With the sun making an all too rare appearance in the skies over Ireland and grass beginning to grow again after a long winter, this year’s Connacht Championship is apon us.
At the start of the year Roscommon manager Kevin McStay set two goals for the team. One was to be competitive in Division 2 of the league and the other was to get to the new ‘Super 8’ series.
Aim number one was delivered in fine style and now Division 1 beckons in the spring of 2019. Aim number two will get underway on Saturday, May 26th with a Connacht semi-final showdown against Leitrim. So how are preparations going and where are Roscommon two weeks out from their championship debut?
Kevin sat down with Seamus Duke last Thursday evening to provide an update on preparations ahead of Roscommon’s Connacht title defence…
You were very disappointed with the outcome of the junior match against Mayo?
Oh I was disappointed. It didn’t work out the way we had hoped at all. It’s a setback if you want it to be that but the reality is that too many of the lads did not perform on the night and my sense is that we have left a provincial title behind us where a lot of young players would have been involved, wearing the Roscommon jersey. We also had a few guys coming back from injury as well who needed game time.
You have to take your hat off to Mayo: they kept at it and never gave up and they had a bit of luck at the end so I have to admit that we were disappointed because we put a bit into it. Our lads have been together for the last three months or so and there was a lot of experience there but the damning stat is that we had 11 goal chances and we got one. If you miss that many goal chances you will not win. But it is what it is, and we have to move on.
But the worst thing out of it is that Ultan Harney is out now for a number of weeks and that’s a terrible pity because he was just right after a long injury.
So are you happy with the Roscommon panel a couple of weeks out from the semi-final?
The whole idea about the panel for the championship this year was to get a look at the juniors in a number of games but that’s not an option now. We have to be realistic about it and some lads did not perform against Mayo and there are a number who will have to go back to their clubs now and wait for another year to see if they can come again. I will be sitting down with the selectors over the next couple of days and we will be reducing the panel to 30.
What’s the situation with the U-20s in the senior panel?
We had four players (for the junior game) from the U-20s: James Fetherstone, Ciaran Lennon, Aidan Dowd and Liam Cregg. They are all training with the U-20s since the league ended. The plan is that they stay with the U-20s and we think that is the right thing to do.
Does that mean that Ciaran Lennon will not be playing in the Connacht semi-final?
Yes. Almost certainly he will not be playing. Ciaran’s form has complicated matters to be honest. He played eight national league games and played well in them all. Even when he came on in the junior game he made a big difference.
So why not pick him for the Connacht semi-final? Surely we have to put out our best team in the senior championship, and he is one of our best senior players?
In fairness to Shane (Curran), if we take three of four of their best players and play them in the Leitrim match how would he feel? The U-20s’ Connacht final is the curtain-raiser to the Connacht senior final and Roscommon could be in that game. If Roscommon are not in that game then the situation is resolved. Look, we will monitor the situation as it evolves. My sense and Shane’s sense is that he should play with the U-20s.
So does Ciaran’s absence mean you are going to have to find a full-forward?
Yes we are but we have a lot of players on the senior panel who should be putting their hand up for that position now. Lads like Enda Smith and Shane Killoran for example and there are two or three more that we could play there as well.
I have to say that training is going superbly well. The lads couldn’t be doing any more to be honest. We have a few challenge games coming up so we will see who steps up now. Other lads like Cathal Cregg and Conor Daly are also there so we have plenty of options. Niall Daly is out for the Leitrim game and you can’t get too hung up about injuries. It’s part of the job. I am happy that we have about 24 players of an even enough standard at the moment.
Galway and Mayo will play in one of the biggest games in Connacht for many years on Sunday - what’s your view?
It’s a massive game. Galway are the form team but Mayo are an incredible team. This Mayo team are the best team never to win an All-Ireland, that’s for sure. Indeed that story may not be over yet. Every year we think they are gone they come roaring back.
My sense is that any team who lose their two best players are bound to struggle. Lee Keegan is out and Cillian O’Connor is very doubtful. It is hard to see where they can win it from but this Mayo team have proved that they are so resilient. I must say I can’t wait to go and see it.
But the great thing about this match is that it is a throwback to the past with a full house of 30,000 at a provincial venue. There is something magical about that. That might happen a bit more this year with the advent of the Super 8 and that’s what I am looking forward to. Those days in MacHale Park and Hyde Park years ago when the place was jammed were very special and I think we might be going back to that which is great.
So you are happy with the way preparations are going - taking into account that poor result for the junior team?
Yeah and we have to gear our training now for the Connacht semi-final and then be spot on for the Connacht final. It’s very simple. We have to win two championship games and then the whole season opens up for us after that. If we can do that and get into the Super 8 then we have had a great season.
You had some interesting things to say about the problems with finances and running a county team at the top level earlier this year. Has there been any progress on that issue?
The facts are that this county is a monstrous challenge. It’s down to simple mathematics. The amount of money that’s coming in is not enough to cover what’s going out to pay for the game at all levels. I would say Roscommon has the smallest budget of any county in the top two divisions but that’s where we’re at and we have to accept it. We are going into Division 1 next year and hopefully we will have a good summer this year but we simply cannot compete in terms if funding.
The whole financial model of the GAA will have to change. Croke Park are committing to change it, but that will be a slow burner and could take ten years. My view would be that if Croke Park want counties to be operating on a level playing field they could, for instance, pay the mileage and catering costs of every county in the country. That would give us the space here in Roscommon to operate without our hands tied behind our back. It would cost the GAA 8 to 10 million euros for the whole country. It would take people out of the hardship of trying to operate year in year out.
To be honest I don’t know how they operate in Roscommon. It’s a credit to them. We have a couple of great sponsors but it is very tough. We have 26 players in Dublin. Every time we bring them down the country for a training session it costs €1,000 for taxis alone. Just think about that. Club Rossie are doing a great job but the income is not there and that’s the reality.
Finally, you have said you have a feeling that this will be a huge year for the GAA. What do you make of the changes to competitions?
I do. There is massive change all coming together. We have the new club calendar which is very controversial as we have seen. We have the new grades at U-17 and U-20. The Super 8 and the round robin hurling are on the way too. We have seen the tight schedule for the league and how it was affected by the weather. This will be a year of firsts in the GAA and they are all coming together like a big wave. I think it could be incredibly exciting.
In our own game, if the Super 8 falls right in terms of results you could have situation where Roscommon are at home to Mayo or Dublin or Tyrone and that would be incredible. If a team won in Croke Park on match day one and were at home in match day two you could be looking at an All-Ireland semi-final. It’s very exciting. It would be massive if we were involved and that’s the aim. All the changes look very positive but of course it could go the other way too but we have to see how it goes to be honest.