After defeating us in the 2001 Connacht championship, they were rumoured to have burned a Galway jersey outside a public house the following afternoon, writes John Divilly.

he Roscommon people are very proud of their heritage and rightly so. All the other counties in Connacht border them plus Longford, Westmeath, and Offaly. Queen Maeve ran her operations from Rathcroghan, outside Tulsk. The Rossies would say they are the real ‘Royal’ county.

The geographical centre of Ireland is in the townlands of Carnagh East, Co Roscommon, on the western shore of Lough Rea. Its nearest populated village is Lecarrow. I have frequented this village on many an occasion and nearly always for the same reason — soccer. I was a dual player, GAA and soccer. The latter was my first sporting love and I didn’t fully concentrate on GAA until John O’Mahony came calling. From the age of 16 until 21, when I had to choose between soccer and GAA, I usually chose soccer, or more precisely Kilkerrin United.

My love of soccer came from a Roscommon man. Jim Mannion, a proud Curraghboy man, came to Kilkerrin with his wife Teresa and along with several businesses helped form Kilkerrin United in 1987. We entered the Roscommon Leagues as the Galway Leagues were oversubscribed or they just didn’t want another small, north-east Galway club in their ranks. Roscommon bound we were. Every Sunday morning we crossed the border and headed to great little villages where we bet lumps and played football against CP Ajax, Cam Celtic, Lough Harps, and Dysart to name but a few.

Cries of “offside, push out, cross it, keep it down” were heard all over these villages. If you forgot the mandatory shin-pads you packed some cardboard into your socks and prayed that you fooled the ref. After 90 minutes of avoiding the offside trap and trying to improve on our Trapattoni-style football, it was off to the local for the customary sambos and compulsory purchase of the local lotto ticket.

My first real soccer/GAA conflict came when we were fixed to play Mayo in the Connacht Minor League final in Castlebar. It was fixed for 7pm on a Saturday evening but first I had an U18 soccer cup game against Moore United at 3pm. I had to play. I was the captain. I had to sneak down to the pitch as my father wasn’t too keen on me playing two games in one day. I told Jim one half only as I have to be in Castlebar for 6pm. No problem, he said. Half-time came and went. I’m still playing centre-half and asking the ref constantly “what’s the time?”.

I roared over at Jim: ”Take me off, I have to go!” The usual answer from Jim: “A few more minutes, you little bollocks.” “You Roscommon sheep stealer,” I muttered under my breath. I’ll show you a few more minutes. I took matters into my own hands. The Moore United striker ran at me, I don’t even look at the ball. A professional foul. I bend down and apologise to the striker but don’t even wait for the referee to brandish the red card. I sprint to my mother’s Opel Kadett. Car speeding out of the pitch, I look over at Jim as he adjusts his Denis Taylor-style lenses. He politely waves me off with his two fingers, I shrug my shoulders and gesticulate: “I told you to take me off.”

Home, no time for a shower. Dinner at the table. Silent treatment from my father. Off to Castlebar, play Mayo in the league final. Lose. Manager wondering why my knees were cut and dirty before the match? White lie told. Home. More silent treatment. Jim Mannion, Lord rest him now, had the last laugh. Burnout? How do.

I experienced concussion three times throughout my sporting days. Twice playing against Roscommon in the Connacht championship. The reason: The Rossies knew how to hurt you, quietly and decisively. When you had to castrate a young bull, you required three people: One to squeeze his nose with the pinchers, one to bend his tail back, and the third, The Executioner, with the squeezers to seal the deal.

Similarly, the Yellow and Primrose men tackled in numbers, two players tackled me but were really shielding the referee, and the third player landed the hidden blow. I got frees all right but after a few minutes of staggering around like a newborn Hereford bull calf, my afternoons were over. No cards dished out to the Rossies.

This was the Roscommon teams I knew. Hardy Bucks, full of confidence bordering on arrogance. Forwards that loved to run at you. Audacious shooting from the likes of Frankie Dolan, Nigel Dineen, Lorcan Dowd. Exceptionally talented free-takers like Derek Duggan and Stephen Lohan. Clever tactical players like Fergal O’Donnell and Conor Connelly. The Grehan brothers, Tommy and Frankie, from Ballyforan, loved playing against Galway and lifted the crowd with their every play. Why did they relish the Galway clashes? It was probably due to their close proximity with the Galway border, where the River Suck separated both counties.

We had titanic battles over the years with the Ros and often our relationship was a little like the parties in the Northern assembly — fractious. Why? Because when we won, we celebrated and moved on quickly with the exception of the bordering Galway villages like Ballymoe, Creggs, and Ballygar, who enjoyed it a little more.

When Roscommon won, their supporters could and would devour you. It probably felt like winning an All-Ireland title to them. Outlandish comments and gestures often occurred. After defeating us in the 2001 Connacht championship, they were rumoured to have burned a Galway jersey outside a public house the following afternoon. Thankfully this victory ritual didn’t catch fire and go viral. Obviously, we kept the hurt of the alleged Tommy Varden jersey going up in smoke with us when we enacted revenge on Roscommon and others in the All-Ireland qualifiers en route to becoming the first team to win the All-Ireland through the back door.

So can this Roscommon team stop Galway claiming a second Connacht title in a row? They have all the ingredients. They possess a powerful midfield in Compton and O’Rourke who will be physically and aerially a good test for the Galway axis of O’Currain / Conroy.

Their keeper, Colm Lavin, who made his debut against Leitrim, has a booming kickout and will be aiming to land it on their aforementioned midfielders or the probable wingmen of Enda Smith and Brian Stack. Stack is named on the inside line, but for DCU Freshers this year he was a good target man for kickouts.

Their scoring threats come from the Smith and Murtagh brothers, and Fintan Cregg. Although Donie Smith is not named to start, he will contribute to the scoreboard at some stage. The naming of Enda Smith at 12 is interesting. He is a talented player who loves to carry the ball, is direct, loves to give and go, and finish moves. He’s equally comfortable at full-forward and is a prolific goal-scorer for club and DCU. UCC student Niall Kilroy will probably roam around and cover his defence to allow wing back Conor Devaney sneak forward. The former NUIG student is a natural forward but has scored more freely from wing back. He is a major threat to Galway.

He is the odd defender in the Roscommon pack, in name only. The rest are all M’s — Mean Machines, namely Murray, Mulooly, McDermott, McInerney, and McManus. They have the Hardy Bucks attitude. They won’t back down from any forward and will relish a chance to exploit any inflated egos after our victory over Mayo. The half-back line of McDermott, Mullooly, and Devaney will love the idea of the half-forwards retreating as their first instinct is attack.

Sean Mullooly, who picked up a foot injury against Meath recently, is a doubt. He’s in the Francie Grehan mode of scattering anything he meets in front of him, like a bowling ball. If Galway go with a two-man full-forward line again, UCD med student Niall McInerney will play the sweeper role in front of NUIG students Murray and McManus.

You will have now noticed that Roscommon are a very young team, all current or recently graduated Sigerson players from NUIG, DIT, St Pat’s, Marino, DCU, UCC, and UCD. They will have learned a lot from last year’s Connacht finals and will be intent on revenge and building on their facile win over Leitrim. How do Galway navigate a win?

We learn from the Mayo game. We don’t always use the short kickout, high-risk strategy. We need to mix it up a little more. If we are going to play Johnny Heaney as a sweeper, do it for both halves, so every other Galway defender can perform their basic duty — mark their man. We have the class and experience up front. The Roscommon defence will not like quick early ball being sprayed into pockets of space, but Damian Comer, Shane Walsh, and Sean Armstrong will.

I hope we deliver the ball early and supporting players like Michael Daly, Brannigan, Conroy, and Tom Flynn go for the jugular repeatedly. We must hurt Roscommon on the scoreboard and not allow them any oxygen. We showed against Mayo that we are now physically able to tackle. This is a big opportunity to show what we’ve really being missing in the last number of years — consecutive consistent performances and victories.

Our patience is maturing and the team will hope the Galway fans show some consistency, in providing positive support from the stands. Victory means a clear passage to an All-Ireland quarter-final, a huge carrot. Defeat could mean having to play a determined Mayo team, again.

The successful Cattle Raid of Cooley, an epic tale in mythology, was started and finished by Queen Maeve from her base just outside Tulsk. Kevin McStay will hope his team can also successfully raid the Tommy Nestor Cup from Pearse Stadium tomorrow.


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