SLIPPERY WHEN WET Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea, right, and Jason Doherty try to hold their feet as Roscommon’s Seán Mullooly goes flying during Saturday’s Connacht GAA SFC semi-final in Castlebar. Pic: Sportsfile
LAST Saturday evening was as close to the action as I have been in some time. There were times when you nearly felt like getting up and smothering a breaking ball yourself.
Working as a sideline reporter gives you fascinating access behind-the-scenes, and once more I could acutely feel the tension in the air long before throw-in at MacHale Park.
This time out I found myself literally in the Roscommon management section, seated right beside them, with a TV monitor for company. Sky Sports get two seats on the line for every game.
It can be slightly embarrassing at times when you are so close to the respective managements. You hear a lot. Some of it is gold. Some of it ne’er to be used.
I usually keep my head down and use discretion. Lads get totally wound up in match-day scenarios and sometimes they say and do things that are well outside their normal behaviour patterns. As I say, discretion is vital!
But as this game went on it was hard to stay invisible. My TV monitor was in big demand, for example, as the Rossie backroom looked to scrutinise some big calls that David Gough made during a frenetic game.
I had met John Prenty of the Connacht Council before the game and he was worried about the ‘challenge and hunger’ that Roscommon would bring. How right John was. From the fifth minute on you could sense Anthony Cunningham’s side were conditioned to the max and were just not going to fall away.
Early doors they struggled to win any of their kick-outs and Cunningham looked frustrated – but not panicked - about that. They gradually began to get some breaking ball and soon snatched two goals. That brought the Roscommon management quickly out of their seats.
You could sense they were coming for a kill by the passion that their backroom exuded alone.
As the rain came down players from both sides started calling for gloves. From where we were sitting you could tell the pitch was like an ice rink. The player’s touch was so good that they were able to prevent the ball from spilling everywhere, but what I noticed most was the ferocity of the hits, the counter-attacking of Roscommon, and the constant bombardment that Aidan O’Shea faced every time he touched the ball.
It was as if O’Shea had been identified as the alpha male and had to be stopped any time he got the ball. He never once reacted to the punishment he took.
Darren Coen looked deadly, Conor Cox was shaping up well, even if the Roscommon bench screamed at him once or twice to chase back and help the defence when they had lost possession.
I looked over at James Horan who I’ve worked with for the past few seasons with Sky and couldn’t help but admire him for leaving the comfort of the TV studio to get back on battle-lines. Any time I glanced over he was entirely focused on proceedings or locked in conversation with one of his selectors.
At half-time all hell broke loose. The tunnel fracas broke out. It wasn’t mere handbags but it wasn’t a bloodbath either. Battle lines were drawn and, as I followed the teams into their dressing-rooms it became apparent that the match officials had been scrutinising them too – four of them were booked upon the restart.
Mayo thundered into the Rossies in the second half but couldn’t put them away. With every wide the Mayo bench somehow managed to stay restrained. The Rossies were a lot more expressive – hands in the air, questioning calls, their hunger growing all the time.
And then the end. A flash interview with man of the match Conor Cox who, you sensed, understandably wanted to be out on the pitch with his team-mates rather than stuck with me. James Horan graciously also did an interview and spoke of how quickly Mayo needed to move on. Anthony Cunningham came in and spent as much time praising Galway as he did dissecting the win they had just carved out.
That’s the way it is now. The stakes are so high. You can see it on the faces of all those you interview week in, week out.
Damian Lawlor was working as the sideline reporter for Sky Sports at last Saturday night’s game in Castlebar.