THESE are encouraging times for Roscommon football. On the eve of the Championship Roscommon is loaded with hope. Dynamic and developing Roscommon appear ready to embark on a lengthy summer run.
That is chiefly down to the significant strides Roscommon have made at underage and post primary schools level in the past decade. Games manager in the county since 2006 Willie Hegarty, as popular as he is passionate, is ideally placed to assess Roscommon’s rise. “First of all Roscommon’s improvement is down to sheer hard work by a lot of committee people, who realised what was needed in the county,” Hegarty told The Irish Post. “You’ll never get all of your structures 100 per cent right, but what you can do is put yourself into a position to develop a pathway for players.
“That has been done in Roscommon. This has taken huge commitment from volunteers, who continue to work with development squads right across the age groups. They don’t get payment for what they put in, they are voluntary coaches, but people don’t realise the importance of the role they’ve played.”
Hegarty has been a key and unsung figure in Roscommon’s story, but he stresses just how vital the famous 2006 All Ireland minor triumph was to inject momentum into the project. “For me the critical thing has always been development. Early on people had a clinical analysis of what Roscommon wanted to achieve.
“It was crucial that players were given proper coaching and that they could move through the age groups. We adopted an open door policy at under 14 and 15 level which meant training numbers were often big, but it helped give guys a chance and fewer slipped through the net.
“To get a solid foundation up and running took time. It entailed the County Board working extremely hard, but the clubs can take credit too. They do great work. Obviously it took a good number of years before we were seriously competitive all the time, but the flame was lit when Fergal O’Donnell managed Roscommon to All Ireland minor success in 2006.
“We always wanted to be competitive. Being honest we were far off Mayo and Galway in Connacht, but in 2006 we beat both of them. That was the catalyst; it showed we would be able to compete. It was an incredible achievement to win an All Ireland then. That was won even before the development squads structure really clicked into gear too.”
Roscommon’s consistency is another reason for optimism according to Hegarty. “Progression is a big thing for me. To go from underage to minor. Then from minor to under 21 and on to senior level. It has taken us the guts of 10 years to get to where we are today.
“Look back at the likes of Tyrone and Laois – counties that were seriously competitive underage between 1996 and 1998. It didn’t happen for them at senior level overnight. It was a long and tough process.
“What is great for us, though, is the way we are following through now. Three years after winning Connacht minors we are being successful at under 21 level. That is savage progression. We are holding players in our system now, they want to be involved. They are seeing what can be achieved.”
Following two Allianz Football League promotions in as many years Roscommon are beginning to stir again at senior level. Hegarty accepts that the next 18 months will be defining.
“The next logical step for Roscommon is to do well at senior level following the minor and under 21 successes. Going from Division Three to Division One in the League is another positive sign. John Evans has maintained the winning mentality and Roscommon are well managed.
“The players are of a good quality, but there is no point going up unless we stay there. That is why the next two years are crucial. The panel is young and good enough, but staying in Division One will be a huge challenge. Roscommon will nearly need to be at Championship pace every Sunday against established teams like Dublin, Cork, Mayo, and Kerry. They don’t even think about Division Two.
“If Roscommon can stay in Division One over the next few years we can become an established team, but it will be far from easy.
“Reaching an All Ireland quarter final would represent an incredible achievement for Roscommon. The way the draw is set up the expectation is that Roscommon will reach a Connacht final. The goal is to reach a Connacht final, but being involved on the Bank Holiday weekend in August is where Roscommon would really love to be.”