Dara Ó Cinnéide: Everyone’s eyes turn towards Roscommon

With Kerry, Donegal and Mayo all winning last weekend and Dublin likely to do likewise next weekend, the cosy consensus is that the Big Four of last year’s championship are going to have it all to themselves again this year.

Dara Ó Cinnéide: Everyone’s eyes turn towards Roscommon

Monaghan looked like they might disrupt the hierarchy somewhat but this week’s setbacks may have put further distance between the Farney county and the Big Time.

In the absence of teams emerging to make the breakthrough, Roscommon have positioned themselves quite well ahead of this evening’s Connacht SFC semi-final tussle with Sligo in Markievicz Park.

They have been ticking a lot of the boxes that would signify progress in recent times.

They’ve secured promotion to Division 1 of the National Football league for 2016, won three of the last four Connacht U21 championships and provided some of the better performers in Sigerson Cup football. There was also a mini-breakthrough at colleges level with Roscommon CBS playing in the Hogan Cup final earlier this year.

In advance of joining the big boys in Division 1 next year, the next logical progression would be a Connacht senior title.

On the face of it, they should earn their chance by overcoming Sligo this evening. Having played eight games in total to get out to Division 1 and having seen off London a month ago, they are surely eager to get a crack at Mayo.

However, it was Roscommon manager, John Evans, who made the point less than a year ago that there is a huge difference between a team finding their feet during the league and a team finding their confidence during the championship. It might be a statement of the manifestly obvious but there is a lot of truth in there.

This Roscommon team, although promoted, have yet to put a good run of form together this year. In the league, a good win away against Down was followed by a bad loss away to Laois, and then a good win at home against Meath was followed by a defeat to Galway which saw them blow a seven-point half time to lose by four in the Hyde. That reversal left them depending on other results own heading into the last round.

It is one thing to be up and down from game to game within a league series but even during their seventy minutes against London last month, Roscommon baffled some of their following in Ruislip by controlling the game from start to finish without snuffing out the minnows’ challenge when the chances presented themselves.

Even going back to their championship campaign last year, Roscommon appeared well equipped to progress beyond round 3 of the qualifiers when pitted in Hyde Park against an Armagh team whom they had passed on their way up from Division 3 to 2. In the end they got suckered by some of the oldest defensive tricks in the book, and long before the game had ended as a contest they were reduced to trying potshots from way too far out.

At the time, John Evans saw the championship defeats to Mayo and Armagh as evidence of an inability to put old heads on young shoulders.

So what difference has the extra year made?

If all indications are correct, Evans appears to be putting more faith in younger players such as the Murtaghs and the Smiths. These players can now be expected to find solutions to the swarming and crowding that they may have struggled with twelve months ago. Seeing Enda Smith forcing turnovers out the field against London last month hints also at Liam Kearns’ influence as forwards coach. Having forwards of the calibre that Roscommon do is pointless unless you can get them to work. That willingness to put in the unglamorous shifts appears to be the major difference between this year and last. The Smiths, the Murtaghs and even Senan Kilbride, an old dog acquiring new tricks, all appear to have accepted the need for tackling high up the field.

The changes have been happening off the field too. From a position of owing €1.5 million at the height of the Celtic Tiger era ten years ago, Roscommon GAA reached a huge milestone last spring as the County Committee, having overseen the transfer of ownership of the county grounds from Dr Hyde Park Committee and Roscommon Gaels, now have the opportunity to begin the planning and development process that will result in a greatly improved Dr Hyde Park by 2017.

The signing of a new three-year, six-figure sponsorship deal with former player, Tom Hunt, late last year, the development of the brand Club Rossie and even the new jersey, which takes inspiration from the great Roscommon team of the late 70’s and early 80’s, have all given the sense of a rising tide lifting all boats.

But Sligo are the one team in Connacht who have always won the games they’re expected to lose and lost the games they should have won. Wouldn’t it be just like them to spoil the buzz and pull off the big guerrilla coup of the Connacht Championship this year?

Languishing in the strange netherworld of mid-Division 3 has kept Sligo distinctly low key all year. The bizarre thing about them is that they were the top scorers in all four divisions of this year’s Allianz Football League! Those figures may well be skewed by the 2-26 they posted against Louth and the 1-19 they kicked against Armagh in their last competitive game in early April but the fact that they came at this evening’s venue tells us that regardless of the opposition, these Sligo boys know where the posts are on their home patch.

Other spring signs to worry the Primrose County?

Sligo may have lost their first three games in the league but they won three of their last four and three of their four defeats were by a margin of two points or less.

Even though the eleven-week break is hardly ideal, the squad can take a lot of nourishment from their league run, not least the introduction of as many as six new players, four of whom - Cian Breheny, Daniel Maye, Eoin Flanagan and half-forward Criostóir Davey – make the starting fifteen this evening.

The match-ups should be interesting but in reality, in order to prevail Sligo will need vintage performances from the old stagers, Ross Donovan, Mark Breheny, David Kelly and Adrian Marren.

As good and all as the four Sligo veterans are, I doubt John Evans would swap any of them for Seán McDermott, Cathal Cregg, Diarmuid or Ciarán Murtagh.

Roscommon might have to wait for next year’s league campaign to see exactly what these lads are made of, and to find out precisely where they stand in relation to the top teams.

But they should have enough this evening to earn a crack at wrestling the Nestor Cup away from Mayo in a month’s time.

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