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'There was a lot of teary-eyed lads:' Roscommon footballer on discussing his brother's cancer battle

Enda Smith spoke candidly about the inspiration he draws from his brother Cian in a new documentary about Roscommon’s 2017 championship.

TWO WEEKS OUT from Roscommon’s appearance in this year’s Connacht final, the team took on Meath in a challenge match.

Enda S Source: AIB Bank Youtube Channel

After an encouraging first half display the Rossies lost their stride, which prompted manager Kevin McStay to label the second-half display as ‘bullshit’ in the post-match huddle.

We don’t normally get to see the uncensored side of GAA managers, but thanks to footage gathered in the AIB “Behind The Gates” documentary, we get a fascinating insight into Roscommon’s journey through the 2017 championship.

A training session was planned in the aftermath of that game, but in an effort to alleviate the pressure on the squad, McStay decided to change up the itinerary and try something different.

He requested the players to individually prepare a presentation about themselves and what playing for Roscommon means to them.

22-year-old Enda Smith was selected to speak in front of the group as part of the exercise, and in an emotional address, he spoke about his brother Cian’s battle with throat cancer.

“Cian is 28 at the moment,” he said during episode one of the documentary, “but he actually ended up getting cancer.

Source: AIB Bank/YouTube

“So really I suppose why I play is probably 90% of it is for him.”

Smith’s powerful story was greeted with a round of applause from everyone, and McStay commended him for his openness directly afterwards.

Speaking to The42, Smith explains how he went about assembling the parts of that inspiring presentation.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether to put it in. I’m 22 and I haven’t actually done anything yet other than go to college and play football.

“I haven’t travelled or worked whereas some of the older lads are doing it and (they’ve) wonderful stories about travels and work. I’m just thinking that I’ve nothing, I’m just your normal 22-year-old playing football and in college.

I kind of said that I’d throw it in and see where it goes. I would have practised it but when you’re at the front of the group and you get into it a bit more, I suppose you see what it kind of means then and the affect that it does have on you.

“The lads knew about it obviously but mightn’t have known the influence that it might have on myself.

“I think Kevin kind of got the good vibe off it that that’s exactly what he wanted from these kind of biogrpahies and that the reason why you do it (comes through).

From the day when I did it, the lads were saying, ‘Jesus, that was brilliant, that was incredible stuff.’ It got a good vibe off them and I suppose when it was shown then, as far as I know it’s been quite well received but it’s a difficult enough topic all the same.”

Smith had just turned 13 when his brother — who was 19 at the time — was diagnosed with the illness. He didn’t tell Cian about his plans to include him in the presentation, but sent him the clip last week to show him the impact of his story on the group.

“Obviously, he was proud, which is good to hear from him,” he says.

AIB 'Behind the Gates' Launch Roscommon footballer Enda Smith pictured the launch of AIB’s four-part miniseries, “Behind The Gates” at St Audoen's Gate in Dublin. Documenting Roscommon’s remarkable rise to provincial glory from behind the scenes, the series provides a unique, never seen before insight into an intercounty setup and can be viewed on www.youtube.com/aib and AIB’s Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Smith admits that presenting himself in such a vulnerable way to the players brought its difficulties, but he also knew that he wanted to be direct in how he delivered his speech.

The approach proved to be a successful one, and he could feel a connection forming in the room as he spoke.

“I went straight into it, I didn’t beat around the bush really.

I felt myself going and lads kind of related to it after. There was a lot of teary-eyed lads in the team, so that was nice for me to see because I know I clicked with them and something clicked with them while I was talking. That was good to see.

“It was just one of the moments. It’s something that you don’t plan and it just happened. It did have a good affect on players and (they) got the understanding of what it means.”

Cian spoke to The42 earlier this year about how complaints of a sore throat ultimately led to his cancer diagnosis. He also spoke about the surgery and course of radiotherapy that followed, as well as his memories of being a member of the Roscommon minor team who famously won an All-Ireland in 2006.

Enda was just a boy at the time, but he was immersed in the journey which culminated in a victorious All-Ireland final replay against Kerry in Ennis.

Mark Miley 23/9/2006 Jubilant scenes after Roscommon's victory in the 2006 All-Ireland minor final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We would have gone to those games in 2006 religiously,” says Smith, “and seen the reaction of first of all winning the Connacht title and obviously winning the All-Ireland was incredible scenes in Ennis. It was just surreal being among that.

“To have a family member involved — it’s only as I get older that I realise what that meant.

I was only 12 at that stage so I was just living in a bubble and taking everything as it came but when you actually sit back, (you) look at the importance of that and the influence it had on players at my age.”

Enda went on to emulate his brother’s achievements at provincial level and captained Roscommon to a minor title, with the county picking up two in 2011 and 2012.

This summer, along with his brother Donie, he went on to repeat that accomplishment at senior level. Their nine-point victory over Galway in Pearse Stadium ended a seven-year drought in the process.

Despite the underdog label, Roscommon travelled to Salthill with the confidence that they could beat the reigning champions.

But no-one in the dressing room could have predicted that they would dominate the game so freely.

The problem with winning a provincial championship however, is that the aftermath doesn’t allow players enough time to savour the achievement.

Roscommon celebrates as Niall Kilroy lifts the trophy Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

All-Ireland quarter-finals quickly come into focus and dreams of bigger things displace those feelings of satisfaction. The players have to get back to work as the party rages on without them among the fans.

For teams who routinely come out on top of their province, this is probably a negligible concession, but Roscommon achieved a remarkable feat in winning the Connacht championship this year.

In addition to curbing the seven-year famine, Roscommon’s success marked a huge turnaround in their season.

A disappointing National League campaign saw them relegated to Division Two, with just one victory coming against Cavan.

Reviving from that low point to scaling the summit of Connacht was an achievement that players should deservedly enjoy, but ongoing championship commitments prevented them from taking the opportunity to fully drink it in.

Now that the season is over, the “Behind The Gates” documentary gives the players an outlet to refresh their memories of the occasion, and Smith has already had a look at the episodes.

AIB 'Behind the Gates' Launch Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

“Looking back at the third episode about the Connacht final, you can barely remember, it was such a blur I suppose.

“And over the next few days, you’re kind of in a bubble and going with the flow. You’re with your teammates but you’re not having a minute to yourself to think about what you did or what the team achieved.

“Once the Sunday or Monday was finished, Wednesday you’re back in training again and preparing for another game, so you don’t really have time to savour it.

It’s only really now when the season is over, between your club and your county that you look back. It’s great to have these little episodes to kind of refresh the memory and think, ‘Jesus, yeah we kind of did something cool there.’ It’s nice to look back on.”
Source: AIB Bank/YouTube

Roscommon’s path to Connacht glory this year mirrors the unexpected success enjoyed by the Galway footballers in 1998.

Their All-Ireland winning journey was also captured in a documentary entitled ‘A Year ‘Til Sunday.’

Smith has watched the film “many times” and can see the similarities between their stories.

“I suppose from a supporter’s point of view, it’s great for them to see what goes on,” he says.

“You’d always be wondering that the county team is probably so private and you hear nothing, but it gives them a bit of an insight.

“And from talking to other county players around the country, they think it’s brilliant as well.

“It’s cool, and it’s not trying to catch Roscommon out by giving out secrets, it’s just a kind of general mini-series just to show what goes on and what teams do.”

While reflecting on Roscommon’s year, Smith sums it up as ‘a bad start, good middle, bad end.’ Falling at the hands of Mayo so comprehensively in their All-Ireland quarter-final replay was not the sign off they hoped for after the momentum they gathered in the Connacht series.

That chapter of their season features in episode four of the documentary.

Enda Cian Enda and his brother Cian embracing after the Connacht final. Source: AIB Bank Youtube Channel

Enda always looked up to Cian as a sporting influence, and hopes that Roscommon’s success this year can motivate aspiring young players in the same way that he was inspired when the minors won the All-Ireland over 10 years ago.

Following in his brother’s footsteps is a great honour for Smith, although there’s still one more accolade that separates them.

“There’s a good clip on the third episode where the two of us manage to meet each other (after the Connacht final) and embrace so it’s a nice moment, definitely.

“His joke (to us) is that he still has the All-Ireland over us so until we get that, maybe not yet but getting there.”

AIB, creators of hit shows Jeff and Kammy’s Journey to Croker, The Toughest Trade and long-time GAA, camogie, and club championship sponsors, have documented Roscommon’s 2017 championship in the ‘Behind The Gates’ documentary. Watch all four episodes here.

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