Bandwagon rolling again for Minors

The bandwagon is rolling again. The story sounds familiar. In 2006 Roscommon’s minor footballers began their Connacht championship against a very fancied Galway side. However that Saturday evening in Hyde Park was the start of a never-to-be-forgotten journey that brought us to Castlebar, Tullamore and Croke Park (twice) and of course to Ennis.   When the celebrations were over and the Tom Markham Cup was left with David Flynn after travelling tens of thousands of miles around Roscommon and to other towns and cities here and abroad wherever Roscommon fans were gathered, the minor championship of 2007 was looming. What would Roscommon be like the year after they won the All-Ireland? Could we keep up the standard or was 2006 a one-off?   No-one was sure but there was good news at the start of the year when Fergal O’Donnell and his selectors agreed to stay on. They would give it another lash. The management team who performed so many miracles on the line last year was in place again but would the players respond like they did last year – after all, it a different year a different team?   There was a change of championship format too. Roscommon (the All-Ireland champions) would have to battle it out with Sligo and Leitrim for the right to play the big two, Mayo and Galway. The matches were to be held before the Leaving Cert. Fergal and the selectors were not happy but they hade to play with the hand they were dealt.   Roscommon stuttered through the Connacht Minor League. They were hammered by Mayo and Galway. Niall Carty and Donie Shine -two of the most influential players on the team and All-Ireland medal holders – were out with long-term injuries.   Roscommon took to the field against Leitrim and almost lost the game at Hyde Park. Cusack Park in Ennis looked a distant memory as Roscommon had to battle hard to get a draw. However the signs were better in the second game against Sligo when Roscommon won rather comfortably. However it was Mayo next. As they say down this neck of the woods  – ‘a horse of a different colour altogether.’   Fergie and his players prepared quietly. They had a game plan. The injury situation was not improving much but the players were coming into shape. Mayo were the red-hot favourites to advance to the Connacht final and to avenge last year’s final defeat. We know what happened. Roscommon played as good a football as they have done at this level in any game over the past two years to brush aside the highly-fancied Mayomen to sweep into a second Connacht decider in a row. The bandwagon was back in business. It was a mighty performance and now the other Connacht big gun – Galway – lies in wait at Hyde Park on Sunday next (throw-in at 12.10 pm). Fergal O’Donnell has been there before. The path is familiar. The preparations are just as meticilous as they were last year.  The words are just as cautious too. It’s a routine that has served Roscommon well.   ‘Look Seamus, we played very well on the day against Mayo but the facts are that it was a semi-final and we have nothing won at all yet. We were delighted to win sure enough  but we  are into the Connacht final – that’s all’ Fergie told me.    ‘We are not playing it down. The Mayo game was a big knockout game and we trained very hard for it. Everything went very well on the day and Mayo were a bit unlucky. They had a bad day and we had a good day. That’s the way it goes in football. We knew that if we won that game it would keep the lads playing football until the end of July at least and that’s a great reward for the players on the panel who have worked so hard for the past six months. There is no big secret really. Hard work and a bit of luck is what it’s all about.’   Fergie is expecting a massive challenge from Galway. ‘Their record in recent years is phenomenal. They have won four out of the last five Connacht titles. They have loads of quality young players. They hammered us in the Connacht Minor League and I can tell you we were trying that day so we know that we are going to have to raise our game substantially from the Mayo game if we are to be in with a chance of winning.    ‘Galway have several top class forwards in particular. They seem to be able to come up with natural forwards all the time and they have some really top class players this year too. Players like Conroy, Martin and Ryan. We will have to play really well if we are to hold those guys’ he said.   On the injury front things are improving – but slowly. ‘Donie Shine is progressing slowly but he took a knock since the Mayo match and is still not fully fit. Niall Carty played only eight minutes against Mayo so we hope he can progress too. Jack Sharkey is improving too and we hope he will be ready to be considered for selection but apart from that we are ok’ he says.    Playing in Hyde Park in a Connacht final will be a dream come true for a lot of the players according to the Boyle-based garda.   ‘It’s brilliant to be playing a Connacht final in Hyde Park. Every young footballer in Roscommons dreams of playing in a Connacht final in the Hyde and these lads are no different. That having been said Galway will have a huge following on the day because their seniors are playing too so I hope that the  Roscommon fans can come in force to cheer us on. Maybe  the Sligo followers will cheer us on too!’ he said.    Fergal was quick to praise the role played by the members of the team that figured in last  year’s team – all of whom played really well against Mayo in the semi-final.   ‘I would expect that lads playing on the minor team for the second year in a row would show leadership and fair play to all those lads they were excellent the last day but as I said before they will have to do even more against Galway if we are to win.’  In the typical no-nonsense fashion that has served him so well over the past 18 months Fergal was non-commital about the possible outcome of Sunday’s final.   ‘We will prepare hard and we will be all out to win. Our total focus will be on  this Connacht final, nothing else. If we play well and have a bit of luck then we will win. That’s all I can say. We are not looking at the back door. We want to win this title’ concluded Fergal.   That was it – a quick ‘thanks Dukie’ and he was off. Duty done. Media interviews are a real pain in the ass but Fergal realises that it’s all part of the job. It’s something he probably doesn’t like doing but like everything else the big man does, he sets aside time to make sure you get what you want. His friendliness betrays a steely determination to succeed and who is to say that Roscommon will not be the victors against Galway again this weekend.   A lot of people have asked me what is Fergie’s secret and how is it that  can he connect so well with his players. I cannot answer that question. If I could then I would not be sitting at a typewriter. I would be patrolling the sidelines. However I can tell you one story that might shed some light on why Fergie has been so successful as a team manager.    When he was in his last year at U-21 level I was one of those who was managing the Gaels U-21 football team. We were playing an important game in the championship in Ballyforan. We were in trouble at half-time. Myself and the other selectors talked to the team at half-time doing our best to get a better effort out of the players in the second half. Before the team went back on the field Fergal spoke to the players. He said more in two minutes than we had said in the previous 15! Even at that stage he was showing serious leadership qualities.   Roscommon made history last year by lifting the Tom Markham Cup. They can make history again this Sunday by winning the Connacht minor title for the second year in a row for the first time in the county’s history. I know Fergal would want to play that down but it would be some achievement. Sunday will tell the tale.