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'Playing quarter-finals in Croke Park is where you want to be in July'

Enda Smith discusses Roscommon’s Connacht Football Championship final win over Galway and what lies in wait against Mayo this weekend.

Enda Smith celebrates winning the Connacht Senior Football Championship.
Enda Smith celebrates winning the Connacht Senior Football Championship.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT WAS NOTHING but pure, concentrated ecstasy at the final whistle of this year’s Connacht final for Roscommon supporters.

Kevin McStay’s side were not given much hope of causing an upset in Salthill, however a spirited and dogged performance saw them come out victors to earn a first senior provincial title in seven long years.

The game saw Enda Smith pick up his second successive Man of the Match award in this season’s Championship. Three points and a stellar performance in the semi-final against Leitrim earned him his first, before his display inside Pearse Stadium saw the 22-year-old earn further plaudits.

One such admirer came in the form of Colm Cooper on The Sunday Game, who singled out Smith for his presence in the middle of the field: “Enda Smith, controlled the game, was very dominant and gave Roscommon the platform they needed”, said Cooper.

Smith was flattered by the praise, but it was simply a drop in the ocean of happy memories that 9 July 2017 will recall in years to come for the player. The day is still a blur of happy emotion, coming and going all too quickly in the blink of an eye.

Enda Smith celebrates after the game Smith celebrates at the final whistle in Pearse Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“To beat Galway in any game is great but to go down there and beat them in Salthill for the first time in 30 years and quite comprehensively by nine points… I don’t think even the great Roscommon teams of the 1970s and 1980s managed to do that and they were probably the best batch of players to have represented the county”, he says.

It was surreal. We were obviously hoping for a win during the week and were quietly confident in the group ourselves. But I don’t think anyone imagined we would win so comprehensively with nine points to spare.”

And the Gooch’s praise?

“It’s nice, no doubt about it. To get praise from anyone is nice but from someone like the Gooch is definitely a bit more special because he has gone out and done it and is probably the most gifted footballer that has ever played the game.

To hear comments like that from him is definitely special.”

Smith has been outstanding as a midfield presence for the Rossies this year and is relishing the opportunity to hold down the position at senior level, having played along the half-forward and full-forward line in previous years for the county.

His high catches were, as Cooper lamented, the platform on which Roscommon toppled Galway in Salthill against a formidable duo of Paul Conroy and Fiontán Ó Curraoin.

“I do like playing in the middle of the field but I suppose it wouldn’t have gotten as much coverage to play midfield at other levels. For my club I would have played midfield the whole way up.

Enda Smith The 22-year-old made his Championship debut in 2013. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“But for Roscommon I was always at 10 or 12 in the half-forward line, from minor through U21s and into senior level and also in college with DCU.

“It was last year that Kevin and Fergal O’Donnell told me they wanted me to play in midfield. I started off there in the early part of the league and it did go well.

Kevin and the coaches were just telling me to go and be positive and express myself. They were really encouraging of me and the team to just go out and play our game and to show them what we can do – it was a case of let them mark you and not to worry about your marker.”

There was a sombre mood heading into this year’s Championship for Roscommon. 2016 was a season of contrasting highs and lows: McStay and O’Donnell lost their opening league fixture before embarking on a four game winning streak, beating both Donegal and Cork along the way.

Championship saw them beat Leitrim and Sligo before taking Galway to a Connacht final replay, which they lost by a bitterly disappointing eleven points, 3-16 to 0-14. The replay meant McStay’s side were dead on their feet six days later, whereupon they exited the All-Ireland in Round 4 of the qualifiers to Clare.

Enda Smith "Kevin and the coaches were just telling me to go and be positive and express myself." Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

It was a season of highs and lows — the highs of remaining in Division One when many tipped Roscommon to go straight back down and of a league semi-final appearance against Kerry. But also the lows of a Connacht final battering and a whimpering exit to the Banner county less than a week later.

This season saw an air of hesitation enter the fray come the beginning of the Championship. Perhaps less hesitation, but a lack of expectancy following a league campaign which saw McStay’s side relegated to Division Two with six defeats and just a single win against Cavan.

This as well as the exit of a number of senior mainstays through retirement or otherwise from the panel, including Clann na nGael forward Donal Shine, on top of O’Donnell’s own exit the previous October.

Smith says the dark days were few and far between in hindsight, maintaining McStay always held his nerve and his belief in himself and his panel to achieve, even when many wrote them off early in this year’s Championship.

“We did have a few tough days in the league but within the camp things are always positive with Kevin”, he explains.

Enda Smith reacts to a missed chance Roscommon were relegated to Division Two this year with six defeats and one win. Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

“We wanted to be flying it come July because in the last few seasons under John Evans we always seemed to do well in the league but never performed in the Championship at all.

Kevin really wanted us to go up a level. It’s justified now what Kevin has been saying throughout the league about Roscommon, that this team was going to be ready come Championship.”

Smith has grown up in an era of underage triumph for Roscommon — achievements which many have been surprised and disappointed not to have filtered through to the senior side. Smith hopes that setback stops from here on in.

“Hopefully now”, he says.

“All the talk has always been that Roscommon is a great underage team and that they’ll come good soon, but as players we’ve been sick of hearing that. 11 of the lads who started the Connacht final are under the age of 23.

“This is my fifth year on the panel and it’s my brother Donal’s sixth year – I know we’re young but we’ve been here for years. I think we are getting to know what is required but now it is nice to get that monkey off the back winning a first Connacht Senior title.”

The player captained Roscommon to a minor title (the county won two, in 2011 and 2012) as well being instrumental in U21 titles in 2014 and 2015, but admits enjoying the sweet taste of success at senior level trumps any and all underage success as an intercounty footballer.

To be honest I think the senior title probably overtakes winning the minor title now. Anything you win at minor or U21 level is brilliant – at the time it’s the best thing in the world. But as you get older you want to be delivering big performances that might be remembered more at senior level.

“I think on the basis of that and the way the year has been going and the way the final went against Galway – and when you see the emotion of fans at the final whistle – it probably puts Sunday’s win above captaining the minors in 2012.”

What were those emotions at the final whistle against Galway?

Enda Smith and Donal Smith celebrate with supporters in the crowd after the game "You're just living in the moment." Enda Smith celebrates with Roscommon supporters three weeks ago. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“You’re not really thinking, you’re just living in the moment. You’re not thinking about what you achieved in that moment, you’re just enjoying what is happening and are looking for your team-mates and looking for your family to celebrate with them.”

He says it was an incredible moment to be on the receiving end of a pitch invasion having flooded onto the pitch after the county’s last senior provincial title seven years ago.

“I remember in 2010 when Roscommon won the Connacht championship against Sligo in MacHale Park I ran over to Sean Purcell after the final whistle. It was just unbelievable to be on the other side of that when we beat Galway.

To meet ex-players and see all the fans in tears on the pitch… it was a great feeling. It kind of came and went too quickly though, to be honest. You wish it could happen all over again because it was just a surreal experience.”

He says the close to three month break between Championship games gave Roscommon a much needed rest which had not been present in previous years, with a new feeling of freshness and sense of peaking at the right point in the season making all the difference.

“This year I’ve had a good run at it and I suppose the break between league and Championship, there was 11 weeks between the Leitrim game and the Connacht final, it was brilliant for me and the rest of the team.

Enda Smith celebrates after the game "To meet ex-players and see all the fans in tears on the pitch... it was a great feeling." Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I spent a few weeks going back to the club and we had a bit of time off, which was something we didn’t really have in other years. It did feel very constant during those years where you feel like you’re always training and you’re nearly getting sick of putting on a pair of boots.

We had those couple of weeks off after the Leitrim game and came into it fresh and re-energised and raring to go back into training. For myself I felt the difference because of that. I am a lot fresher now and am playing and training consistently.”

And Croke Park this weekend?

“We’re looking forward to it, definitely. It’s our first time in seven years and we’ll go into it as underdogs, but we’ll go up there and try and enjoy it as much as we can.

“We’ll play the football we know we can play and give it a good crack. To be playing in Croke Park at the end of July is just fantastic, both for the players and for our fans as well because it hasn’t happened for us over the last number of years.

“Playing quarter-finals in Croke Park is where you want to be in July.”

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