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Liam McHale Reveals How The Criticism Of Kevin McStay Drove Roscommon To Connacht Glory

Liam McHale Reveals How The Criticism Of Kevin McStay Drove Roscommon To Connacht Glory

March 25th, Croke Park.

One of those haggard evenings where the manager isn't sure of the best use of chalk: go back to the drawing board, or trace the outline of their team on the pavement.

Dublin outstripped Kerry's 34-game unbeaten run with a 21-point hammering; the collateral to history was Roscommon. This was the latest - and heaviest - defeat in a series of six.

Roscommon's was not a badge worn lightly in the harsh light of the Dublin hammering.

Their previous visit had ended in heavy defeat, too: a league semi-final lesson against Kerry. But the bigger picture was garlanded with positives: under the new managerial axis of Kevin McStay and Fergal O'Donnell, Roscommon ended the league as the highest-ranked Connacht team in the country, and would only have to face one of Galway or Mayo to win a first provincial title in six years.

After the Dublin game, however, things had changed. The championship was a flop: they escaped New York with a one-point win, and after drawing one of the worst Connacht finals in recent memory, they were beaten out of Castlebar's gate by Galway in the replay. The qualifiers ended in a six-point defeat to Clare.

The management team didn't last the winter, with O'Donnell (whose legendary status in Roscommon is enshrined by the 2006 All-Ireland minor title) the man to lose out in the power struggle that followed the recrimination.

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Much of the panel took flight too, and those digesting the Dublin defeat no longer had Senan Kilbride, Neil Collins, Donie Shine, Niall Carty, Cathal Cregg, David Keenan, Seán ­Purcell and James McDermott to look toward for comfort.

McStay was also hindered by Roscommon's zeal for internecine debacle: a predecessor, Gay Sheerin, melodramatically pronounced on local radio that he didn't like to see Mayomen on the Roscommon touchline.

Allowing for some of the criticism of McStay straying beyond the edge of reason, Roscommon themselves were on the edge.

How then, did they haul themselves back?

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It became an exercise in persuasion, says assistant manager Liam McHale.

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To face the lads in the changing room in Croke Park after that game and convince them that this is a lesson that will stand to them down the road was tough.

Kevin was nearly saying the same things over and over again. If you were losing to Dublin by four or five points it's not so bad, but if you're getting hammered....Mayo gave us a hammering, Monaghan hammered us too, so at that stage, we were at a very low ebb.

McHale says part of his role was to "turn up to training the following Tuesday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed", to add a bit of optimism to the forthcoming dead rubber against Cavan. McStay responded to the crisis by doing what he does best: analysing the game.

McStay was among the best in The Sunday Game stable before bolting for the coalface, and his characteristic rigour was critical in recovering the confidence smithereened in Croke Park.

He poured over the tape and then brought the breakdown to the players. "We showed them goal chances that we missed, we showed the stats that we kicked 13 wides, and we showed them the amount of possession we had in that game. We actually had more possession than Dublin in that game. So while we wouldn't have won that game, we should have been a lot closer". The GPS stats were wheeled out too, to display the upward trend in fitness.

Roscommon prioritised the Championship in their preparation for the year. It was decided that nobody wanted a spring crescendo, so they dropped one weekly training session for the league, and trained their focus on conditioning work in the gym. McHale is adamant that they felt they still had enough in them to stave off relegation and could have if narrow defeats to Kerry and Donegal swung the opposite way, but morale-obliterating shellackings against Mayo, Monaghan, and Dublin had detrimental effects.

The following Sunday, Roscommon beat a Cavan side needing a win to avoid relegation.

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That Cavan game was a nothing game for us, but it meant a lot to Cavan, so to get the win was huge for us. It meant nothing as regards the league standings, so we just needed that win to bring us into the Championship with any sense of optimism.

When we beat Cavan in the last game, we felt that the boys hadn't given up on the whole thing. They showed great character. They believed in what they were trying to do.

While one Spring victory does not vindication make, it was important for Roscommon, as they faced into a seven-week layoff until their first Championship outing.  Up to then, McStay had only had words to use to bat away Sheerin's criticism, telling Marty Morrissey that it was "nonsense, and factually incorrect". He looked to have easily shaken off the flak, saying he wasn't hurt, but disappointed.

The reality was a little different.

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"He was very, very nervous beforehand. Kevin is usually very calm. There was a lot of tension there, especially for him", is McHale's summary of his manager on the morning of the Connacht final.

He was tetchy during the game, too: many of Roscommon's nine wides in the first half were met with anguished grimaces, as McStay crackled with energy, jogging up and down the touchline, constantly cajoling his players. His contrast with Kevin Walsh was stark, and proved a microcosm of what happened on the opposite side of the touchline.

kevin mcstay

Roscommon played the game ferociously, like defeat resembeled a kind of sordid, irredeemable reproach. For their manager, in many ways, it was: he had staked his reputation on 70 minutes in Salthill. McHale admits that "we did put all of our eggs in the one basket".

Seconds before the final whistle, with the win assured, McStay jogged over to Kevin Walsh, shook his hand, and jogged down the tunnel. When he re-emerged, he saw a pitch daubed with blue and gold through wet eyes.

In the end it all came out. Especially the way we won. Kevin knew we were going well, but I don't think in his wildest dreams we thought we would win by nine points.

So it all came out there on Sunday.

It [Sheerin's criticism] was very hard for Kevin, because he lives in Roscommon. He has three kids, born and bred in Roscommon, and a lot of abuse was centred on him.

He is out of Ballina since he was 18. He has spent more of his life in Roscommon than in Mayo. He found that very difficult. It was easier for me, I get into my car in Mayo and drive to training, and then drive home, so I was out of the firing line.

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McHale admits to feeling a bit of guilt in relation to the criticism endured by McStay. McHale, after all, is the man still living in Mayo.

I feel bad for him. I've been getting criticism for a long time.

In Mayo, I always said I was a basketball player first, so I think people didn't trust me, thinking that I wasn't putting as much effort as the other lads. So I've been getting that all my life.

So I'd have taken 50% of that [the criticism of McStay], if it were possible. For me, it was like working with players, sometimes you have to put your arm around their shoulder and say, 'lookit, we are doing the right thing here. Keep believing, and keep moving forward'. Everyone needs that pat on the back'.

McStay and McHale have been utterly vindicated. Their energy levels, geared toward peaking in the summer, were phenomenal on Sunday: Conor Devaney surged forward twice to kick points in injury time, while corner-back David Murray covered as much grass as the rain.

The Roscommon dressing room featured a billboard that adorned the walls of the All-Ireland-winning Brigid's dressing room: Honesty of Effort and Absence of Ego.

Players need a certain amount of ego to go out in front of 20,000 people and play well, but your ego can't affect what's going on with the team. Every team talks about putting in an honest effort and being authentic, and we're no different.

Individual accolades only come with team success. Enda Smith was Man of the Match against Leitrim and Galway, while Niall Kilroy was against Cavan. The only common denominator there? We won.

McHale says that the scenes on Sunday night were unlike anything he has witnessed after a Connacht final in Mayo. 5,000 people greeted the squad in Roscommon town, to which the player responded by disembarking and mingling with the crowd for half an hour.

The toll of the players' afternoon toil ultimately spoke the loudest as the night went on, with celebrations wrapped by half one. They return to training tomorrow night, to prepare for the All-Ireland quarter-finals, and a chance to exorcise the demons of Croke Park.

Who would bet against them?

See Also: Join Us For A Brilliant Night Of GAA Talk At The Sugar Club Next Monday

 

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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