By Martin Wynne
There was a lot to digest after last Sunday’s dramatic stalemate at Croke Park.
The overriding emotion on the final whistle was relief that a replay had been secured courtesy of Donie Smith’s brilliantly-executed late free. But there was also a sense that it may have been a missed opportunity for the Rossies.
Mayo looked to be there for the taking on Sunday last, and Roscommon had them on the ropes as the clock ticked towards the closing 15 minutes.
But then again, the same could be said about a lot of Mayo’s opponents over the past couple of seasons.
Cork and Derry did enough to beat them this year, only to be reeled back in during the closing stages. Fermanagh had them on the rack last year before a controversial late penalty handed Mayo a lifeline.
Four weeks later, Tyrone had the beating of them in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but paid a dear price for an overly-conservative game plan.
This Mayo team always seems to find a way. They seem to be able to dig deep and draw on reserves of character when it is most needed; except in All-Ireland finals when the trend seems to run in the opposite direction and they always find a way of losing them.
From a Roscommon point of view, the good news is that they are still standing. They do not have to slink away with that gnawing sense of regret that Cork, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh would have felt.
Kevin McStay won’t have to stew on what might have been for the next 12 months. Instead he’ll have an opportunity to assess the positives and negatives from last Sunday’s encounter, and recalibrate the game plan accordingly for next Monday.
He will have plenty to work on as well. His young team did a lot of things right last Sunday, but they also came up short in many departments.
The concession of a 12th minute goal seemed to usher in a state of collective apprehension within the Roscommon ranks.
That was reflected in the eight wides racked up by Roscommon in the opening half. They also went 23 minutes without scoring, and allowed Mayo to notch up 1-6 without reply.
It wasn’t that Mayo were dominating the game during that period. Roscommon were enjoying plenty of possession, and tackling with great determination and discipline.
They were just lacking a bit of composure, and it resulted in handling errors and poor shooting.
The other key factor was Lee Keegan. Last year’s ‘Footballer of the Year’ hit 1-3 from play in the opening half and also managed to keep Enda Smithfrom having any significant impact for Roscommon.
Although it has to be said that his method of man-marking goes well beyond the parameters of fair play at times.
Keegan’s tussles with Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly have reached legendary proportions over recent seasons. But it’s not always for the right reasons as shirt-pulling and general rough-housing seem to feature highly in his modus operandi.
It was the same last Sunday asSmith came in for the sort of treatment that Connolly regularly receives from the Westport clubman.
This, of course, can also be seen as a backhanded compliment to Smith.
Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch and stricter refereeing would certainly benefit Roscommon next Monday.
McStay took action at half- time by switching Smith from midfield to full-forward. It proved to be an astute move, as it meant that Keegan’s attacking threat was neutered. It may have restricted Smith’s potential to influence the game as well, but in this case the positives certainly outweighed the negatives.
It also led to one of the scores of the game, when a sublime pass from Enda in the 56th minute put his brother Donie through on goal. A Mayo defender quickly cut out his path to goal, but the Boyle man sensibly whipped the ball over the bar to put Roscommon a point up at a vital stage.
There were many other positives from a Roscommon point of view. They may have lacked a bit of composure at times, but their commitment never wavered across the 80 minutes.
They tackled in numbers and forced a large amount of turnovers during the course of the game. They ran themselves to a standstill, and the amount of ground covered by the likes of Niall Kilroy, John McManus, Sean McDermott and Sean Mullooly was remarkable.
They also came up with the goods when it was most needed. It was Roscommon’s willingness to battle that forced the concession of a late free, and Donie Smith showed incredible self-belief to convert a difficult kick under the most pressurised of circumstances.
It also should not be forgotten just how good Roscommon were over the opening 11 minutes. A good start is important for any team, but it is particularly vital for the underdog to get off to a positive start in a big match.
Psychologically, it provides the players with reassurance that they are up to the challenge. A poor start, on the other hand, can quickly undermine confidence and cause heads to become frazzled.
Mayo’s 12th minute goal seemed to have this very effect on the Roscommon players. They suddenly started to tense up and balls were fumbled and scoring chances snatched at. But, luckily, they already had some money in the bank courtesy of that fantastic start that yielded 2-2.
They also managed to regroup impressively after half- time, and Mayo’s two-point lead was wiped out within 60 seconds of the restart. Roscommon went ahead in the 46th minute, were pegged back, and went ahead again on 55 minutes.
At that stage, Mayo looked in trouble. If Roscommon had managed to tack on another point or two in the following ten minutes, it may have been enough to secure a famous victory. But it did not happen, and the door was left ajar for Stephen Rochford’s men.
Nevertheless, the Roscommon players stuck diligently to their task and managed to rescue a draw in the dying minutes. In the end, it was probably a fitting result in a game that neither side deserved to lose.
From a Roscommon point of view, it also provides a valuable opportunity for this young team to savour another high profile day at Croke Park. Regardless of what happens next Monday, this year has seen them announce themselves on the national stage.
Not since 2001 has a Roscommon team made such a strong impression on a championship summer. That year was also marked by some mammoth tussles with Galway and Mayo.
But for the loudest historical resonance, it may be necessary to go back to 1991. That was the year of the epic Connacht final at McHale Park that Mayo looked to have done just enough to win at the death. But a monster late free from Derek Duggan handed the Rossies a lifeline and sent the game to a replay.
Donie Smith’s free may not have been as far out as Duggan’s was. But it was just as important, and it had just as much pressure attached to it.
Roscommon supporters of the mid-30s age bracket and upwards do not need to be reminded who won the replay that year. Roll on Bank Holiday Monday.