HERE’S SOMETHING people often forget: in 1998, the year a truly great Galway side won the county’s first All-Ireland in 32 years, the only team to get within three points of them that summer was not Kildare or Derry or Mayo, but Roscommon – who did it twice.
Coming into that year’s Connacht final, John O’Mahony’s Tribesmen were expected to win well. It was already clear to those paying attention that they were a team of immense forward potential; of Fallon and Finnegan and Donnellan and Joyce.
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The game was in Tuam and Roscommon were only playing in it after coming from seven points down late on to draw against Sligo, before beating them by just a point in the replay. Roscommon were a solid side but with nothing like the big names available to the home side.
But the teams drew, 0-11 each – Roscommon people still talk of some questionable refereeing – and even though the replay was in Dr Hyde Park, most assumed there would be no mistake from Galway this time.
But with 28,000 packed into the old ground, the game live on TV and the competition knock-out, Roscommon were in no mood for turning. Damien Donlon held Padraig Joyce scoreless from play and Eddie Lohan kicked eight points, including the 71st-minute free that left the sides level again.
The turning point came almost 160 minutes into the two-game contest, when keeper Derek Thompson – superb up to that – made a mistake and Michael Donnellan goaled to put Galway five ahead in the second period of extra-time. Even then, the bloody-mindedness of Gay Sheerin’s team was something to behold – they cut the gap from five to two before a Donnellan point finally quietened them.
Emerging from Roscommon town with the Nestor Cup that evening was about as easy as winning a tree branch from a particularly stubborn Rottweiler, and it is more or less accepted that managing to do it was the making of O’Mahony’s team.
There is a lot of hope and talk invested in the current Roscommon team. These past three seasons, their U-21 team has been beaten by the eventual All-Ireland champions, which is a concrete embellishment on the All-Ireland minor title of 2006. There is the Connacht title of 2010, won in an ambush on a Sligo team that had beaten Mayo and Galway. And there is the look of potency when you write the names Cregg, Kilbride and Shine in a line on a piece of paper that has led some of the more excitable in our midst to label them the “best forwards in Connacht”.
It is not that most Roscommon people got carried away, but they had reason to believe their team would at least be highly competitive, that beatings of the type they received in Castlebar in 2009 would not be relived.
So in many ways, Sunday’s 3-15 to 0-10 loss represented a worse experience, because it was so wholly unexpected.
There were tactical deficiencies. Roscommon’s problems in midfield had been flagged during the league, so to lose Michael Finneran early was unwelcome, and Joe Bergin needed no further encouragement to dominate that sector from there to the finish.
Galway’s half-forward line, which looked like it had been picked to win ball rather than wreak creative havoc, ended up doing both. At sea in the middle, it was little surprise that the Rossies struggled at both ends. Niall Carty was left to suffer as Paul Conroy delivered his best display yet in a Galway jersey; and if Roscommon have had three good U-21 teams running, we were reminded that Galway had a great one last year, when Mark Hehir rattled in the first goal.
At the far end, Finian Hanley completely eclipsed Senan Kilbride. More surprising was the ease with which debutant Keith Kelly did the same to Donie Shine, though it had as much to do with Shine’s awful shooting as Kelly’s determined defending. Both of Roscommon’s much-vaunted inside men looked disinterested by the end, their confidence long since bolted.
It is easy when a team is hammered to attack the star forwards, but that duo were far from alone in appearing to throw in the towel. While it was beautiful to watch Padraig Joyce and Michael Meehan add the grace notes late on, there was also something bogus about it; the truth was that, in a championship match on their own ground, a Roscommon football team had given up.
Indeed, from the time of Galway’s brilliant second goal by Conroy, Cathal Cregg was the only Roscommon player to offer meaningful defiance, the only one whose reputation looked warranted.
It is clear that Alan Mulholland has the materials and the know-how to build another fine Galway team, but he will know that Galway are unlikely to have the time or space to build such a mass of pretty scores again this summer.
Roscommon can change several things as they go about reconstructing the work they thought that Fergal O’Donnell had completed. They can alter tactics by bringing extra men back to aid a shaky defence; they can alter personnel by introducing more U-21s.
None of it will matter if their attitude and work-rate is as embarrassingly bad as it was on Sunday. If Des Newton is to steer his side clear of another horrific beating by the first good team they meet in the qualifiers, he must first rekindle the spirit of 98.