With ten minutes of Sunday’s engrossing game remaining, I looked down on the pitch with a kind of contented resignation – observing Roscommon’s pitiful plight – and I was pretty sure of what I saw: that there, I said to myself, is what an impossible situation looks like.
All afternoon, Roscommon had shown great heart, skill and work ethic to stay in touch with what the man behind me called “the second best team in Ireland”. But now fate had intervened, and we had moved from aspirations of actual (and unlikely) victory to expectation of moral victory only. But it would be okay, a ‘what might have been’ day, because what we saw on the pitch with ten minutes remaining was like an advertisement for a GAA-inspired version of ‘Mission: Impossible’.
Entering the critical final phase of the game – against a streetwise Monaghan side which had growing momentum – Roscommon suddenly had two players sin-binned. So, thirteen Roscommon men against fifteen Monaghan men; it ought to have been as perilous as a boxer dropping his fists and jutting his chin out in front of a primed opponent.
And, within a minute or so, it was pretty perilous…ominously, Monaghan players were galloping forward into open spaces, poised to ruthlessly finish this job, with the newly outnumbered Roscommon men chasing space and white shirts, desperately trying to defy geometry and prevent the seemingly inevitable.
It looked bleak, to say the least. How could thirteen Roscommon men beat fifteen Monaghan men in these closing minutes, especially given the latter’s momentum and greater experience?
If the second half was a fiery thriller, the first half had been decent too. “Is that the Kerryman?” a supporter behind me asked as Conor Cox prepared to take a free in the opening minutes.
It was the Kerryman. And, going forward, he should be known as ‘the Roscommon man’.
As a sportsman seeking out a home, Cox had become a human rubik’s cube…solvable yes, but only after much patience and many twists and turns. His transfer from Kerry to Roscommon (the home county of his father, Martin) was a bureaucratic rollercoaster, the player himself metaphorically sitting in the waiting room with his boots on.
On Sunday, Cox was finally granted access to the stage, and all eyes were on him. The completion of the complicated process of making Cox available to play for Roscommon was timely, given Donie Smith’s absence.
That first free drifted wide, but the story was only starting. Cox found his range, and Roscommon put in a very good opening 35 minutes against the highly-rated visitors.
To a man, the home defence was superb. Roscommon players displayed tremendous workrate in everything they did…tackling with intensity, winning turnovers, then retaining possession with confidence…an assured game plan revealing itself. The only disappointment was that a few very scoreable opportunities weren’t availed of. One in particular went ‘abegging’, Rory Beggan denying Roscommon a goal with a sharp save from Evan McGrath.
The second half was up there with the best we’ve seen in years. When Monaghan brought in Conor McManus, and then scored three quick points to erase Roscommon’s lead, it was straight from the pre-match script: ‘A game Roscommon hold Monaghan at bay for 40-50 minutes, before the Ulster men pull away’. But Roscommon hung in there, the outcome in the balance. Then the referee brandished two black cards, Conor Cox and Tadhg O’Rourke both sin-binned in quick succession. Absolute disaster. Suddenly, thirteen Roscommon men trying to prevent the dam from falling. It seemed a lost cause, one that would be lost with dignity. Roscommon players dug about as
deep as men in peril can dig.
With Monaghan a point ahead, Roscommon summomed up an attack on the left. A long, deep ball was fielded by Ultan Harney. His march was halted. Penalty. Hearts in mouths. The All-Star goalkeeper stood, imposing, between Roscommon and some crazy scent of glory. Enda Smith’s superb penalty sent Beggan the wrong way. Wrong at least for Beggan. Now, the atmosphere in the stands was reminiscent of championships of old. Anger rippled through the stands, supporters of both counties sounding off at the referee, the opposition, the football Gods. Roscommon were two up, but there had been so much ‘incident’ in the fourth quarter, we knew that prolonged ‘additional time’ was a certainty.
Monaghan closed it to one. High tension. Great stuff. With the ball nowhere near them, Monaghan’s Stephen O’Hanlon and Roscommon’s Evan McGrath tussled below us. Then, a chorus of condemnation from the Roscommon crowd…McGrath on the flat of his back. Referee Sean Hurson red-carded the Monaghan man. A Ciaran McManus free levelled the scores. The sin-bin emptied, Roscommon had fifteen again. ‘The Kerryman’ is no shirker of responsibility; Conor Cox wants the ball every time. A great free from his boot put Roscommon back in front. What drama! The man from the waiting room was centre stage. Deep into time added on, Ronan Daly charged forward and fisted over the bar. Roscommon 1-12 Monaghan 0-13. A remarkable victory. Mission: Daunting, but possible!