Devastated Cunningham: “We were sucker-punched”
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers (Round 2) Clare 2-15 Roscommon 1-17
Anthony Cunningham declined to comment on his future as Roscommon manager when he spoke of his team’s “bitter disappointment” over Saturday’s dramatic defeat to Clare at Croke Park.
Roscommon lost a five-point lead in the closing minutes and would now be preparing for an All-Ireland quarter-final against Derry had they succeeded in closing the game out when in sight of the winning line.
An ashen-faced Cunningham said his team had been “sucker-punched” but openly admitted that conceding a late 1-3 when seemingly in complete control was “unacceptable”.
“We brought energy back into our game, we used our subs well, and lads who were out there and (whom) we replaced, they had thrown everything at it. We were in a really good driving position, but to cough up that amount of scores is unacceptable”.
The manager rejected any suggestion that team selection or tactics or lack of effort made any contribution to a devastating exit from the championship.
“It’s a game we should have closed out. It’s not that guys didn’t try hard enough, or that the selection was wrong, or the tactics were wrong. In a game of such magnitude, you have to close out a game like that”.
A superb point from wing-back Jamie Malone in the 4th minute of injury-time gave Clare this sensational victory against a shell-shocked Roscommon in this second round qualifier played at Croke Park last Saturday.
It completed a comeback that scarcely seemed possible when Roscommon looked to be cruising into the quarter-finals, leading by five points (1-17 to 1-12) after 66 minutes of play. However, Colm Collins’ men stuck to their task and pulled off one of the greatest victories in Clare’s history.
In contrast, this was one of the most galling defeats for Roscommon in recent memory and brought back memories of the nightmare of Enniskillen in 2015 when Roscommon also relinquished a handsome lead only to get caught at the death by Fermanagh.
How Roscommon were not able to hold on to the lead they had built up will have to be front and centre of any postmortem after this disastrous defeat. After a positive start to the year with a league campaign that led to promotion to Division One, the season’s momentum has been disastrously reversed with a couple of calamitous performances in the championship.
With Division One looming in February, the team will have to hit the ground running. Whatever management is in place will have some job on their hands to lift the players and supporters after this one.
There were two changes on the starting 15 with Niall Kilroy coming in for Donie Smith and Diarmuid Murtagh replacing the injured Cathal Heneghan.
Indeed the inclusion of the St Faithleach’s man looked to have paid instant dividends when Murtagh fisted a Conor Cox high ball into the Clare net in the 6th minute. But, instead of Roscommon gaining a lift from that score, it was Clare who were the better side for most of the first half.
Cathal O’Connor was winning a lot of ball in the middle of the field, while Keelan Sexton, Podge Collins and Emmet McMahon were giving the Roscommon defence a torrid time with their clever runs and accurate passing.
In the 18th minute Sexton scrambled home a goal after a great run and pass from Russell. ‘The Banner’ led 1-10 to 1-6 by the 33rd minute. Roscommon’s play was ponderous and tentative (as we had seen in the Connacht final) as they were largely outplayed during the first half.
However, points from Diarmuid Murtagh (free) and Niall Kilroy in injury-time meant that there was only two points between the teams at half-time, 1-10 to 1-8. For Roscommon to be only two adrift having played so poorly was one positive to take to the dressing room.
Roscommon played by far their best football in the third quarter and they looked to have shaken off the shackles as they drove forward. Sexton did open the scoring for Clare with a free in the 36th minute, but in just under half an hour Roscommon then outscored their opponents by 0-9 to 0-1.
Ciarain Murtagh was superb and subs Richard Hughes and Donie Smith were also prominent, while Ronan Daly kicked two great points. When Ciarain Murtagh pointed a free in the 66th minute Roscommon led by 1-17 to 1-12. A place in the quarter-finals beckoned.
Eoin Cleary’s pointed free in the 67th minute didn’t look like it would have any effect on proceedings, but a minute later Clare staged a dangerous attack involving Sexton, Cleary and sub Gavin Cooney. Ronan Daly pulled Cooney back and Sexton sent Colm Lavin the wrong way with the resultant spot-kick. The game was back in the melting pot.
The board showed five minutes of injury-time and Clare now had the bit between their teeth. Sexton sent over a superb long-range free from 48 metres to level the game in the 71st minute. Ciarain Murtagh had a free from a difficult angle that was off target, the scores remaining level.
Then sub David Tubridy set up Jamie Malone for a booming point from 40 metres. Unbelievably, Clare were ahead. Roscommon desperately needed a score from somewhere and in the dying seconds Andy Glennon had a chance from 30 metres but the ball drifted wide. It was all over. Clare had completed one of the most unlikely comebacks seen at the famous old stadium in many a long day.
The final whistle saw the Clare players celebrate ecstatically as they knew they had pulled off an astounding win, while shocked Roscommon players slumped to the turf in the knowledge that this was a game that they had effectively won, only to let the prize slip through their fingers in those incredible final few minutes.
Ciarain Murtagh, Colm Lavin, Ultan Harney, Ronan Daly, Diarmuid Murtagh and subs Richard Hughes and Donie Smith impressed most on a day in Croke Park that Roscommon will want to forget.