Roscommon have been mixing with the best in the game this season in the league, and holding their own
Is this going to be the year of the unprecedented in sport globally, maybe even locally?
Leicester City fly high at the top end of the Premier League, while closer to home Roscommon continue to defy the skeptics with a place in the Allianz League semi-final, where on Sunday they will play Kerry in their first appearance in a semi final in over a decade.
There are many pundits and analysts who see Roscommon's rise to prominence in Division one as a flash in the pan. Yes, Roscommon have a good competing record at Minor and Under 21 level in recent history, however converting a competitive record into a winning one has proved elusive. With the exception of the 2006 All-Ireland minor victory, Roscommon have little to show in terms of national honours for all the effort.
Attempts to win another underage national title have fallen short at Under 21 level in the last couple of seasons. Similar to our neighbours Mayo, titles are proving to be elusive on the All-Ireland stage.
This, however, is only part of the picture. The reasons for Roscommon's performance in this season's premiere league competition is based on three solid pillars.
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie
First and foremost, a management team who understand the complexities of the modern game. Secondly, a game plan based on the core assets of the group of players at the disposal of the management. Finally, and I would say most importantly, the commitment and dedication of the players themselves.
Let's look at the the first. It's no secret the total admiration and respect I have for Kevin McStay, Liam McHale and Fergal O'Donnell. All three have a deep understanding and knowledge of the game tactically and understand the requirement to have their personnel at the peak of physical conditioning to compete at this level.
There is no doubt that Roscommon have put a premium on staying in Division One. They've been the fittest team in the league to date, and management have identified that as critical to retaining their status in the top flight in order to help further grow the team's potential over the coming years. David Casey deserves great credit for having the team in a terrific physical space.
Roscommon’s manager Kevin McStay, Fergal O’Donnell and selector Liam McHale. Image: ©INPHO/Heather Dunne
There is also a mindset change. Liam's ability to instill in the players an attitude of positive thinking is key, as Roscommon players now believe they can compete with the best. They will respect opposition but not fear them.
The team is sprinkled with players who have won senior All-Ireland club medals, county senior medals in Cork, Sigerson Medals, and have been narrowly beaten in All-Ireland semi-finals at Under 21 level. They are competing at the very top, and this gives confidence to the group as a whole.
The management have also thrown open the door to every player who has the potential to perform at this level. Some like Fintan Cregg and Conor Devanney have been re-energised, while the young players introduced to competitive senior football. Players such as Niall McInerny and David Murray have also been revelations. The talents of the Murtaghs, Dalys, and Kilbrides, plus senior heads like Sean McDermott and Cathal Cregg, have given the squad added stability.
Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Lorcan Doherty
Tactically we've also seen a sea change in terms of how the team perform with and without the ball.
There's a premium on the moving the ball fast into the scoring zones, with support play being a key objective, and the effects of this play are evident in the scorelines attained throughout the league campaign.
The transition from defence to attack is based on fluid attacking at pace. Kicking the ball accurately is also a deliberate tactic employed to give added advantage to our attacking threats. This is a welcome change in attitude and one I hope permeates down through our coaching practices in the county going forward.
Defensively, every player knows their individual job when not in possession. Roscommon avoid playing with a dedicated sweeper, preferring zonal defence based on cutting off the playing angles of opposition attacks.
Our players have also played a tremendous part in the relative success to date. It's sometimes easily forgotten in the good times just how hard these fellas dedicate themselves selflessly to the game and county. I've mentioned some already, but our league performances are clearly down to a collective will to achieve excellence as a group, with egos having no part in the process.
While we are without the trimmings of some of our more illustrious opponents, we are still competing with the best. A nomadic journey of seven games in seven different venues, winning away games and in the process, has seen us defeating some of the game's aristocrats, which points to a very good future.
There will be bumps in the road and some reverses in fortune, but the future is bright and the possibilities endless. The first step has been achieved, and on Sunday we are certainly in bonus territory; a match of this magnitude against one of the game's shining lights is where every county wants to be.
It's Roscommon's turn now and we must make the best of the opportunity. Becoming champions is a long road, one which requires patience and persistence. For a highly dedicated and committed group of players like this Roscommon team, that should not be an issue as they have been competing with and beating the best. Fear not the future.