EVEN in the highly-unlikely event of Roscommon romping home with six points to spare tomorrow, don’t expect Fergie O’Donnell to bang the drum.
Not just because it’s not really his style, but also because he is undoubtedly aware that the journey to this point has been torturous.
Just a year ago, this proud Roscommon man stood in front of the TV cameras and admitted to “embarrassment”.
His team had taken delivery of a 3-18 to 0-7 defeat by Mayo. It was a display that almost defied belief.
The darkest hour just before the dawn? Actually, no. When it looked as if things couldn’t get much worse, they did, in the shape of yet another embarrassment – relegation, with only one win from seven games, to Division Four of the Allianz NFL.
If that amounts to sequential progress, we’d hate to see how steady decline would look.
And, now, almost implausibly, they are Connacht champions, albeit in a far-from-vintage era for football in the west.
What gives with the team that Fergie built? First off, the gods have conspired in their favour this year. A non-native at a club match in Roscommon the evening Sligo beat Galway in the Connacht semi-final replay was taken aback by the local response.
“They were delighted, absolutely thrilled, when the word came through. I thought they might be worried about an up-and-coming Sligo team playing good football, but by their reaction, you could see they had no fear whatsoever of Sligo, no matter who Sligo had beaten to get to the Connacht final,” he says.
And so a team going nowhere suddenly had a sniff. And that was all they needed. And, perhaps more importantly, that was all Fergie needed.
He was John Tobin’s captain in 2001, the last year Roscommon lifted the Nestor Cup. Tobin isn’t surprised that he has emerged as a successful manager, first at minor level and now with this Roscommon team.
“Fergie has great positivity about him as a man,’’ Tobin said. “He was the same when he was playing himself, and he is absolutely the right man to take those young Roscommon players and bring them on as seniors.”
“He is a man of great integrity. That kind of influence rubs off on young players and I am not surprised that he is now starting to do well with the seniors.”
The Connacht final performance was typical of the kind of display Fergie got from his All-Ireland minor team three years ago. Roscommon are not weighed down with stellar talents, even if Donie Shine soared to great heights against Sligo. So, they must present themselves as a hard-working team and hope that the sheer weight of their passion will suffice. It involves half-forwards leading the way, driving at the opposition from deep, and trusting that they can profit from the chaos.
Tobin sees tomorrow as a big challenge for O’Donnell – but also as a big opportunity. “They have to set themselves up the same way they did against Sligo. They must be in the same frame of mind. If they do that, I think they have a chance,” says former Galway star Tobin.
“The young lads in the team should have no inhibitions. Many of them have already played, won and drawn in Croke Park as minors, and, if they can manage to look on this game as bonus territory, they could play with no fear and really have a go.”
Yet, deep down, many Roscommon people will be fearful. “The draw from hell,” was a popular comment when the balls came out of the drum.
Cork have been operating at a much higher level, league and championship, than Roscommon.
For Fergie, it may require some deft footwork. He has been talking his team up during the week.
He will need to manage the aftermath of defeat, should it come their way. Even a hammering need not undo all the progress of the last few months, and he will be keen to position his side for 2011 and beyond.
“The thing is that, regardless of the result against Cork, Fergie is now achieving what he set out to do, and that’s build a team for the future,” says Tobin. “The team is in safe hands with him.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved