No place for Galway to Hyde in Roscommon
By JIM CARNEY
NOW we come to the real Connacht Football Championship.
Despite all the warnings to Sligo about slipping on a banana skin in New York in the opening fixture on May 6th, they came home with a 24-point win over the Exiles. It was ridiculously easy for Kevin Walsh’s team and privately it must be an embarrassment for the Connacht G.A.A. Council who had contributed a whopping €50,000 towards the cost of Sligo’s trans-Atlantic trip. The winners’ final score was the same as Roscommon’s last year (3-21 to 1-11), which may have had a bearing on the low attendance at Gaelic Park last Sunday week: 3,000. That figure will be more than doubled when Roscommon host the visit of Galway to Dr Hyde Park next Sunday (4.00 o’clock), with the prize a semi-final clash with Sligo on Saturday evening June 9th.
On the other side of the draw, Leitrim will be away to London on Sunday, June 3rd and the winner will play Mayo in the second of the semi-finals, on June 24th at McHale Park, Castlebar. The final will be played on Sunday, July 15th.
If Galway beat Roscommon next Sunday their match against Sligo will be played at Pearse Stadium, Salthill as the last time these counties met, in 2010, Sligo had the venue for a replay, which they won to qualify for the Connacht final against Roscommon. That year, the Nestor Cup was won by Roscommon; Mayo won it last year, so this year Galway will be striving to bridge a four-year gap since they last won the provincial crown, in 2008.
A Galway vs Mayo Connacht final this year would be played at Pearse Stadium. Last year, Mayo scored a 1-12 to 1-6 semi-final win at Castlebar.
Mayo are Connacht title-holders after beating Roscommon in last year’s final at Hyde Park, 0-13 to 0-11, and James Horan’s team are strongly fancied for back-to-back titles. Almost certainly they will be in the final as the draw has been remarkably kind to them. Galway, in contrast, would have to beat Roscommon and Sligo before Mayo even play their first match.
In its own right, Galway vs Roscommon is eagerly awaited and it could be an absorbing encounter. Down through the years it’s often been exciting without necessarily producing high-quality football, but that could be said of Championship matches in all four provinces.
The RTE cameras will be at Hyde Park on Sunday for live coverage of the first really big day in the Connacht Championship. This is a marvellous opportunity for the province to show it is not as weak as the National League positions suggest, with only one county (Mayo) in Division 1, one in Div. 2 (Galway), two in Division 3 (Roscommon and Sligo), and one in Div. 4 (Leitrim). London are also in Div. 4. New York do not participate in the National League.
There was disappointment at national level recently when Mayo failed to build on the promise of their League victories over Dublin and Kerry. Admittedly a third major scalp, Cork, was a tall order but Mayo’s second-half fadeout in the N.F.L. final must have given them a lot to think about in the build-up to the Championship. Are they really up there in the top tier along with Cork, Kerry and Dublin? It’s too early to answer that big question.
There’s no such discussion about Galway’s status. For too many years after 1998-2001, even in the final two years of the John O’Mahony era, Galway were overrated by many writers and pundits in the national media. It’s all of ten years since they were a major force, or feared by the top tier or even the second tier. Much was made of the spirited show against Kerry at Croke Park in the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-finals, and Michael Meehan’s 10-point blitz in that amazing game although pitted against no less a man than Marc O Se, but Kerry still won by five points (1-21 to 1-16) and were easing back down through the gears in the closing minutes.
Even with home advantage, Roscommon are not fancied to win next Sunday and their supporters are more hopeful than confident. They didn’t see much in the National League campaign to boost their hopes, winning four of their seven Division 3 games and finishing five points off table-toppers Longford and two below the second promoted county, Wexford. What made it bleak was the lack of quality in this division. Three counties at the wrong end of the table — Tipperary, Offaly and Cavan — were alarmingly poor.
It should be said, of course, that Roscommon went through the League without their St Brigid’s players, involved in the All-Ireland Club Championshbip. That was significant — Peter Domican, Karol Mannion, Cathal McHugh and Senan Kilbride are excellent players.
Galway had a mixed campaign in Division 2, finishing third on eight points from three wins and two draws; they defeated Derry (away), Meath (at home) and Monaghan (at Pearse Park, Longford); drew with Louth and Kildare, and lost to Westmeath and Tyrone. But all who were on record as claiming there wasn’t much difference between Divisions 1 and 2 were wrong in my opinion: Derry and Meath were very poor; it was a struggle for Monaghan all through; Louth and Westmeath won’t be major contenders in the Leinster Championship, and even Kildare made heavy weather of surviving at Pearse Stadium, in a game that looked over as a contest at half-time. That left Tyrone, who could easily have lost to Galway at Tuam Stadium. It was predictable that Tyrone and Kildare would be promoted but Galway should have held on in the closing minutes against Kildare; they must defend better in the Championship and one man who I believe performed in the League this year a little below his usual high standard is captain Finian Hanley — he will carry a big burden of responsibility in the clash with Roscommon, against Senan Kilbride and Donal Shine.
High-fielding Michael Finneran will be Roscommon’s main man in the middle of the pitch but Galway will be able to cope with his height in the aerial exchanges if they stick to the midfield pairing of Joe Bergin and Greg Higgins.
Team selection for this game is a bigger test for new Galway manager Alan Mulholland and his assistnts Alan Flynn and Donal O Fatharta than it was at any stage of the National League campaign, and the same could be said of the task facing new Roscommon manager Des Newton and his assistants Enon Gavin and Ian Daly.
I AM TOLD by Roscommon sources that their main worries are about their defence; they simply don’t believe their backs will hold the Galway forwards, even if Padraic Joyce and Michael Meehan don’t start. A fit-again Seán Armstrong would worry them too, for he scored a cracking goal against Roscommon in the 2006 Connacht Championship, at Hyde Park, That was a crazy kind of game: Galway didn’t open their account until the 37th minute (a Padraic Joyce point); the Rossies led 0-6 to 0-1 at the interval, but Galway put in a good second-half display and goals by Seán Armstrong, Michael Meehan and Derek Savage helped them to a 3-7 to 1-8 victory.
That, incidentally, was the 50th Championship match between Galway and Roscommon, and the result gave Galway a 28-18 lead on the Roll of Honour. They made it 29-18 in 2008. By then Liam Sammon had taken over as manager from Peter Ford and Galway won at Pearse Stadium by 2-16 to Roscommon’s 0-6.
It’s fascinating to reflect on how Galway met Roscommon twice in 1998 and twice in 2001 on the road to Croke Park. In the twists of turns of 2001 in particular, there should have been more sympathy for Roscommon — a bad system meant they could win the Connacht Championship, which they did with sensational victories over Galway (at Tuam Stadium) and Mayo with Gerry Lohan’s dramatic late goal, almost five minutes into injury-time, but despite those heroics Ros’ did not get the opportunity to play at Croke Park. Remarkably, in the first year of the “back door” format they were drawn to play Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final at a neutral venue: Castlebar. Galway won it with surprising ease, 0-14 to 1-5, with Michael Donnellan Man of the Match.
In 1998 it finished in a draw at Tuam Stadium in the Connacht final, 0-11 to 0-11, and Galway won an epic replay at Hyde Park, after extra-time: 1-17 to 0-17. The rest is history.
It should be Galway again this year but even with a young team they must stand up and fight if it comes to a battle. Defeat would be a huge setback. For Galway, there will be no place to hide at the Hyde.