted for him".

But Tobin also alludes to another key factor in the current Rossa revival: "These players realise that they will only be in short pants for a few years. Once you grow out of them, you can never go back. Many of them are in long pants now and realise that the river is flowing along with or without them. Their learning curve has been steep winning Connacht in 2001, losing heavily to Cavan in the league semi-final last year and then to Galway and Mayo in the championship. There is a maturation factor and players like Frankie Dolan are 26 and 27 now and have been around for a few years. They know the story and they want to play in big games and at the highest level with Roscommon."

A key decision of Carr's was to keep the best people involved before he arrived. Continuity is vital.

"Gary Wynn was a selector with me and many new managers would insist on their own people. Tommy didn't and keeping Gary involved was a wise move. It also kept continuity between both management set ups and that was very important.

"In Stephen Banaghan, Roscommon have one of the top chairmen in the country and nothing is spared in getting anything that is needed for the team."

They have played six games in all, only the third time in their history that Roscommon have played so many games in one summer. The other years were in 1925 and 1946. Ironically, 1946 came to an end with Kerry beating them in a replayed All-Ireland final. After Saturday's heroics in Portlaoise, there aren't too many people accepting history will repeat itself.

And, despite the joy that spilled onto O'Moore Park, neither players or management are acting as if the odyssey is about to end. After celebrations ceased on Saturday night, most players went home early. All reported for a team meeting at half ten the following morning, followed by a couple of hours training in the pool. This adventure doesn't have to end on Monday.

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