Photo: Irish Times
No Monday morning theatrics were required this time to learn our next opponents in what, by any measure, has become a rather amazing championship campaign for us. No sooner than had our collective heart rates begun to stabilise on Saturday evening but it was already apparent that Galway were in the process of whipping Donegal. That outcome sent them off to face the Kerrymen, ushering Roscommon in our direction.
Before running the rule over the Rossies, it’s worth pausing to consider the comedy value of Galway having the decisive part to play in who we would face next weekend. Having targeted our match and succeeded in tipping us into the qualifier abyss for a second successive year the Tribesmen then took their eyes off the ball and get thumped by Roscommon.
So no Connacht title for them and no handy All-Ireland quarter-final (like, lest anyone forget, they had last year) either. Instead, it was Kerry or elimination for them last Saturday, knowing that if they won they’d divert us away from a possible last eight showdown with the Kingdom and onto a meeting with the Rossies.
I don’t know about the rest of you but I find how all that has worked out to be rather amusing. The joke could, I know, yet be on us – we might beat the Rossies, then lose to a Galway team now with rampant self-belief having taken Kerry out in the quarters or, indeed, we might lose to the Rossies. So, stop that sniggering and let’s have a look at what the Sheepstealers have been up to of late.
Photo: Irish Independent
Winning Connacht, that’s what. Kevin McStay’s side annexed the county’s 21st Nestor Cup win, their first since 2010, after executing a pitch-perfect ambush on Galway in the provincial final at Salthill earlier this month.
They won that one by an impressive nine points (2-15 to 0-12), having thrashed Leitrim by 2-23 to 1-9 in the semi-final at Hyde Park last month. Those are the only two matches the Rossies have played in this year’s championship. Saturday’s showdown, by contrast, will be our sixth outing of the summer.
The sparkling summer form showed by the neighbours contrasts greatly with how they fared in this year’s League campaign. To understand this, though, you need to go back to last year and see what befell them then.
Back in 2016, the newly-promoted Rossies were the talk of the town in the early rounds of the League. The if-the-All-Stars-were-picked-now brigade no doubt had plenty of primrose and blue in their March line-up and when they rolled into Hyde Park to face us in Round 6 at the end of that month the Sheepstealers’ tails were certainly up.
Not only were Roscommon all but assured of a play-off place at that stage but a win over us would relegate us, ending our two decade sojourn in the League’s top tier. Instead, we bossed them and Kerry then beat them out the gate in the League semi-final, to end their spring on a sour note.
They then had a near-death encounter with New York over in Gaelic Park in the preliminary round of the Connacht championship. Having survived that one and with ourselves and Galway on the other side of the Connacht draw, a clear path to the provincial final opened up for them. Victories over Leitrim and a topsy-turvy one over Sligo got them there.
The drawn Connacht final against Galway was a case of caution on steroids and maybe if the Rossies had shown the kind of invention they displayed this year they’d have claimed the spoils then. In the replay the following weekend, however, they shipped an absolute hiding and their summer implosion ended six days later in Round 4 qualifier defeat to Clare.
As we well know, it’s very hard to remain competitive in both League and championship. It’s even harder for counties with smaller playing numbers. Going great guns in the League might be good for loose talk among the more excited end of your supporter base but, as Roscommon found out last year and Kildare did too before them, giving it socks in the spring can really come back to bite you in the summer.
Kevin McStay’s decision to tailor their 2017 preparation differently was, for sure, brave – not least in light of the imbecilic criticism levelled at him by Gay Sheerin this spring – but it was also completely necessary. I think it’s fair to conclude that the Rossies wouldn’t be looking at a big day out in Croke Park this coming weekend if Kevin – and his back room partner Liam McHale – hadn’t opted to sacrifice the League with the aim of doing better in the summer.
Roscommon’s League campaign this year was, for sure, a tough one. They ended up rooted to the bottom of the table, losing six of the seven games they played and heading back to Division Two after two years in the top flight.
The six defeats came in a straight sequence. First it was a 0-18 to 1-9 loss to Tyrone up in Healy Park, then an unlucky 0-16 to 2-9 reversal against Donegal at Hyde Park.
At first glance, our 1-19 to 0-14 win over them in Round 3 at MacHale Park in late February could be viewed as a facile one. But recall that David Clarke was our MOTM in that one, preventing a number of clear goal-scoring chances as the Rossies repeatedly carved open our backline.
We won by eight at the finish that night – our second win over them this year, having pulled off a truly hilarious smash-and-grab FBD victory over them down at Kiltoom in January (style on you, Andy!) – but that match wasn’t as easy for us as the scoreline suggests.
That win hoisted us briefly to the top of Division One, plunging the Rossies to the bottom. Things didn’t get any better for them in Round 4 either, though they gave Kerry a decent enough rattle at Hyde Park before going under by 1-19 to 1-13.
Round 5 brought another defeat, this one a dispiriting 2-17 to 1-13 loss to Monaghan up in Iniskeen, that lovely venue tucked away in Kavanagh Country, with those nice green and red seats in the little stand. There was nothing lovely or nice about Round 6 for Roscommon either, as they suffered an unmerciful flailing by Dublin at Croke Park. It was that 2-29 to 0-14 hammering that also consigned them to Division Two football next spring.
Relieved of the burden of battling against the drop, though, the Rossies rallied in Round 7. We were facing Donegal ourselves that day, knowing that if we failed to get a win then we’d be looking to the neighbours to bail us out by getting a result over Cavan, which would relegate the Breffni County.
As events transpired that April Sunday we didn’t need that get-out-of-jail card. But the Rossies produced it all the same, beating Cavan by 1-13 to 1-10 at Hyde Park, to end their League campaign on a positive note.
They’ve come on in leaps and bounds since then, tailoring their short Connacht campaign to perfection and they’re now back again with the big boys in Croke Park. It’s a place in the shake-up that they fully deserve.
So now they face us for what will be the first time in the championship since 2014. That meeting took place in the Connacht semi-final at Hyde Park when, under John Evans, they came very close to pulling off what would have been an enormous upset. We had Andy Moran to thank for our survival that day, the Ballaghman coming off the bench to guide us out of a very tricky spot.
What, I wonder, are their feelings about playing us now, this time in the All-Ireland quarter-final? Back in 2001, Roscommon were put in a similar position when, having won the provincial title, they then had to face Connacht opposition in the quarters.
That meeting, in the first year of the current championship structure, remains the only all-Connacht one in the All-Ireland Series. Roscommon, fresh from mugging us to claim the Nestor Cup, found all their newly-minted provincial happiness washed away when Galway upset their apple-cart in the quarters, beating them by 0-14 to 1-5 at MacHale Park.
Buoyed by their latest provincial win, it’s not in any way outrageous to claim that the Rossies will feel a tinge of déjà vu at the prospect of once again facing a Connacht team in the All-Ireland Series. It would, in truth, be hard for them not to, even if this is a very different time and they can, with justification, claim to be a very different team.
But what they won’t be able to avoid is how this contest will inevitably be billed as the real Connacht final. Win it and, for sure, they’re top dogs in the province and, I know, we’ll never hear the end of it. But lose it – how would they feel about their 21st Nestor Cup win then?
And lose it is what the bookies expect them to do. Paddy Power have us priced at 4/11 to win on Sunday with the Rossies on offer at 3/1 – match odds here. It’d be a brave punter, I accept, to stake the farm on us at those odds but, if they fancy a walk on the wild side, that’s the tariff on offer for doing so.
Forget about the money, though – let’s end this one by speaking to the heart (if it’s still functioning properly after last Saturday). How do you reckon we’ll do against the Rossies?
Will we beat the Rossies?
- Yes (78%, 979 Votes)
- No (22%, 271 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,250