Magic moments in Croke Park

N icky Rackard Cup Final Roscommon         1 12 Armagh                  0 13  " These are magic, magic moments that we will treasure for many years to come,’ was the reaction of Roscommon team manager David McConn after he had seen his charges produce a battling second half display to overcome a gritty Armagh side to become the first Connacht side to lift the Nicky Rackard Cup at Croke Park last Saturday.             He is right of course. A week earlier Roscommon’s U 21’s won the All Ireland B title at another cathedral of hurling, Semple Stadium. A week later and Roscommon were back again scooping another national title, this time in Croke Park. When you add to that the national Hurling League Division Three title, it has been a remarkable year by any standards and great credit is due to everyone concerned, particularly the team management under David McConn.             A goal in the eighth minute of the second half from sub Gary Fallon, a member of last year’s minor football winning panel, was to prove crucial in the end, but behind the scoreline lay a story of Roscommon bravery, determination and skill in the second half, after what was a poor enough first half display. Yet when David McConn, his management and players look back on this game I’m sure they will agree that it was a big bonus for Roscommon to go into the dressing rooms at half time on level terms (0-6 each) after having given their best to Armagh for most of the first period.             But in keeping with his excellent management of this team all year David McConn had a few tricks up his sleeve to pull this game out of the fire. Ex player and manager Frank Carthy made an impassioned speech to the players at half time while McConn and his selectors hatched a plan to bring on impact subs, as they figured that whoever scored a goal in the second half of a tight game would win the match and so it proved.             Roscommon were a changed team in the second period and a lot of their experienced players began to exert their influence on the game and although they could never really shake off a skillful and determined Armagh, once they got their noses in front they stayed there to achieve this historic win.             The weather was overcast and warm as the match started in front of   a respectable attendance which grew steadily as they game wore on with the Dublin/ Derry game to come later. It was clear both sides were nervous and it was six minutes before we saw a score when Gerry Fallon took a pass from Tommy Reddington and scored from 45 metres but after two wides, Armagh struck for two points in two minutes the first from Chris McAlinden after a mazy run from 30 metres and then from Ryan Gaffney who scored from close range after a good run from the dangerous Declan Coulter.             The Roscommon attack was surviving on scraps and when Shane Sweeney fired over an opportunist point in the 13th minute from 40 metres Roscommon were on level terms at 0-2 apiece, having played poorly.             However Armagh began to find their range and they scored three unanswered points within seven minutes. McAlinden scored from 20 metres after an excellent catch, Barney McCann scored a fine point on the run from midfield and Declan Coulter beat two Roscommon players before he slotted over from 20 metres in the 22nd minute and suddenly Armagh had opened up a three point gap.             But Roscommon stuck to their guns and despite the fact that they were second best, they could always fashion a score to keep themselves in contention. Johnny Moran was everywhere while some of those around him were struggling. The Four Roads man battled so hard and scrapped for possession and he won an amount of ball that paid dividends later in the day.             Shane Sweeney lifted the siege with a good point from play in the 24th minute and after two more Armagh wides Tomas Lennon lifted was on target with a 32nd minute point to narrow the gap to one.             Thirty seconds later Coulter scored an excellent point on the run, but Roscommon were to draw level before the break (at 0-6 each) with two Sweeney frees from 30 metres and 35 metres respectively in the 34th and 36th minutes. Roscommon had played poorly but were still level and I’ll wager the David McConn and his selectors couldn’t wait to get the players in to the dressing rooms at half time to re-organise, because a lot of the players were not playing as well as they could.             The pep talks and re organisation brought about a much better show from Roscommon in the second half and the quality of the game improved too.             Roscommon introduced young Gary Fallon as a sub for Tommy Reddington and that change was to pay rich dividends later in the game. However it was Armagh who scored first when Ryan Gaffney cut in from the right wing to score a 25 metre point on the run. Roscommon was playing much better now. Colm Kelly, who had a poor first half by his lofty standards, hooked over a great score to level the scores again in the third minute, before the busy Fiachra Bradley edged Armagh ahead again with a smart point on the run after four minutes.             Roscommon looked more assured now. Captain Mervyn Connaughton powered up the middle to land a 35 metre point on the run in the sixth minute and two minutes later came the score that was to prove the crucial score of the game. Johnny Moran was again to the fore on the Cusack Stand side of the field. He drove the ball in long and when the Armagh goalkeeper Joby Burke batted the ball out, there was Gary Fallon lurking at the edge of the square to flick the ball home for a priceless Roscommon goal.             Armagh refused to lie down but it was now an uphill struggle for them from there on in. Points from McAlinden and Coulter saw the Orchard county cut the lead to one by the 14th minute but Roscommon were winning plenty of possession and they looked much more dangerous than they did in the first half.             Colm Kelly was switching between centre half and full forward and he was making much more of an impact. He drilled over a good 30 metre point in the 15th minute, before Shane Sweeney split the posts with an excellent point in the 16th minute after a great pass from Mervyn Connaughton and the lead was back to three (1-10 to 0-10).             Armagh put pressure on Roscommon to get the vital scores they needed but Mike Keaveney, Colm Moran and Noel Cunniffe were all playing well in the Roscommon defence. They landed a point in the 23rd minute when Cathal Carville scored from close range but less than a minute later Tomas Lennon scored a great 60 metre free to maintain the three-point gap.             Declan Coulter reduced the margin to two when he scored from close range after good work from Ryan Gaffney, but Roscommon were flying now.   Sweeney grabbed a great point from 35 metres in the 32nd minute and the Roscommon fans were in full voice.             There were two minutes of extra time called for injuries and while the gap was now down to two and there was always the possibility of an Armagh   goal, Roscommon stood firm and when Wexford referee Joe Kelly blew the final whistle it sparked scenes of wild celebration as Roscommon claimed its first national senior hurling title at Croke Park and Mervyn Connaughton became the first   Roscommon man since Pat Lindsay in 1979 to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive a national trophy.             To pick out Roscommon heroes on such a day might seem an academic exercise because everyone involved is a hero. However, Roscommon can be thankful to their full back line in particular for holding a very dangerous Armagh attack throughout the game. Tomas Lennon and Mervyn Connaughton held their own at midfield but it took them until the second half to get in to the game properly. I was very impressed with the work rate of John Moran at wing forward. When a lot of the other Roscommon players were struggling, he worked tirelessly. Others to do well up front were Shane Sweeney and Colm Kelly who had a poor first half, but whose strength was vital in the second half, and sub Gary Fallon who will long be remembered as the man who got the goal that won the Nicky Rackard Cup.             The Armagh players were devastated after the game and their goalkeeper Joby Burke in particular was inconsolable. However Roscommon were just that little bit too streetwise for them on the day. For them Paul McCormack was excellent at centre back while Barney McCann got through a mountain of work at midfield and up front Declan Coulter and Chris McAlinden did well but they could never get the better of an impressive Roscommon full back line.             This was a great day for Roscommon hurling. It was a day for the panel of players and for the excellent management team led by David McConn. But it was also a day for the great hurling men of Roscommon. Men like Johnny Haughey, Brian McDonnell and the many others in the seven hurling clubs in Roscommon who have kept the game going there over the years against the odds.             Last year Roscommon sunk to their lowest ebb in decades and they were the laughing stock of the country after their annihilation against Antrim. What a change a year has made and now two All Ireland titles have been delivered within a week. It has been a remarkable year by any standards. Hurling has always played second fiddle to football in Roscommon, but the achievements of the U 21 and senior hurling teams this year means that for once the hurlers have outshone the footballers and they deserve great credit for what they have done.             Next year it will be a little harder. Division 2 in the league and the Christy Ring Cup beckon, but all that is for another day and another time and another year. For the moment let’s just celebrate this great win and a mighty year of 2007 for Roscommon hurling.             Roscommon: David Connell, Noel Cunniffe, Colm Moran, Michael Keaveney, Alan Cunniffe, Michael Kelly, Liam Murray, Mervyn Connaughton capt (0-1), Tomas Lennon (0-2, 1 free), John Moran, Gerry Fallon (0-1), Thomas Reddignton, Cathal Kelly, Colm Kelly (0-2), Shane Sweeney (0-6, 4 frees). Subs: Gary Fallon (1-0) for Reddington, Brendan Kelly for Gerry Fallon, Liam Casey for Cathal Kelly. Armagh: Joby Burke, Terry McCann, Eugene McDonnell, Philip Kirk, Paddy McArdle, Paul McCormack, Barry McCormack, Barney McCann (0-1), Ciaran Christie, Ryan Gaffney (0-2), Conor McCann, Gerard Enright, Declan Coulter (0-5, 2 frees), Chris McAlinden (0-3), Fiachra Bradley (0-1). Subs: Cathal Carville (0-1) for Conor McCann, Kevin McGreevy for Enright. Referee: Joe Kelly (Wexford) Match at a glance-  Man of the match Any member of the Roscommon full back line are contenders, as is Tomas Lennon or Shane Sweeney, who was really sharp throughout. However my vote goes to John Moran who was playing well in the first half when there were very few Roscommon players on their game. He ran tirelessly and worked so hard and although he did not make it on to the scoreboard he made a massive contribution to this famous Roscommon win.  Weather Perfect for hurling although overcast and warm. The players said afterwards that the grass was a little short for hurling but hey – who cares when you win an All Ireland in Croke Park!  Crowd Disappointing at the start but there was a good hard core of supporters from both sides there who made plenty of noise. However Derry and Dublin supporters who were coming to the football match stayed away until late in the second half.  Entertainment value In the first half the quality of the game was poor but it warmed up nicely in the second half as both sides forgot about their nerves and it was a good contest right up to the finish.  Referee Joe Kelly of Wexford was largely anonymous throughout, which is always a good sign of a referee. He gave a few dodgy decisions on both sides but nothing controversial. A good day for him and his officials.  The presentation At the presentation of the Nicky Rackard Cup the President of the GAA Nicky Brennan congratulated Roscommon and commiserated with Armagh. He made a special mention for Johnny Haughey who he said ‘Had done more for Roscommon hurling than anyone else over the past 50 years.’             Captain Mervyn Connaughton thanked everyone involved in getting Roscommon ‘back to respectability after a very bad period.’ The Athleague man paid tribute to the dedication of the players who trained so hard, the management team, sponsors and the Roscommon County Football Board and their officers who had ‘given us mighty support throughout the year.’   Mervyn Connaughton commiserated with the Armagh players ‘I know how ye feel lads. But your day will come too. You will be in the Christy Ring Cup next year too and I have no doubt that ye will do very well.’ After the customary three cheers, it was off around Croker for a lap of honour. The large crowds now gathered gave the Roscommon a wonderful reception and the vast army of Dubs now gathered in Hill 16 gave the Roscommon players a rousing reception too.