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Saturday 10 December 2016

Mayo's long road back to Croker

Rochford hoping for an end to sleepy spells as born-again contenders crank up for Tipp

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford in relaxed mood. Pic: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford in relaxed mood. Pic: Sportsfile

Oh, the frustrations of being a manager. Stephen Rochford knows all about that sometimes helpless state of mind, even after a maiden Mayo campaign that has brought his players back to an All-Ireland semi-final.

Rochford inherited a squad that had taken the decision to force out their previous management team after just one season.

Then he watched those same players - hot favourites to land a sixth consecutive Connacht SFC crown - crash and burn at home to Galway.

What followed, as they meandered through the qualifiers, showcased the best and worst of Mayo. It was only when faced by a rival tipped to end their run that Mayo found their mojo. And kept it for more than 15 minutes.

Now, fresh fro m squeezing past Ulster kingpins Tyrone, Rochford hopes his players will be liberated for next Sunday's last-four date with Tipperary.

Microscope

"Because it's Tyrone and one of the teams that were looked at as winning the All-Ireland, your game-plan comes more under the microscope," he says.

"We would feel that in each game we were incrementally improving - but our performances were patchy. We were playing well for 20 minutes here and 25 minutes there.

"The next thing we were falling asleep for five minutes at the end of the first half against Fermanagh when they knocked on four points. That put us in trouble ... and why were we doing that? Those sorts of things needed to be discussed and addressed.

"The biggest thing is that (the Tyrone) win was a bit of a release for the lads, they are certainly going to be playing with much more confidence than has been evident in the games up to the quarter-final."

Now that he's survived the minefield that was Fermanagh, Kildare and Westmeath, he can describe the qualifiers as "a means to an end" - aka reaching the last-eight - and it didn't matter what the winning margins were.

"We always would have liked to be playing more consistently but we knew there was a big performance in the group - we had seen the focus and energy levels put into training over the couple of weeks," he says. "Because it was Tyrone and a provincial champion, your confidence will be sharpened being that sort of big team. I've every reason to believe we'll get that out of the group when we get back to Croke Park."

All of which should not translate into Rochford predictions of a green-and-red rampage against the one-time Munster minnows. Even as a year-one inter-county boss, he's far too savvy for that.

Besides, the man who led Corofin to All-Ireland club glory just 17 months ago can cite linear form-lines as a weapon against complacency.

"They also expected us to beat Galway and we didn't. If that isn't a lesson for what is outside the group and what can get talked about, maybe I'm not doing my job properly," he surmises.

"We're acutely aware of what Tipperary bring. They had the standout result in the early rounds when they beat Cork and the way they regrouped after the Munster final defeat was really super, travelling to Cavan (against Derry) and the performance they put up against Galway - the team that handed us a good beating a number of weeks ago.

"If somebody just landed back in the country thinks all we have to do is turn up, that certainly isn't the language, the mood or vibe in our camp."

He reiterates: "It was the exact same Galway team that had beaten us. We are very mindful of that. People may say we're going to be favourites, but that is something outside our control."

Banished

Moreover, it's not as if the Tyrone performance (when 13 points proved just enough) banished all doubts. "We went two points up and sort of allowed Tyrone to come back at us and gave away one or two unnecessary frees," he says.

"There's a lot more to be happy with in relation to how we played but we didn't create any goal chance ... in order to beat Tipperary we will need to be able to score a g oal.

"Otherwise, you're on about kicking 16 or 17 points and that's a very difficult challenge, looking at the way they played against Galway anyway."

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