Flashback: 2006 All-Ireland Minor Football Final - Roscommon v Kerry
By John Harrington
No All-Ireland minor football final before or since has produced the sort of sights and sounds that Roscommon’s 2006 replay victory over Kerry did.
It seemed as though half of the Connacht county had descended on Ennis for the occasion, with cars abandoned for miles outside the town.
The serried ranks of Rossies that filled Cusack Park testified to the extent a talented and very spirited young Roscommon team had won the hearts of the county’s supporters.
And when the final whistle blew and Roscommon had won their first All-Ireland title in the grade in 55 years, the celebrations that were unleashed still live vividly in the mind’s eye 14 years later.
What made the achievement all the more special was that no-one saw it coming.
Galway and Mayo were figured to have good minor teams in Connacht that year, but no-one was shouting Roscommon’s odds.
After all, they’d suffered a series of defeats in challenge matches before the campaign began, including a 20-point hammering at the hands of Armagh.
“As far as I can remember, in terms of challenge matches, I think we played five or six of them and I don't think we were even close to winning one of them,” recalls Roscommon senior footballer, Conor Devaney, who was one of the stars of that 2006 minor team.
“There was nothing at all expected of us. I don't know what happened, it all just came together and there was a good feeling. The 25 or 30 lads just all worked very well together.
“Our first match was against Galway in the Hyde and there was sense afterwards that we could do something.
“We got a bit of luck that day and that was another thing, there was a bit of luck throughout the campaign that helped us.
“I think we scored a long-distance goal that went past the Galway goalkeeper that day which was the turning-point of the game. There was things like along the way and just a good feeling about it all the way along.
“We were training very, very hard. Even when we were losing those challenge matches I don't think there was a sense that we were going to continue losing once the Championship started.
“We were training so hard and working so hard on certain things with Fergal (O’Donnell) that we kind of knew at some point that we'd have to improve and ultimately we did.”
That Roscommon minor team had very talented players like Devaney, Donie Shine, David O’Gara, Fintan Cregg, and David Keenan to name but some.
But they were also fortunate to have at the helm a manager in Fergal O’Donnell who drilled them so well that they became greater than the sum of their collective parts.
“He was great,” says Devaney. “I think at minor level I would say he was going into things in far more detail in terms of oppositional analysis and our own analysis than a lot of other managers would have been at that level at that time.
“I think that's something that stood to us, even when it came to the two All-Ireland Finals against Kerry.
“We had done a lot of work on opposition kick-outs, all of the stuff that is nearly second-nature to teams now but which I don't think would have been common back then, certainly in the minor grade.
“It was the first time I ever came across it, and I think we went into things in a lot more detail than most teams did at that stage, and the players really bought into it. That was one thing that was very good about him.”
Roscommon were rank underdogs going into the All-Ireland Final against a Kerry team with big-name players like Tommy Walsh, David Moran, Shane Enright and Paddy Curran.
They didn’t lack for confidence themselves though because they’d beaten a highly fancied Meath team in the semi-final, and after a slow start really took the game to Kerry.
They looked the mostly likely victors until a late burst from Kerry meant Roscommon needed a late equaliser from O’Gara to pull the game out of the fire.
In the week between the drawn match and the replay, Fergal O’Donnell and his players worked hard on making improvements in a couple of key areas that ultimately made a big difference.
Number one was reducing the influence of Kerry’s powerhouse midfielder, Tommy Walsh, who had won a huge amount of ball in the middle third in the drawn game.
Easier said than done, because Walsh was nearly as big as a minor as he is now.
“He was”, says Devaney. “ He could have been even bigger! He was huge.
“I remember trying to tackle him at one stage in the drawn game when he just pushed me over the sidline of Croke Park. That's just the way he was, there wasn't much you could do, so we had to come up with a plan to try to disrupt that.
“As far as I recall, we did execute that fairly well. We kept our kick-outs away from him and if it had to go near him we had a plan to keep it to one side and David Keenan and one or two others would be coming around.
“It wasn't that complicated but it was something we definitely worked on and I think it worked in the second game to our advantage.
“The replay was a very different game to the first final in Croke Park. It was a tighter game because both teams had reviewed and looked at their opposition and the replay was more of a tense game, not as free-flowing as the first game.
“That was the case for me as well because in the first game in Croke Park I played fairly well, I think I got five points.
“Shane Enright was marking me that day and marked me the second day as well and, in fairness to him, he did a very good job on me. I only got one point the next day so it was a very different type of game, a tougher game like that.”
So many Roscommon supporters descended on Ennis for the replay that the match had to be delayed for 15 minutes to let everyone into the ground.
Such was the level of expectancy in the build-up to the game that it wouldn’t have been all that surprising if the young Roscommon players buckled under it.
Instead the hype in the county inspired them to new heights.
“We were very much aware of it,” says Devaney. “Coming up to the game and the fact that it was delayed we knew it was huge. We know what things had been like in Roscommon the week coming up to it after the first final.
“We knew it was going to be like that in terms of traffic and supporters so we had a plan with the bus and everything like that.
“Even though we were very much aware of it, it didn't seem to affect us. I would say it nearly helped us.
“We were spurred on by that in the sense that we knew it meant almost more to us because we hadn't won in so long than maybe Kerry supporters because they would be used to success.
“We knew maybe that this was more important for us and that made us really try harder, if that makes sense. We wanted to make sure there was success for oursleves and the supporters because we knew how much it meant to them coming up to it.
“And then obviously the day in Ennis seeing everyone around the place and the game being delayed. And going out on the pitch you could see between the noise and the flags that there was far, far, far more Roscommon supporters than Kerry.
“For me, that absolutely does not add pressure. It simply means you have more support and I think that will help you all the time.”
Roscommon were the better team in the replay, but some poor shooting meant they didn’t make their dominance count on the scoreboard.
Kerry took the lead with ten minutes to go, but Roscommon held their nerve and then finished with a flourish as Shine kicked the last three points of the match to seal a famous victory.
The pitch invasion that swiftly followed up the final whistle was an emotional release for a county that had waited so long for All-Ireland silverware.
“It was exactly that,” says Devaney. “I know we've had some good Connacht Final pitch invasions from Roscommon supporters in the last couple of years but that was even bigger than any of those, I think.
“Because, exactly what you say, it had been so long since there was any kind of a win by a Roscommon football team at any level, especially an All-Ireland.
“It was just crazy the amount of supporters. You could sense that while you were playing in terms of the flags and the noise, but when you went up to get the cup and looked back down on the pitch, you could really see just how many more Roscommon supporters than Kerry supporters there was at the match.
“The whole pitch was nearly full with them. It was an amazing scene.”
A good chunk of that 2006 minor team would go on to play senior football together for Roscommon, and to this day there’s a bond between them that still endures.
“Of course there is,” says Devaney. “In 2016 we all met up again ten years after it and that was a great night. There's definitely a bond there.
“It's something I suppose we'll always have in common and something that people in Roscommon will always go back to and remember fondly. That's something that will always be there.”