Donie Smith steps out of the dressing room at Markievicz Park for this year's Connacht semi-final clash with Sligo.
Donie Smith steps out of the dressing room at Markievicz Park for this year's Connacht semi-final clash with Sligo.

Smith wants Roscommon to take advantage of shifting sands

By Kevin Egan

For most of his intercounty career, Roscommon captain Donie Smith has played at a reasonably high level. The Boyle attacker made his debut for the county as a late substitute against Tyrone in 2012, and then spent the next two seasons playing Division Three football. However promotion from the third tier in 2014 was followed by another league title a year later, and since then the Rossies have bounced between Divisions One and Two, while remaining competitive in the Connacht championship.

Through much of that time however, just as Smith and his colleagues had a high floor, there also was a clear ceiling. An All-Ireland semi-final appearance eluded them, as did a consistent run of Division One football. The long shadow of a Dublin side operating at the peak of their powers meant that realistically, an All-Ireland was a pipedream.

Even as Smith spoke last week at the International Arena at TUS Midlands in Athlone, he still stopped a long way short of suggesting that one of his tasks as captain this year might be to lift the Sam Maguire Cup.

He was quite clear however that he felt that the landscape was changing, and that in an environment where there are still doubts over Dublin and Kerry, and then very little to choose between the next eight or ten teams in the chasing pack, the 2022 championship represented the type of opportunity that doesn’t necessarily come along too often.

A lot of people are saying that the championship is very open this year, maybe there’s room for a bolter. If there is, we have to be the team that are ready” he asserted.

“Derry are on a high, Galway have taken out last year’s All-Ireland finalists, so there’s definitely scope for a team to come from the pack and have a big say in this year’s championship. Hopefully it’s us that takes that opportunity”.

Smith, as the county’s GPA representative, advocated for “Proposal B” when the championship structures were up for debate at this year’s Congress, and he remains a firm believer in the importance of the league, and how all championship success stems from performing consistently week in and week out.

To really progress as to be viewed as a serious team, we have to be in Division One on a consistent basis. We have been the yo-yo team between the two divisions for the last while but it’s time to cement our place in Division One and go from there”.  

“As we’ve seen with Armagh, a good league doesn’t always guarantee success in the championship, but it provides stability. It exposes your more inexperienced players to playing at a higher level against the likes of Dublin in Croke Park or going down to Killarney to play Kerry. While, from the outside looking in, it’s perceived that the gap is closing, to be really considered as a serious team, we have to stay in Division One and be consistent at that level”.

Donie's brother Enda was Roscommon captain when they last lifted the JJ Nestor Cup in 2019.
Donie's brother Enda was Roscommon captain when they last lifted the JJ Nestor Cup in 2019.

But with their league goals achieved, the next step is the one right in front of the team, and it’s one he hopes that they can seize on Sunday.

“It’s great to be back in a Connacht final. We have a massive opportunity on Sunday, the game is probably going to be 50/50. We’ve played Galway a lot over the last few years, so I don’t think that the victories in 2017 and 2019 will make a difference. 

“We wanted to get promoted and win the league, and get to a Connacht final at least, so we’re happy where we are at the minute”.

And it’s that key word – happy – that really underpins a lot of Roscommon’s success this season. The GAA, the nation, the world itself, was under a cloud in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 and the impact it had on people’s lives. Yet it looked for long stretches as if the Roscommon senior football scene was one of the gloomiest environments around. The team’s tactical approach appeared to be at loggerheads with the natural personality of the group and the qualities of the players at their disposal, and reverting to a more front-foot, attacking style has seen the team thrive in 2022.

“It’s no secret — when you play to Gaelic football, you play to your strengths. Our strengths are playing on the front foot” said Smith.

“When you see the way the team shape up, we play with six forwards, and that suits us. We want to play fast ball, we want to play the ball with our foot. The lads in training have really encouraged it. We’ve played in-house games with rules that encourage that even further”.

There have been some changes in personnel too. Corner back Eoin McCormack has been a real find, while previously peripheral players like Sigerson Cup winner Cathal Heneghan and midfielder Eddie Nolan have taken on key roles. 

“We lost a lot of guys with massive experience last year, guys who retired like Cathal (Cregg) and Conor (Devaney) alongside lads who couldn’t commit because of injury or travel” Smith explained.  

“Lads who had strong club campaigns from last year and some U-20s have come in, and it’s like they’ve been here for years. They’re not here just be part of the set-up, they’re here pushing for starting places. They’re here to learn and they’ve come in with a great attitude, which is the most important thing.  

In some ways, it feels like a brand new squad but the culture within the group hasn’t changed. Everyone is going in the one direction”. 

On Sunday, that direction is west. But for the Summer as a whole, Donie Smith has identified some gaps higher up the gaelic football food chain. After spending most of his ten-year career operating at the mezzanine level of the sport, he’s hoping that this Sunday will see Roscommon take another step up the ladder, with a view towards maybe making their home much closer to the top of the tree.