The penalty followed, and that of course was a big momentum changer. Clare men grew in stature, and they were magnificent. Roscommon hearts must have been somersaulting out on that unforgiving stage
I don’t know how young Roscommon supporters felt last Saturday; for those of us who are not so young, the ghosts of past agonies didn’t just return…they danced, jeered and high-fived in front of the Roscommon faithful!
This disastrous defeat was as painful as any in living memory, right up there with the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Meath in 1991, and with a few Connacht final what-might-have-beens (1989 springs to mind).
To (drastically) paraphrase Oscar Wilde…to lose a big game in Croke Park to a last-minute goal may be regarded as a misfortune, to forfeit a five-point lead to an agonising comeback-by-instalments from the 68th minute of play looks like carelessness.
You know the narrative from Saturday. After playing poorly in the first half – with little intensity and hardly any leadership, Ciarain Murtagh apart – Roscommon took control in the second period. As resilient and honest as Clare were, Roscommon found the extra gears that had been missing, outscoring their opponents by 0-9 to 0-1 in a 30-minute spell. Five clear entering the 68th minute, they had redeemed themselves. The script which Clare enthusiastically toyed with had been patiently re-edited by Roscommon – and now read along more predictable lines.
Then, with Roscommon about to canter into the winner’s enclosure – albeit with a sense of great relief – a public mugging.
Clare’s late penalty will be labelled the key turning point, but much worse was the lapse that preceded it. The post-game narrative is that Clare never gave up, but as the game entered the 68th minute, I think they had begun to believe their race was run. Roscommon had possession deep in defence, five points up, ball in hand, support available, albeit with Clare pressing. Roscommon should have been able to play their way out, but hesitancy/lack of composure led to the unnecessary concession of a free. A five-point deficit late on must surely resemble a mountain; a four-point gap more of a scalable hill.
The penalty followed, and that of course was a big momentum changer. Clare men grew in stature, and they were magnificent. Roscommon hearts must have been somersaulting out on that unforgiving stage.
It will always be known as the game Roscommon lost from a position of being five in front with just over two minutes of normal time to go. And yet this shock defeat probably has as much to do with Roscommon’s weak first-half display as it does with the team’s so costly failure to close the game out.
Roscommon’s mostly lethargic efforts for the first 40 minutes or so must have given great belief to Clare. The favourites’ failure to grasp early control of the game – in a manner befitting their higher ranking – had to inspire Clare. Roscommon lacked leadership in that first half, their build-up play lacking pace and urgency, nervy players frequently making poor decisions. It was a relief that Clare only led by two at the half-time break (1-10 to 1-8).
If the 1st Act was an anti-climax for Roscommon (but a triumph for Clare) and the 3rd Act a drama and tragedy rolled into one, the 2nd Act was all about Cunningham’s team dominating the stage. Strange game!
To their credit, Roscommon steadied the ship with some conviction as that second half wore on. The ship had been rocking in that first half, but now Roscommon asserted control, and there were flashes of the quality that has seen the team seesaw between divisions one and two, while picking up two Connacht titles in recent years.
Roscommon were now more urgent, more intense, disrupting Clare, playing with pace and a growing confidence, a succession of points transforming the scoreboard. Suddenly, Roscommon were well on top, two, three, four, and then that fateful five clear. It felt like time to breathe.
All changed – disastrously – in a closing seven minutes that will haunt Roscommon GAA for a long time. Our players were so, so close to victory, and they must be hurting badly this week. But the harsh truth is that this public mugging was facilitated by its victims. Roscommon, given their Division One experience, and their greater knowledge of Croke Park, should have been able to close the game out. They have to be able to close such games out. If we can’t close out a game when five points up against a Division Two team, how can we aspire to close out a game if one or two points up against one of the top four or five teams in the country?
Clare deserve great credit of course, Keelan Sexton putting the penalty away beautifully, following up with a tremendous free, Jamie Malone then sealing the comeback with a fantastic point after he had shown the courage and initiative to create the decisive play, when others might have played possession football in the shadow of the ticking clock. Roscommon had a late chance, but by then they were shattered by the trauma of the seven-minute tsunami.
I feel sympathy for the players, who, when in sight of the winning line, were (in the words of their manager) “sucker-punched”. This is sport at its cruellest. But Roscommon really have only themselves to blame. Our lads must learn from this shattering experience. They’ll bounce back, of course, but this one will hurt for some time.