Shane Cunnane of St Brigid’s gets his kick away despite an attempted block from Sean Ryan (Padraig Pearses) during last year’s Saturday’s Roscommon SFC semi-final. Photo: AC Sports Images.

Southern rule set to continue as Brigid’s look likely

GAA: Roscommon Senior Football Championship Preview

Kevin Egan

Since Castlerea’s victory in the 2009 Roscommon SFC - an 0-10 to 0-6 victory over Western Gaels where current Garrycastle player Ger Heneghan scored 0-4 for the winners - just three Roscommon clubs have lifted the Fahey Cup.

That type of sporting oligopoly is not as rare as all that. In the same period of time, spanning 12 championships, just five clubs have won the Galway SFC, and that number was three up until Moycullen and Mountbellew-Moylough won the 2020 and 2021 iterations. Three in Longford, four in Offaly, three in Westmeath, four in Sligo – all around the country, there are similar stories.

Where Roscommon is different is the geographical concentration in one area. The three winning sides are three neighbouring clubs, and the only other team to even contest a final in the last six years is Roscommon Gaels, south of the N5 divide and currently managed by St Brigid’s legend Frankie Dolan.

When the final whistle sounded on the 2021 championship, confirming Pádraig Pearses as champions for just the second time in their history, it looked as if the “big three” were as far away from the chasing pack as ever. Oran knocked over a depleted St Brigid’s side in round one; Strokestown looked very competitive against both Pearses and Brigid’s; while Boyle showed signs of potential - but overall there was no doubting the top three.

With the 2022 championship set to get underway again, there is no obvious bolter from the pack, but supporters of clubs further north will take hope from signs that at least two of the southern clubs might be dropping back to meet them.

If league form is anything to go by, Connacht champions Pádraig Pearses have been deeply unconvincing. Admittedly, the Woodmount club are not suited to league football as they are more heavily represented in the Roscommon county panel than any other club, but with the exception of 2021 junior star Declan Kenny, there haven’t been too many players putting their hand up to Pat Flanagan and demanding inclusion.

And the gaps are there to fill, particularly up front, with Conor Payne, Lorcán Daly and Hubert Darcy all out of the country for the early rounds of the competition. There’s plenty of talent in players like Jack Tumulty, Seán Ryan and Eoin Colleran, and defensively, Pearses tend to be so strong that they don’t need to score 1-16 or similar on a consistent basis to win games.

However even at the back, they might not be the force that they once were. The passage of time is an issue with some older players, Anthony Butler is set to miss the full season with injury, and they certainly will be tested in a group where Strokestown and St Brigid’s will give the champions plenty to think about. For that reason, the pressure is certainly on in advance of Friday night’s game against Tulsk in Woodmount. Win that, and they’ll almost certainly finish in the top three and get some sort of knockout football anyway. Fail to win, and they’re up against it from the start.

Liam Kearns’ comparatively late decision to step away from Clann na nGael left the Johnstown men playing catch up, and they turned to a safe pair of hands in the form of former Roscommon minor manager Emmet Durney. Durney was dealt a tough hand however, with Ciarán Lennon, Fearghal Lennon, Jack Connaughton, Oisín Lennon and Stephen Flynn all travelling across the Atlantic. At least three of those will be back for the latter stages of the campaign, but for Clann too, there are no handy group games.

St Faithleach’s will be resurgent after winning a Connacht intermediate title, while Boyle and Western Gaels contested the O’Rourke Cup final. Not unlike Pearses, they need to get off the mark with a win on Friday to take some pressure off, and to prevent the need to go to Frenchpark needing a result in round two.

On the face of it, things are going much better in Kiltoom under the guidance of Jerome Stack. The Listowel native is known as both a good coach and a very direct individual in his dealings with players, which should be suited to dealing with a quite young and driven group of players.

Senan Kilbride’s return to the country is likely to see him cut his teeth in the intermediate championship before potentially stepping up to support the cause later in the year, and that will be particularly significant if Gearóid Cunniffe fails in his bid to overcome injury issues.

While Eddie Nolan made a midfield berth his own at county level this year, players like Paul McGrath and Ben O’Carroll never really got the same run of playing time at county senior level, perhaps due to their size. If they can get back to their 2021 form, and teenagers like Conor Hand and Bobby Nugent step up to play a meaningful role this year, they certainly look ready to hit the ground running and blaze an early trail.

And what of the rest? Roscommon Gaels looked poised to kick on in 2022 with Scott Oates, Cian Connolly and Peter Gillooly back on board, but Oates has a collarbone injury, Connolly remains out of the country and Gillooly is getting close to full fitness but has very little football played. Without that injection of quality, they’re likely to fall short again.

Quality won’t be the issue in Boyle, where Cathal Feely is playing well and ready to add to an already-stacked forward line, but big-game mindset certainly is. Donie Smith tends to show up and hold his own in big knockout games against the southern three, but not too many of his colleagues tend to match his productivity in those testing conditions. Cian Smith remains in charge, how he prepares the group for that pressure situation will determine their fate.

Western Gaels remain heavily dependent on a lot of players that are the wrong side of 35, never mind 30, while a Michael Glavey’s club that has plenty of heavyweight talent when fully fit has been ruined by injuries, and so will do well to hold senior status.

St Faithleach’s are without Cathal Gunn early on, and while he’s not a player that leaps off the page as one of their stars, he’s their only out-and-out midfielder, so plugging that gap won’t be easy, even with some promising U-20s to come in.

Former St Brigid’s player Basil Mannion has done a good job with Elphin but they simply don’t have the level of quality to really challenge, any more than Tulsk, who have lost their most consistent scorer in David Carleton.

Potential dark horses

That leaves two potential dark horses, albeit both clubs that need a lot to fall their way. Strokestown will start the year without the two Compton brothers and their lack of depth means that they won’t plug those gaps easily, albeit Shane McGinley and Colm Neary are two of the most promising young players in the county and their first year in adult football will be worth watching. Unlike a lot of other clubs from the north, however, they tend to improve against better opposition instead of retreating into their shell, while John Rogers is a steady hand at the tiller who won’t steer them wrong.

If there is to be an outsider to go all the way to the county final however, the smart money is on Oran. Billy Donnellan will need to get Darragh Walsh back in as his mercurial talent gives them an x-factor, but in terms of age profile, depth, scoring power and a lack of fear, they tick a lot of boxes. An opening round clash with Roscommon Gaels, who knocked them out at the quarter-final stage last year, will tell a lot as to how they’re fixed.

With a head of steam behind them, Oran could overtake a heavily depleted Clann side, particularly if the likes of Ciarán Lennon and Fearghal Lennon show the effects of a summer without football when they do return. Oran may even overtake Pearses, and they almost certainly will if last year’s success dulls the edge of the Woodmount club’s hunger.

But can they overtake this St Brigid’s group? That looks unlikely. Southern dominance looks set to continue for at least another year, and a ninth title in 13 years, or an 18th overall, for the Kiltoom club looks at this early stage to be the most likely outcome in a couple of months’ time.