Monday, July 10, 2017

Controlled football is almost impossible, but Roscommon achieved it for long spells during the Connacht final. And when you add a consistent application of controlled aggression from start to finish, you get a brilliant performance.

This reporter has often mentioned the fact that Roscommon don’t put in enough big hits in games. They certainly did in Pearse Stadium. You have players that will use their physicality, and then you have those who aren’t as physical in their play, but that are willing to put their bodies on the line.

On Sunday, numerous Roscommon players dived for possession and got in a hit when getting injured in the process was the likely result. They got hand-ins when the direct marker looked set to move a yard clear. There were some great block downs alongside turnovers from outnumbering the player in possession.

Such a mindset and form of bravery is worth its weight in gold. And when you couple such bravery with solid football, you get the sort of performance that not many people saw coming.

Kevin McStay has oozed confidence for weeks. So did the players. It’s one thing talking yourself up. It’s quite another actually fully believing in every syllable that you’re preaching.

The management did, and the players did. And even when the pressure came on, and the opposition got their inevitable purple patch, Roscommon were able to bounce back.

It’s impossible to measure such character. But there’s no such thing as a winning team who can manage to win titles without being able to reduce the amount of damage when the momentum swings for a period. You could sense tranches of fear among the crowd when Galway clawed back five points in five minutes after Brian Stack’s wonderful goal. The supporters were a bit anxious, but the players weren’t. That goes down to planning and preparation.

It’s not with the benefit of hindsight that it can be presumed Roscommon planned out things well for the 11-week break from the league to the championship. Again, the management let it be known that they had every week accounted for.

Kevin McStay spoke of how Galway weren’t a Kerry, or a Dublin or a Donegal. That’s the clichéd fuel for the opposition. But for the Roscommon manager to be so confident in public spoke volumes for his belief in the team, and the obvious mentality he could sense among the players.

If you break the game down into four quarters: Roscommon won three comprehensively. Galway had their tails up in the third quarter, but Brian Stack’s goal broke their hearts, in more ways than one. Despite having three so-called big fielders in Conroy, O’Curraoin and Flynn — with the latter two ominous for the entire game — it was young Stack who took hold from the kickout and marched through the defence before blasting past Ruairi Lavelle. Stack’s positioning was excellent for Colm Lavin’s kickouts time and again. Indeed, a host of players performed exceptionally well.

You could mention every player, but the standouts were Enda Smith — in every sense. Conor Devaney always made the right decision; Brian Stack was immense for a young player. Niall Kilroy swept well. He’s a natural ball player. Tadhg O’Rourke grafted brilliantly. Seán Mullooly set the tempo physically.

Enda Smith resembled a player about ten years playing senior intercounty football. His development has been outrageous. His decision-making — when to carry, lay-off or kick — is superb. Apart from Padraic Joyce in the last two decades, few have owned the pitch at Pearse Stadium for 70 minutes the way Enda Smith did on Sunday.

There was an expectation that having beaten Mayo twice in two years that Galway would be able for any team physically. And having been caught napping in every sense against Tipperary in the quarter-final last year, the likelihood of any complacency was almost nil. To suggest there was any of the latter would be only taking away from Roscommon’s performance. Nonetheless, it’s not the first time that Galway turned up looking more than a bit arrogant in their approach. And so was the management in their reluctance to make changes.

Mentally, it should have almost proved a task that was very near to insurmountable for Roscommon to get over the line. You have to start well, and maintain it. And when the pressure comes on, you can’t fold.

Roscommon played brilliantly in the opening quarter. They made a lot of mistakes during the ‘wides spell’ that followed. But they never looked suspect. For instance, they went 16 minutes without a score in the first half after going seven points in front. But, crucially, in that same period, Galway didn’t manage a score either.

During Roscommon’s lean spell, they were still getting forward. They were still creating chances. Some of the wides were very poor, but it’s better to be kicking wides than not to be getting forward at all and getting no shot on goal.

A high workrate is something that’s almost taken for granted in today’s game. And while it’s obvious to suggest that the winning team worked harder, which was clearly the case; it shouldn’t necessarily be the case when the opposition have to chase the game, and are forced to work hard.

For instance, in the 57th minute Michael Daly broke forward for Galway. He looked up. There were only two forwards — Danny Cummins and Damien Comer. Both were marked. What’s more, following the breakdown in play at the other end that led to Daly coming away with the ball, the Roscommon players were scampering back at a very fast rate. End result — by the time Daly delivered the ball, six Roscommon players had got back behind the midfield, with about three making it beyond the half-backline.

That’s down to a number of things — conditioning being one, being tuned in is another, and clearly following a script. It wasn’t a case of a few players looking up and seeing who would get back — every player that could get back did. Simple as that. At the time Roscommon were leading by four points. Remarkably, they didn’t seem to be in any way physically tired, or mentally tired for that matter.

The fact that Roscommon had seven yellow cards, Galway had five, and that there was a black card and three red cards overall suggests this game was niggly throughout. The referee dished out quite a few cards in the first half that looked harsh. If anything, he missed one or two big hits, but was very tough on players for standard fouls.

Roscommon’s appetite on Sunday was ferocious. They never looked like losing. They did so much right and played so well collectively. And yet the management can come away from a nine-point victory in a Connacht final and say to the players that they were opened up for Michael Daly’s goal chance that came back off the post, and that they missed lots of chances. A team always need something to work on, even allowing for the fact that Roscommon won Sunday’s game physically, mentally and tactically.

The reaction after Sunday’s final whistle matched that of the performance — it was full of emotion. This plan was in the making since last winter. And hats off to everyone involved in that plan. It was worked out brilliantly.

It was day by the seaside that Roscommon supporters won’t forget for a long time. The county’s biggest winning margin over Galway in the championship in 64 years was truly remarkable.

 

Manager Kevin McStay celebrates with selector Liam McHale following Roscommon’s nine-point victory against Galway. Picture: Gerard O’Loughlin

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By Michael O'Brien

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