He was down for the day from Arigna with his brother and three nephews and having been in Killarney three weeks earlier when his county shocked Kerry, he wanted to get my views on how people in the Kingdom felt Roscommon were faring in Division 1.
“Couldn’t argue with the result,” says I, “Kerry didn’t do enough to win it.” It being February and all, I suggested Cork would give them a better indication of where they were. That much had the band of Rossies now gathering around the breakfast table grimacing and shaking heads and wondering aloud if the fine day would suit them as much as the rain on their first two days out in Division 1. I diverted the conversation from football to geography.
“Arigna”, he proclaimed, “is most definitely in county Roscommon, not in Leitrim as many people mistakenly believe.”
I was one of those people so I left the issue lie given it was election time and that boundary extensions and annexations of territories were high on the agenda election campaign in Roscommon. Had I stayed long enough, I’m sure I would have been told what coal mining life was like in the Arigna Valley between the 1700’s and the closure of the mines in 1990. But I had votes to count and the Rossies had a trip to Páirc Uí Rinn to worry about. Subsequent reports suggested the football Roscommon played that afternoon in Páirc Uí Rinn was as natural and uninhibited as the conversation of their supporters’ earlier.
On a day when the Rossies could do no wrong, some 25 of their 29 scores arrived from open play, including their entire first- half tally of 2-13. In terms of a winning margin against a top team, it was hard for Roscommon folk to recall better performance in recent times.
With the tensions between the top four teams in the country – Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo – dominating the news since early spring, and with Cork and Down in freefall, only Monaghan and Roscommon have had a curiosity factor for the neutral. We are always wondering at this time of year which counties are most likely to cause an upset and challenge the established order.
We’ve known for some time there is something about Roscommon. John Evans knew it when he made his premature statements about their All Ireland potential last year and he knew it even as he asked for “patience and some breathing space” as injuries began to mount and the primrose and blue exited the championship.
Those of us who’ve been watching their U21 teams in recent years knew it too.
Roscommon have been the dominant team in Connacht U21 football these past few seasons and even though they were desperately unlucky not to land the All Ireland two years ago, the U21 conveyor belt has been good to the senior set-up.
Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell, two of the most passionate and astute observers of all things Roscommon, certainly knew what they had inherited at the end of last year.
It was obvious from their opening three games against Monaghan, Kerry and Cork, the management had a clear plan that their team would hit the ground running in the early stages of this year’s league, picking up those loose league points before the establishment found their feet.
The paucity of the Down challenge last weekend ensured a third win that should see Roscommon remain in Division 1 for 2017.
But from here to the end of the league they face the establishment and, starting with Donegal in Letterkenny tomorrow, the learning curve will get a lot steeper.
How the Roscommon management adapt will be intriguing.
Those of us who knew Kevin McStay in his past life as an RTÉ pundit will attest to his, at times excessively meticulous attention to detail. We also know about his abhorrence of foul play and of any type of Neanderthal behaviour on the football pitch. McStay is a believer in style and it will be interesting to see whether his team can adapt to the less refined approach we witnessed in Tralee last weekend.
ix days later and I’m still not sure what was the most interesting aspect of the Austin Stack Park slugfest. Was it the fact that the game teetered on the edge of anarchy for a few fleeting moments, or was it the faux outrage of all those who have taken to the penny pulpits since?
In the interests of disclosure and transparency, I wish to state that it was, without equivocation, one of the most entertaining days out I’ve had in a long time. As a spectacle, the first half was dire, but even then the craic, the banter and the tension on the terrace was as good as I’ve experienced since I finished playing. This was partly due to Rory Gallagher’s animated state and the home crowd’s reaction to his antics but it was also down to the fact that supporters recognised in the Kerry performance a streak of defiance that was absent last September against Dublin.
Of course it should be said that those players on both sides who landed punches or attempted to land punches to opponents’ faces were wrong, and, of course, we would much prefer to see free flowing foot-ball as opposed to the turgid fist- passing game punctuated by pulling and dragging that we saw in the first half. But it must be said, too, that most of the indiscretions were punished by yellow, black and red cards from Eddie Kinsella.
Sometimes, as in the case of Alan Fitzgerald’s red card, two wrongs do make a right and justice comes around in the form of a bloodied nose.
In some ways, the ritual condemnation and tut-tutting that followed the game misses the point entirely.
The point surely is that we are all to blame for this mess. Players play the way they do because they believe that winning is everything in this do-or-die environment created by managers, mentors and supporters alike. It’s the reason Mayo footballers and Galway hurlers got rid of their management last year and, if either or both land the big prize later this year, those who raised a dissenting voice within those communities will be decried as either cranks or losers. It’s not sport but that hasn’t seemed to matter in quite a while.
Nobody outside the respective squads really knows what was said in the Kerry and Donegal dressing rooms before or after last weekend’s game, but I doubt either team will be too concerned about the pointless fines imposed on their county boards during the week. They only serve to impoverish those individuals and clubs trying to promote the game and do little to tackle the culture that caused the players to behave in the manner they did in the first place. There are no winners when the disciplinary bodies reach into the coffers to deliver ‘punishment’.
Our politicians are finding out these past few days that the ‘winner-takes-all’ and ‘win at all costs’ mentality of the past is flawed and self-serving. It is ill-fitted to what the public wants and ultimately, only results in rejection by all reasonable people.
It’s going to take a huge amount of cultural engineering and humility to get us a government. What hope have the GAA of changing a culture that is so deeply embedded as to have people like me deriving perverse pleasure from games like last Sunday’s?