LAST JULY, CONOR Cox took his place alongside his father Martin in O’Moore Park for Roscommon’s round 4 qualifier tie against Armagh. 

Martin hails from the Éire Og club in Roscommon and Conor, his Kerry-born son, has been a regular spectator at their championship games over the years. 

“He’s a big Rossie fan,” Cox told The42. ”When I’d be free during the summer he’d always be onto me to go to the championship matches and I’ve been to a good few with him.”

Players compete for possession during the Armagh v Roscommon 2018 qualifier clash.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It turned out to be one of the games of the championship. Roscommon edged a high-scoring affair that finished 2-22 to 1-19, which sealed their place in the inaugural Super 8s.

On a baking afternoon in Portlaoise, it was a game that demonstrated everything good the inter-county game had to offer.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a bad advertisement for the Roscommon footballers either. When the invitation came from new manager Anthony Cunningham over the winter to join the county set-up, the free-flowing nature of their attack was still fresh on Cox’s mind. He had little hesitation in saying, ‘Yes.’

“When it came about, I got a call off Anthony and I was absolutely delighted to get it,” he explains. “Over the moon. 

“I was watching against Armagh last year and it was a great game. I couldn’t get over the skill level and I think it was about 35 degrees the same day.

“The way Roscommon moved the ball that day it was very inspiring from a football lover’s point of view. There was no negativity it was just gung-ho and there were some great scores kicked that day and it was just a great game of football to watch really.

“Armagh contributed to it hugely and it was a serious game. When Anthony did call, thinking of Roscommon playing that brand of football it was an easy decision really to make.”

Conor Cox goes past Niall Morgan during this year’s league.

Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

Cox quickly became a regular in attack under Cunningham, posting 1-25 across the six Division 1 games he played this spring. 

“Roscommon have no shortage of top class forwards, the likes of Cathal Cregg, Diarmuid Murtagh, Donie Smith, Enda Smith, the list is endless really. I might have been top scorer a few days but there’s certainly top class forwards in Roscommon so they’re not dependent on one person.”

Roscommon face Leitrim in Sunday’s Connacht SFC quarter-final in a game and he’s named to start at full-forward. Cox, 25, is set to make his senior inter-county championship debut.

It will be a proud moment for his parents to watch their son don the primrose and blue. 

Cox’s father met his mother Anne, a native of Kerry, in New York after both had emigrated in the 1980s. 

“Dad would have played with Eire Og. They would have been a relatively new club founded when he was growing up.

“When the recession hit then he had to go to America so he met my mom over there then. Football took a back-step when you’re over in New York. 

“Mom’s originally from Moyvane so she would have gone out to New York too during the recession. She’s mad into her football too.

“She was thrilled when Anthony called to give me the opportunity to train with Roscommon first. The way things moved along so quickly she’s delighted going up and down to the games.” 

He grew up in Kerry, showing initial promise with the local Listowel Emmets club. Cox represented the Kingdom the whole way through the underage ranks and the signposts indicated that he was set for a breakthrough at senior level. But it never transpired. 

He didn’t start a game with Kerry minors – making just one substitute appearance – but was the first-choice full-forward for two years with the Kingdom U21s. 

Cox celebrates a score against Cork in the Munster U21 quarter-final of 2013.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He scored 1-21 across his four U21 appearances in 2012 and 2013, playing alongside several future seniors like Mark Griffin, Stephen O’Brien, Paul Murphy, Tadhg Morley and Jack Sherwood.

It was at university level where Cox really shone. He became a key figure in the UCC team that contended for Sigerson Cups earlier this decade under the guidance of Billy Morgan.

Cox played in three finals, winning the competition in 2014. The UCC full-forward line that year had a terrifying look to it: Paul Geaney, Cox, Michael Quinlivan.

Geaney and Quinlivan would go on to win All-Stars but it was Cox who top-scored with six points in the win over UUJ.

“I don’t know about standing out,” he says, “there were so many top quality players in that team. It’s funny, myself and Niall Daly we always talk about it. That was my first year at Sigerson and it was his last year so I would have got to know him that year.

“I played with other players, Conor Sweeney, Peter Acheson, Michael Quinlivan, Paul Geaney – we had top class players down there.

“Funnily enough we were actually written off big time in that final. We were playing UUJ in Queen’s and I don’t think anybody gave us a chance.

“But we were quietly confident ourselves, I suppose Billy Morgan…if he’s over a team, every team has a chance to matter who they’re playing.”

The Ulster side were hot-favourites heading into the decider, boasting a team that included future stars Rory Beggan, Chrissy McKaigue, Colin Walshe, Killian Clarke, Mattie Donnelly, Kieran Hughes, Ronan O’Neill, Jamie Clarke and Connor McAlliskey.

But UCC edged through a tight finale by 0-10 to 0-9 after Cork man Conor Dorman popped up with an injury-time winner.

In his last year at Sigerson level in 2015, Cox scored three points in the extra-time final loss to DCU. Following the game, Billy Morgan indicated his surprise that the young forward hadn’t been given a proper chance with Kerry seniors under Eamonn Fitzmaurice. 

“I think he is an out-and-out class player,” said Morgan. “I expected him to be on the Kerry (championship) panel last year. It beats me why he wasn’t.

“I am sure after today, like he was outstanding for us. He has been outstanding for us all this season and they’ll have to take note.”

Cox is full of praise for the influence Cork legend Morgan had on his career.

“The thing about Billy is he lets the players drive it and he goes in at the back of it too. He’s very positive too and he’d have had a big influence on my career.

“It’s funny, I was actually chatting to him a few weeks ago and he was telling me he’s still following my progress and all that. Billy’s great, he’s a very nice fella.”

Billy Morgan, Cox and David Culhane celebrate UCC’s Sigerson Cup win in 2014.

Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

Standing at 6ft, Cox is a powerful inside forward and accurate shooter. He won three All-Ireland junior titles with Kerry (2012, ’15 and ’17) and scored 1-18 across the finals against Mayo (twice) and Meath. 

In the 2017 decider against the Royals, the Kerry full-forward line consisted of Cox, Spillane and Tomás Ó Sé. The latter pair are currently part of Peter Keane’s senior panel. 

The senior appearances were few and far between for Cox. He played in seven Allianz Football League games over a span of four years (two in 2013, three in 2014 and two in 2016).

He started the Division 1 round 2 win over Derry in 2014, posting seven points. Cox followed up that performance with a four-point haul against Mayo a week later, but instead of propelling him up the pecking order, it would be his last appearance for two years.

He spent that summer in the States, while Kerry went on to win a shock All-Ireland title in September.

Cox’s final game for the Kingdom came against Roscommon, incidentally, in the league three years ago, where he scored a point. Despite starting just three times, he contributed 0-13 in his senior career in the green and gold.

With opportunities difficult to come by under Fitzmaurice, did Cox ever question his ability to make it as an inter-county footballer? 

“The thing about it really is that in Kerry it’s very competitive down there and that’s just with club football too,” he reflects.

“The thing I like most about football is the competitiveness of it. I’ll be representing Feale Rangers in the county championship and every game you play with them is competitive.

“I played a few senior games (with Kerry) alright. I’d know all the lads, I’d be friendly with them. I suppose with what has happened, there’s no hard feelings or anything. I’m still friends with them and all that.

“I played underage with Kerry and a few league games too but I’m just enjoying the present now at the minute and looking forward to the future other than looking back at it. 

Cox takes on Ger Cafferkey during a Division 1 clash against Mayo in 2014.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’m really enjoying football at the minute up here and I’m looking forward to this year and a few years of it left hopefully.”

Before Cox could switch allegiances to Roscommon, a messy transfer process took place. He admits it would have run a lot smoother had it not been for a “lack of research” on his own part. 

He initially transferred from Listowel to Éire Óg but the ‘Seanie Johnston rule’ meant that for him to be elgibile to play for Roscommon he’d need to have played a championship game with his new club first. With the local championship not beginning until August, that would have ruled him out for virtually the entire campaign.

St Judes also sounded him out over a potential move to Dublin, but Cox would eventually discover that the parentage rule meant he was already qualified to play for Roscommon.

“I initially had got a transfer to Éire Óg but it was just unfortunate their club championship fell in August time which was probably a bit late in the year for Anthony and the management if they wanted to have a right look at me,” he said.

“I was speaking to the St Judes manager and he was very understanding of the situation because I was based in Dublin. But again, it was probably down to my own lack of research and lack of knowledge on the whole transfer thing.

“But it’s funny enough the way it happened, because if I was asked at the start of the year if I’d be happy to stay with Listowel Emmets I definitely would. I’m really enjoying football down there too at the minute. 

“So it just made a bit more sense to go back down to Listowel,” he continued. “From my own point of view I probably didn’t do enough research into the whole transfer saga.

“I was told after that if I stayed with Listowel I could have played with Roscommon under the parent rule anyway. Yerra, there’s no one to blame really for it. It is what it is.” 

Cox was Roscommon’s top scorer during the league.

Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

Roscommon were relegated to Division 2 in the spring but there were plenty of positives for Cunningham to glean in his first year in charge.

Cox hit four points in the defeat to his native county on 24 March and received some messages of support from his old team-mates following the game.

“The result was disappointing, that was the big thing about the day. I’d still be friends with all the Kerry lads there’s no hard feelings there or anything and actually a few of them texted me afterwards to wish me the best of luck – Peter Crowley and Paul Geaney,

“I’d have known them through UCC very well too. I’d be friends with them and it was just another game really but the result was disappointing from the Roscommon side of things.”

He’s enjoying working under Cunningham, who brought both the Galway hurlers and Garrycastle footballers to All-Ireland finals in the past.

“Anthony’s top class in fairness to him. He’s very knowledgeable. Not only with the football but with the hurling too. He’s very tactically aware and he’s driven. You can sense it by him, I’d say he’s not a good loser.

“He wants to make sure his teams are in the best shape going into the games both physically and mentally. I couldn’t say enough good things about him really to be honest, I’ve been very, very impressed by him. He’s top class.”

Roscommon boss Anthony Cunningham.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Roscommon face a potential showdown with league champions Mayo in the last four of the province. After falling flat in the Super 8s last year, Roscommon are hoping to take another step forward this summer. 

For Cox, entering his rookie championship campaign as a starter, his goal is simple.

“For myself personally, I haven’t made a championship appearance yet so the big thing for me now is to keep the head down over the next few weeks and continue working on the parts of my game that I need to work on and hopefully I make a championship panel during the year and hopefully Roscommon are successful, that’s the main thing really.

“It’s grand when you see a few scores to your name but I’ll work hard for the team and if the opportunities come I want to take them.” 

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