Monday, March 14, 2011

Beware, Beware the Ross on the Rise

Michael Foley of the Sunday Times is one of today’s best GAA journalists, but he was wrong to write a fortnight ago that this year’s Connacht Championship would not be a good one. It may prove one of the all-time greats.

It seems an article of faith in the national media that Connacht is a two horse race, just as Munster is. Foley went a step further, by suggesting that Galway’s current and undeniable decline is a reflection of a fuller provincial malaise.

Michael Foley is wrong. Galway are in decline, certainly, and it’s hard to see how they’ll turn it around by the summer. They’re bunched. But Connacht is bigger than Galway alone.

Leitrim welcome the return of Emlyn Mulligan and with him around they are always a threat if they don’t get scutched at the back. No team has more to prove than Sligo after calving in Connacht Final last year. Mayo aren’t too bad but Roscommon is the team that An Spailpín is keeping a close eye on this year. The primrose and blue have a lean and hungry look, and it’s not just coming from spending too much time at one of Luke Flanagan’s clinics.

The two horse race analogy was never correct in the first place. Roscommon teams are not the strangers to September that analogy would have you believe. Roscommon have not as many Nestor Cups as Mayo or Galway, but they have more provincial football titles than the four Munster counties who aren’t Cork or Kerry combined.

The backdoor works against Roscommon, and it’s possible that their missing decade was due to psychological damage after being the first real victims of the back door. Being managed by Tommy “Tom” Carr didn’t help either, of course.

But that was then and this is now. A veteran St Brigid’s team will face Crossmaglen in the All-Ireland Club Final on St Patrick’s Day, hoping to go one better than the Clann na Gael teams of the early ‘nineties. An unrated Roscommon Under-21 team dogged out a win over a very highly rated Mayo Under-21 team in Castlebar on Saturday. And the Roscommon golden generation that won the minor All-Ireland title in 2006 is being skilfully woven into the senior side by Fergal O’Donnell, who managed them to that win in 2006.

Roscommon are playing Division 4 football now, of course, and can’t afford a slip-up as they fight for promotion. They haven’t slipped so far, and An Spailpín Fánach can’t get it out of his head that winning against Fermanagh and Longford in the League can’t be all bad – not least in comparison to losing against Mayo, Kerry and whoever else shows up as Galway are currently doing.

The national media may not be aware of the sound of drums along the shores of Lough Ree, but Connacht is. Not least in Mayo. People talk about border rivalries in football – Mayo has the greatest border rivalry of all, as the Ballaghderreen club isn’t even on the border. It’s six miles behind enemy lines.

Heart is mentioned in the Roscommon county motto – the constant heart of Ireland. An Spailpín Fánach knows of no prouder county, and can only imagine how O’Donnell and the rest of the Roscommon brains trust are mixing the scalding hurt of the past ten years with the still-bright memories of the great Roscommon teams of the past to make a very potent football potion.

Mayo will not run scared of Roscommon. There are garments being rendered at the prospect of relegation after defeats to Kerry and Armagh currently of course, but there is no life outside the high summer in the GAA now. Mayo have had some good under-age teams too.

But while Mayo will not run scared of Roscommon, they certainly won’t be thinking they only have to show up to beat them. Not least in Ballaghderreen, where the smoking altars to their strange and pagan Roscommon gods, Kee-gahn, J’gerr, Muh-ree and the rest remind the Mayo faithful that Roscommon are on the rise again.