Kerry come calling and Roscommon once more look for the energy to survive

Life as a yo-yo county: since 2015 Roscommon have been promoted to Division 1 four times. Now they face a potential fourth relegation

Kerry arrive in Dr Hyde Park on Sunday, their range of options in this year’s Allianz Football League quite clear. Win and they remain in contention for a place in the final; lose and probably not. Will they be motivated? Quite likely. Under Jack O’Connor Kerry teams have always prefaced an All-Ireland with the league title.

There is no need to ask the same question about Roscommon. If they fail to win there is a chance that relegation will be confirmed, a week early.

It’s not that this would be a novel experience. In the past 11 seasons Roscommon have moved divisions on nine occasions. Should this campaign not work out it would be a 10th in 12.

This yo-yo run has a kind of consistency – six Division 1 seasons in nine years – and has coincided with championship success, two Connacht titles in 2017 and 2019. Last year they ended Mayo’s Connacht prospects a week after their neighbours had won the league.


Has this been because a campaign in the top division tempers them for championship action? Or can the effort of trying to avoid relegation use up reserves needed during the summer?

As things stand Roscommon’s three points puts them second last in the table, ahead of only Monaghan with just two matches left, Sunday and the following week leaders Derry.

In manager Davy Burke’s first year Roscommon did well and finished third in Division 1 before losing to Galway in the Connacht semi-final and to Cork in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final. They were the only opponents not to be beaten by eventual champions Dublin in the championship. Enda Smith, excellent throughout 2023, became the county’s first All Star in 22 years.

This year has been more difficult, though. In February Burke lamented: “We have trained 65 times and we have had our full squad together zero times, and that’s a big problem. You can blame colleges, clubs, whoever we want, but if we want to compete at this level those boys need to be on the field tomorrow morning, it’s as simple as that.”

Roscommon have been handicapped by the decision of Ciaráin Murtagh, one of the team’s top forwards, to take a year out but that is an occupational hazard in the county. Another conspicuous talent, Ultan Harney, came back this year after his own voyaging.

Players taking time out is a regular feature of a Roscommon manager’s parameters.

County champions St Brigid’s reached the All-Ireland club final in January and came within a whisker of winning – ostensibly a good news story except for the wear and tear on the club’s county contingent, who had to rest for a while.

Ben O’Carroll, shortlisted for club player of the year after a dazzling campaign at corner forward, remains unavailable because of injury. In the thickets of the GAA’s multi-eligibility jungle, O’Carroll was also lining out for UCD in the Sigerson Cup until early February, one high-end competition after another.

The past 10 years have been a roller-coaster ride up and down the top two divisions. Since emerging from Division 3 a decade ago they have paused for breath only twice, sitting in Division 1 for two years, 2016-17 and 2023-24. If they are to be relegated in the coming fortnight the symmetry is that Roscommon will have finished third in the top flight before dropping the following season.

Ronan Stack has a clear perspective on these shifts. The only member of the St Brigid’s team that won the 2013 All-Ireland still to be starting in January’s final 11 years on, he was part of the county teams that rose through the decade.

“I joined in Division 3 under John Evans and we got straight up to Division 1. There was a huge challenge to stay up there. Since then the team has been consistent in that nearly every second year, after relegation, they’re able to reset and get promoted again immediately. I suppose, though, that you’re after that mindset that you are a Division 1 team and to be able to stay as long as you can but it’s not easy. The standard is so high.”

There were also changes of management. Having led the county to Division 1, Evans stepped down, complaining that there had been a move against him, and was replaced by a joint-management of now Mayo manager Kevin McStay and former Roscommon player Fergal O’Donnell.

Some 12 months later there was controversy as O’Donnell left, and after two years, having landed the 2017 Connacht title, McStay also departed, to be replaced by former Galway hurling manager Anthony Cunningham, who secured the rare achievement of managing teams in both hurling and football to provincial titles, winning a second Connacht (2019) for the team in three years.

Despite the management changes Roscommon have remained competitive and frequently a Division 1 county.

The fact of twice winning provincial titles after relegation is contextualised by Stack. “You’re learning more from playing the big teams in the league. You can take a lot from those games although morale might suffer after getting relegated but one of those years we finished with a good result and in those days there was a bit of a gap (between league and championship) to regroup and focus – and maybe come in a little bit under the radar. The other side is that you’re possibly underrated by the other teams in Connacht.”

Population is another major influence, ultimately limiting what they can realistically achieve. Roscommon’s two All-Irelands in 1943 and 1944 rank in the top 20 of achievements by small counties, as computed by Irish Mirror journalist Pat Nolan, coming at a time when the county accounted for just 1.7 per cent (74,000) of the national population.

Today Roscommon accounts for an even smaller share of the national figure (1 per cent) with just 70,259 at the last census. All progress has to be on the basis of making the best out of what there is.

Monaghan, also threatened by relegation this weekend, have been brand leaders in this husbandry, staying afloat for 10 years in Division 1 with an even smaller population (65,288).

Monaghan and Roscommon have in common an annual choice to go flat out for the league and maintain status even though that may compromise the later championship campaign, as Stack points out.

“The other thing is that when we do stay in Division 1 it requires a huge effort: a hard pre-season and getting fit in early January in order to stay up and that can come against you later in the summer. It can be hard to maintain and using that much energy early on can come back to bite you.

“In 2017 we’d put a big effort the previous year and got to the Division 1 semi-final. We tried to time it a bit better for championship but that cost us in the league. We did win a Connacht title, though. For a team that’s trying to push into those top eight places consistently you can’t afford to start the league badly. When you’re not one of the bigger counties and able to make changes as you go, but want to compete, you need to apply a lot of energy if you want to survive.”

On Sunday Roscommon need to find that energy somewhere.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times