Hickey the heart-breaker in 1979 semi-final

By 1979 Roscommon were in the top three teams in the country. Roscommon were the reigning All-Ireland U-21 champions, they had just won the National Football League in great style (beating Cork in the final) and they were going for three Connacht senior titles in a row. Roscommon were now a team that were feared the length and breadth of the country and their players were household names. In 1979 Roscommon suffered a heart-breaking defeat in a breathtaking All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in Croke Park. It is generally accepted by Roscommon GAA people that if Roscommon had won this semi-final in 1979 they would have had an even better chance of winning the final in 1980. The game was played before a massive crowd of 58,000 people, a modern-day record for a semi-final (at the time). 1979 All-Ireland SF sem-final   Dublin ……………………………………………………………. 0-14 Roscommon ……………………………………………………. 1-10 The end of the 1970’s were heady times for Roscommon football. The team were on top of the pile in Connacht and one of the top three teams in the country. Having won the 1979 league title in such comprehensive fashion, Roscommon began their Connacht campaign against Galway at Hyde Park. While the final score was Roscommon 3-11 Galway 1-11, Roscommon led by 3-9 to 0-6 fifteen minutes into the second half.   In the Connacht final Roscommon outplayed a strong Mayo side in a very high-scoring game, the full-time score being Roscommon 3-15 Mayo 2-10. The game was played in McHale Park in front of 25,000 people.   That decider saw the Roscommon attack in devastating form as John ‘Jigger’ O’Connor and Dermot Earley both scored five points and a rampant Tony McManus helped himself to 2-1 as Roscommon won by eight points to set up a semi-final against Dublin at Croke Park.   There was a huge hype in the run-up to this game. Dublin’s star full-forward Jimmy Keaveney had been sent off in the Leinster Final and he was suspended for the semi-final, leading to much speculation as to who would replace him. Of course the big question was: would his replacement be as accurate with frees as Jimmy was?   Unfortunately for Roscommon the answers to those questions were that a player called Mick Hickey (brother of David) was drafted in for Keaveney. The previously unheard of Hickey broke the hearts of the Roscommon team and supporters with an exhibition of free-taking on the day. In fact he had eight kicks at goal that day and converted all eight as Dublin survived to win a ferocious battle by a single point.   In all the time that I have been involved with Roscommon GAA two defeats stand out in my mind as the most heart-breaking. One was the semi-final in 1991 (Roscommon lost by one point to Meath) while the other was this semi-final in 1979 when Roscommon had the winning of the game only to lose it in the final five minutes.   The action was hot and heavy from the very first whistle as both teams tore into each other in an atmosphere that you could cut with a knife. The huge crowd contributed to the spectacle as the thousands of blue-clad fans on Hill 16 were matched by a massive crowd of Roscommon supporters in the rest of the stadium.    Dermot Earley and Seamus Hayden were on top at midfield against the much-decorated Dublin duo of Brian Mullins and Bernard Brogan. Meanwhile this was to be one of the finest days in the Roscommon jersey for John  ‘Jigger’ O’Connor as the Strokestown man put on a tremendous display, kicking five wonderful points over the course of the game.   One of the big incidents in the first half was a fierce (accidental) clash of heads between Pat Lindsay and Brian Mullins that left both men with blood streaming down their faces. John O’Connor kicked three first-half points for Roscommon but the free-taking of Mick Hickey kept the Dubs in it and at half-time they led by 0-8 to 0-7.   I remember standing on the terrace in the Canal End and watching as Hickey meticulously prepared for each free-kick and although the Roscommon fans booed and whistled at him (because he was taking so long) every time he was talking a free (because he was taking so long), he was unerring and he ultimately won the game for the Dubs.   This game was a huge battle all through and the sides were level six times in all. During the second half, the Dubs edged ahead but Roscommon hit back in devastating fashion. Michael ‘Speedy’ Finneran, who had come on for the injured Mickey Freyne, scored a long-range point and followed it up with a truly spectacular goal in the 27th minute of the second half to give Roscommon a one-point lead as the teams entered the final few minutes of play. Indeed that Finneran goal was voted as the goal of the championship on a TV programme later in the year.   Roscommon could have sown it up a minute later when Tony McManus was through but he was dispossessed brilliantly by Fran Ryder. Hickey equalised two minutes later with another long-range free. Then Roscommon hearts were broken when Hickey kicked his only point from play in the 32nd minute to edge Roscommon out of the game in a welter of excitement.   The images when referee Jimmy Dennigan of Cork blew the final whistle will never leave me or any Roscommon person who was there that day. Roscommon players sunk to their knees in disbelief as the Dubs danced around them. The Hill was heaving but Roscommon fans just stood and stared out at the field, unable to take it in that the game was over and that Roscommon had actually lost. I can tell you that there were many tears shed by the Primrose and Blue players, officials and supporters that evening when leaving Croke Park. I remember travelling home in a car with four others that evening. The car had travelled to the Roscommon side of Mullingar before anyone spoke! Everyone was devastated. It was a shattering defeat for this superb Roscommon team.   Roscommon had brilliant performances on the day from Harry Keegan, John O’Gara, Dermot Earley, Seamus Hayden, Tony McManus and sub Michael Finneran but the best Roscommon player on view was the Strokestown flyer John ‘Jigger’ O’Connor, who tormented the Dublin defence and kicked five brilliant points. However this will be the day that will be remembered for the display of Mick Hickey, the man who replaced Jimmy Keaveney