Roscommon no longer the Connacht bridesmaids

“Roscommon know they are capable of winning Connacht titles now,” says  Seánie McDermott.
Roscommon no longer the Connacht bridesmaids

Diarmuid Murtagh of Roscommon shoots to score his side's first goal during the Allianz Football League Division 2 Final match between Roscommon and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

In his mind’s eye, Seánie McDermott can still vividly recall going to his first Connacht final between Roscommon and Galway in 1998. He was 14. McDermott travelled with his parents, brother and two sisters. The weather was atrocious. A deluge of rain fell from the skies on top of Tuam Stadium. “We got absolutely drowned,” says McDermott now.

The replay was one of those eternal and electric championship occasions, a baking hot afternoon with Dr Hyde Park bursting at the seams, a riveting match that stretched into extra-time before Galway edged home. “It was disappointing but it was a titanic battle,” says McDermott. “The place was absolutely hopping. I was very young but those games had a big impact on me.” 

Those championship meetings were the first time the sides had met in the province since the 1990 Connacht final, which Roscommon won by two points. Despite the small size of the province, Galway and Roscommon had no real sustained history of regularly meeting in Connacht finals; prior to those clashes in 1998, the counties had only met in 15 Connacht finals in a century.

During Roscommon’s glorious era of the early 1940s, when they won two All-Irelands in 1943 and 1944, that period also represented the first real development of any historical edge between the counties because they met in three Connacht finals in-a-row between 1941-’43.

Roscommon beat Galway in successive finals in 1961 and 1962 but it took until the mid 1970s before Galway and Roscommon both had each other by the throats and refused to let go. The sides met in four Connacht finals between 1974-’78, with each side sharing two titles in close contests.

Over the next four decades, Galway and Roscommon only sporadically met in provincial finals but that history has been totally transformed in the last seven years; Sunday’s meeting will be the fifth Galway-Roscommon decider in that timespan. With Galway having narrowly beaten Roscommon in last year’s semi-final, the rivalry has never had a sharper edge than it does now. “It kinda reminds you a bit of 1998 again,” says McDermott. “Because there has been so little between the teams.” 

The biggest difference is that the relationship is on a much more sustained basis now. After the incredible drama of 1998, it took another 18 years for the sides to meet in another Connacht final.

McDermott had won a Connacht title in 2010 but Roscommon didn’t even play Galway or Mayo that season. 

By the time they met Galway in the 2016 decider, Roscommon hadn’t played them since the 2012 Connacht quarter-final, when Galway hammered them by 14 points.

“We never feared Galway but you always knew you were going to be in a massive game against them, especially as a defender,” says McDermott. “You were going to be marking a very talented forward because that’s what Galway produce. But I would have always relished the challenge.” 

The real test for Roscommon though, was getting onto Galway’s level and then consistently matching them there. In McDermott’s first championship match against Galway in 2006, Roscommon raced into a commanding early lead but they couldn’t sustain that pace and Galway eventually over-ran them. Roscommon may have stared Galway down in Pearse Stadium in the drawn 2016 Connacht final, but Galway buried them in the replay.

When they met in the final in Pearse Stadium once more in 2017, Galway were expected to walk all over them again, especially after Roscommon had haemorrhaged players from the squad, but Roscommon turned them over by nine points. “That was a huge moment in the modern relationship,” says McDermott.

When Roscommon were subsequently hammered by Mayo in an All-Ireland quarter-final replay the narrative centred on where could Roscommon go next? The story seemed set to follow an anticipated script; a disappointing Connacht final defeat to Galway in 2018; Roscommon lost three matches in the subsequent Super 8s by an aggregate of 39 points; they were relegated back to Division 2 in 2019.

Roscommon resumed their perceived place in the queue behind Mayo and Galway. They entered the 2019 Connacht championship as patronised contenders but Roscommon had seen something in themselves that others couldn’t; they beat Mayo in Castlebar for the first time since 1986, before sacking Galway in the final in Pearse Stadium. Again.

Roscommon’s refusal to ever accept their status as the third county in Connacht has become deeply encrypted into the DNA of this squad. Punching above their weight is the only way they know how to fight but that mentality has also empowered them. And by this stage, Roscommon have turned it into a blunt instrument.

For most teams there is a consistent tension between self-image and outside perception, but history and precedent has still seen Roscommon’s status perpetually contested. “The only way to change that public viewpoint is to continue to beat Mayo and Galway,” says McDermott. “There’s no reason why we can’t keep doing so.” 

Roscommon have been consistently sharing a stage with the top counties, but they’ve struggled to maintain that presence, especially in Division 1 where they’ve been relegated three times in the last six seasons. Yet they’re back there again in 2023, having beaten Galway in the Division 2 league final in April.

Under Anthony Cunningham, Roscommon have developed a serrated edge, and become harder to beat; they have only conceded one goal in nine league and championship games this season; Roscommon are the only unbeaten team in league and championship in 2022.

The next challenge is to keep powering on, to stay out in front. “Roscommon know they are capable of winning Connacht titles now,” says McDermott. “Nobody will be looking beyond Sunday but, even if they don’t win, you want to see them delivering big performances for the rest of the season and hopefully getting to an All-Ireland semi-final. I think Roscommon are capable of doing so. The big challenge for Roscommon in trying to reach that next level is to be in the game with ten minutes to go. If they can stay in the fight, then we have the forwards capable of bringing us home.” 

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