No county for young men — a headline that might illustrate the job predicament in the West of Ireland at the moment.
But in this case the line applies specifically to Roscommon’s footballers. With 17 of the panel living in Dublin, the bright lights of the city seems to have set their souls on fire.
Manager Des Newton is also in the capital, a principal in Adamstown Community College just outside Lucan. Karol Mannion is long established there, where he works as a solicitor in the city centre. Donie Shine is a marketing executive with emobile in Kilmainham.
Like Cathal Cregg, who’s now based in Athlone, Shine is a graduate of Dublin City University, which has truly become a home away from home for young Roscommon players.
The Glasnevin institution hosts nine of Newton’s current panel — just two less than the 11 who were involved in the U21s’ recent All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin.
From the beginning of his playing days in the early 1990s, former Roscommon goalkeeper Shane Curran remembers several Dublin-based team-mates. There was displacement but there were few difficulties and even fewer now — all training sessions have been held in the county this year.
“To be fair, when I started there were nine or 10 lads in Dublin so it hasn’t been that much of a sea change,” he said.
“We’re just lucky to be keeping lads in the country and the GAA’s a great vehicle for that. Plus with the infrastructure the way it is, you can get from Dublin to Roscommon town in an hour and 30 minutes.
“In Des Newton’s playing days, it was a three-hour trip driving up through the towns and villages of Westmeath. The stress and all that has been eliminated.”
Car pooling is a necessity for a county board rightfully mindful of the extreme financial difficulties they faced just two years ago. But with no major third level institute in Roscommon, Curran says Dublin is “the choice for football lads from the west”.
DCU’s professor Niall Moyna jokes when he’s asked why so many Roscommon players ar on campus: “We offered each of them half a million,” he quips, a dig at those who have criticised the college’s elite scheme.
The truth lies with a Frenchpark man and recently-retired secretary of DCU, Martin Conroy. Realising the benefits of playing and training with players from the traditional football counties, he convinced his county about DCU’s merits as a breeding ground for success.
As Moyna takes up the story: “A couple of years after we established the academy, Martin, coming from a supposedly weaker county, saw how players from non-Dublin counties who were with us improved during their four years here.
“He used to always say to me if fellas from weaker counties could just come up here and play with these other fellas they would be given so much confidence. They would begin to realise they’re as every bit as good.
“But when you stay at home and you’re hibernated in your own part of the world and you don’t get to do this you tend to put other counties up on a pedestal.”
Having seen Cregg and David Keenan prosper and win Sigerson Cup medals, word spread like prairie fire across the county that DCU was the place to be for aspiring footballers. Shine, Neil Collins, Donie Smith, Colin Compton and Ciaran Cafferkey soon joined. A trend was set.
Moyna knows the circumstances aren’t ideal for preparing a senior inter-county team but adds that no U21 is starting for Roscommon tomorrow.
“It’s only for a small period of their lives — three or four years at most. You’ll find the vast majority of players in university are just breaking into the inter-county teams. It’s not as if they form the backbone of the team.”
Moyna has been informed more young footballers from the county are applying to study in DCU next year. When it comes to the university, he’s obviously biased but his work with Dublin’s All-Ireland-winning footballers tells him Sigerson football is a closer link to senior inter-county football than U21.
“Roscommon have been very smart. They don’t have anywhere near the resources that the larger counties are going to have.
“Obviously, they have done a phenomenal job themselves internally. The success they’ve had at underage levels over the last number of years is clearly down to long-term planning. It’s not just DCU.
“The Roscommon County Board have probably seen the benefits of their students going on to play at Sigerson level.
“The step up from U21 to Sigerson is a chasm now. But the step up from Sigerson to inter-county football is just a step. Most of them are playing at that level.”
Over the next week or two as exams finish up, the Dublin-based students will return to the county. Normality, to a certain extent, will be restored.
Regardless of what happens tomorrow, they’re making capital gains.
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