Hail the champions!

Hail the champions! National Hurling League Division 3 Final Roscommon 1-13 Sligo             0-15 Seamus Duke  Roscommon hurlers are the new Allianz National Hurling League Division 3 champions but they were made fight all the way by a very determined Sligo side who were unlucky not to have secured at least a draw in this competitive curtain-raiser played at Kingspan Breffni Park last Sunday.   Roscommon just survived in the end but were pressed all the way by Sligo who were the rank outsiders coming into the game. However it must be said that Roscommon were hit in the 8th minute with the totally unfair sending off of influential full-forward David Loughnane and as a consequence they struggled badly for the rest of the first half and it was only when manager David McConn sent in Colm Kelly to full-forward early in the second half that the tide began to turn in Roscommon’s favour. Nevertheless despite being given a massive fright by Sligo Roscommon have achieved the first part of their two main objectives for the season – to win Division 3 of the league.    The next aim is to win the Nicky Rackard Cup but even the most committed Roscommon hurling fan will know that a lot of hard work will be needed before that can be achieved, but that’s for another day.   For the moment Roscommon players and management can be happy enough having won the league with relatively little fuss. However it’s a fact that Roscommons hurling stock had fallen to a very low level prior to this campaign and it will be a long hard road back to where we were in the 1980s and ’90s.   Breffni Park was in splendid shape for this final and Sligo were first to score when the brilliant Keith Raymond was on target with a free from his own half within 50 seconds. Raymond was to prove a thorn in Roscommon’s side all through and his return of ten points throughout is a testament to that.   Then in the 8th minute disaster struck for Roscommon. Sligo full-back Fergus Hayes and Roscommon full-forward David Loughnane became involved in a tussle off the ball that was certainly started by the Sligo man but when referee Pat Greene came on the scene he only saw Loughnane barging into Hayes in retaliation and he promptly gave the Roscommon man a straight red card which was grossly unfair. After that it was an unhill battle for David McConn’s men.   Mervyn Connaughton and Shane Sweeney (2) pointed to keep Roscommon on level terms at 3 points apiece by the 15th minute but thereafter the Yeats County took over and Raymond displayed his considerable array of skills. The young Sligo midfielder knocked over five mighty points without reply to give his side an 0-8 to 0-3 lead by the 26th minute. Those points included two sideline cuts knocked over from opposite sides of the field which were a joy to behold.   Roscommon were struggling badly at this stage and Alan Cunniffe was the only Roscommon player holding his own. However to their credit they battled back into the game before half-time. Shane Sweeney pointing three frees and Mervyn Connaughton got a point from play to leave only a point in it at half-time, Sligo 0-8 Roscommon 0-7.   Raymond started the second half where he left off with a super Sligo point within a minute but Roscommon moved Colm Kelly to full-forward and they began to impose their will on the game further out the field too.   Sweeney pointed two frees to level the scores at nine points apiece before Tom Reddington, Sweeney and Colm Kelly made it 0-12 to 0-9 after 11 minutes. However Sligo simply refused to buckle and by the 22nd minute they were level again with points from Raymond (2) and Colm Crowley. But the match turned on a 60-second spell in the 23rd minute.   Tomas Lennon drove in a long ball from midfield and Kelly fielded and held off his marker to crash the ball to the Sligo net for a vital goal.   Then on the puck-out Sligo corner-back Fiachra Coyne was sent off for his second yellow card offence and it looked curtains for Sligo. Kelly put Ros’ four points ahead in the 28th minute but Sligo were like a dog with a bone and they just wouldn’t let go.   Michael Gilmartin pointed in the 31st minute and a minute later Morgan Fitzsimons reduced the margin to two and in the first minute of injury-time Paul Seevers who had come to life in the final twenty minutes reduced the margin to just one. There were two scores for Roscommon after that but they survived to win the title by the minimum margin.   Roscommon played very poorly in the first half and only Alan Cunniffe and Michael Kelly could be happy with their performances in that first period. However the second half was much better with Michael Mulry, Liam Murray, Tomas Lennon, Mervyn Connaughton and Colm Kelly all coming to the fore.   Sligo were excellent all through and their players were distraught at the final whistle to be beaten by just a point. For them Keith Raymond was a revelation and he almost beat Roscommon on his own. Others to do well for Sligo were Mark Burke, Paul Seevers (second half) and Liam Reidy.   After the game the Division 3 trophy was presented to the Roscommon captain Mervyn Connaughton by Chairman of the Connacht Council of the GAA Larry Quinn. Roscommon: David Connell; Noel Cunniffe, Michael Mulry, Colm Moran; Alan Cunniffe, Michael Kelly, Liam Murray; Mervyn Connaughton (0-2), Tomas Lennon; Cathal Kelly, Colm Kelly (1-2) Tom Reddington (0-1); Brendan Hanley, David Loughnane, Shane Sweeney (0-8, all frees). Subs: John Moran for Hanley, Brendan Kelly for  Cathal Kelly, Gerry Fallon for Brendan Kelly, Darragh Mulvey for Sweeney.  Sligo: Jimmy O’Brien; Fiachra Coyne, Fergus Hayes, Ronan Cox; Damien Burke, Mark Burke, Liam Reidy; Keith Raymond (0-10, 4 frees 2 s/l), Larry Caden; Paul Seevers (0-1), David Collery, Morgan Fiztsimons (0-1); Colm Crowley (0-1), Mick Shelly, Michael Gilmartin (0-1). Subs: Niall Cadden for Johnny Cadden, Patrick Quinn for Shelly. Referee: Pat Greene (Galway) Match at a glance Man of the match: Alan Cunniffe all through was Roscommon’s best player. Colm Kelly, Michael Kelly, Liam Murray and Mervyn Connaughton played well in the second half but by far the best player on view was Sligo midfielder Keith Raymond who shot ten points and even played well when he was clearly injured in the final twenty minutes. One for the future no doubt. Weather: Perfect for hurling and the pitch was in great shape too. Crowd: Small to start with but the big Roscommon crowd really got behind the team in the second half.  Enetrtainment value: Good. It may not have been classic top-class hurling but the sides were evenly matched which left the outcome uncertain right to the final whistle.  Referee: Pat Greene from Galway did well overall but made a huge mistake in sending off David Loughnane on his own. If he was to send anyone off in that incident both players should have gone or none. The umpires (who were right beside the incident) did not do their job. McConn ‘thrilled’   for players After the game the Roscommon team manager David McConn told me that he was very happy to win the title.    ‘It was a tough battle and we just got there in the end but I’m thrilled for the players. They have worked so hard.   ‘We had a man sent off in controversial circumstances so early on and it was an uphill battle after that. We asked the lads at half-time to up their game and they did and we won it playing well in the end.    ‘We have the Nicky Rackard Cup to look forward to now and no stone will be left unturned in our quest to win that competition. But that’s in the future. We are just delighted that we won today and fair play to Sligo they really made us work for it’ he said.