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Saturday 23 September 2017

'Rochy' craves Sam, not critical acclaim

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. Photo: Sportsfile

Year two and already his third All-Ireland final, replay included. It has been an eventful introduction to life in the inter-county fast lane for Mayo manager Stephen Rochford.

Open up the 'Rochford Files' and you'll find that he's no stranger to the slings and arrows of outrageous (own goal double-whammy) misfortune. Or outrageous lampoons from some headline-seeking pundits either.

But he's still standing. And so are his indefatigable team.

So, almost two years in, does anything surprise him?

"No, not at this stage. Two months into it, maybe then ..."

Which begs the inevitable follow-up query: what surprised him then?

"This job, as in an inter-county manager's job, you understand you are out there every week," Rochford explains.

"You are under the microscope, you are in a situation whereby your performance is evaluated on Monday morning by a result.

"I would ask you to show me any other profession - and this isn't even a profession - where you have got journalists, pundits, analysts, evaluating your performance on a weekly basis. I don't see politicians, solicitors, whatever it is, getting that kind of scrutiny. And the narrative can change from week to week, depending on a result."

Rochford, of course, was on the receiving end of savage criticism for his decision to switch goalkeepers between All-Ireland final draw and replay last autumn. Even without the benefit of hindsight, and before the calamity that befell Rob Hennelly, his omission of All Star-elect David Clarke was hard to fathom.

In many ways, though, the criticism that followed his recent semi-final reinvention of Aidan O'Shea - as full-back for a day to stymie Kieran Donaghy's famed aerial menace - was worse.

It was more acerbic, more personalised (crystalised by that "lions led by donkeys" jibe) and ultimately far less justified.

Rochford simply had to try something unorthodox to stem a Donaghy threat that has haunted different Mayo teams for over a decade.

Last laugh

And, even if it didn't work the day-one oracle, the manager stuck to his replay guns and his full-back for a second day had the last laugh. As did his boss, not that he's one to gloat.

He is asked would he have received so much stick if Mayo had won the first day?

"I don't know," he mulls. "And to be honest, I am not looking to control that or anything like that. We understand that is how things are.

"We never selected Aidan to seek approval of a paper, or a pundit on a TV programme or a radio station. We looked to do it to try and win a game of football, that would have allowed us to get into an All-Ireland final. That might sound very simplistic but that is the way we look at it."

Rochford conveys the impression that all of the attention, negative or otherwise, has not overly impacted on his busy life. "You work within your own county - you have a lot of support there," explains the AIB retail and business manager.

"The Mayo support have been very good to me, to the team; and whatever sort of criticism we were getting in the week between the two (Kerry) games, because the replay was only six days after the drawn match, we sort of sheltered ourselves away from that.

"We had enough to be focussing on in relation to winning the replay, to not be distracted by a headline, a comment or a line here and there."

Maybe his earlier reference to management as a job was a slip of the tongue, so you wonder if - at times, given the time and mental energy involved - it feels like one.

"There is a lot in this job … this role ... this position … and I am very privileged to be managing the Mayo team, getting to All-Ireland finals," he says.

"There is a big workload in it but I knew that when I was signing up for the job. Things have moved on from those first two months - we lost the first three national league games (in early 2016). When you sign up for the job initially, you don't envisage losing the first three league games. That is not part of the plan anyway. That is the context of saying, two months in. It was my first foray into inter-county."

Before that, he had worked wonders with Corofin, leading the Galway kingpins to the All-Ireland club summit in 2015. Their semi-final unmasking of the holders, St Vincent's, was both a stunning performance and tactical masterclass.

Daunting

Now, with or without Diarmuid Connolly in the starting opposition line-up, he faces a challenge even more daunting. Rochford is quick to praise Dublin's quality and also their tactical versatility; yet he's equally quick to highlight the physical readiness and belief of his Mayo charges as they prepare for game ten of an epic summer.

Mind you, at one fraught juncture at the start of July, facing 'back door' oblivion at home to Derry, he was starting to wonder if they'd get beyond game three.

"There are a number of pros to the qualifiers," the Mayo boss reflects. "You're getting your games, you're getting match fitness up, the likelihood is that you're getting more players game-time.

"But, when you invest into a provincial championship and it doesn't go your way, your confidence is certainly rattled. It takes a lot of character to be able to deal with that.

"That Derry game was difficult because, no matter how hard we were trying to score, we just couldn't … we had 18 wides, five balls into the goalie's hands, and five times we hit the woodwork.

"That's 28 shots on goal with no reward, plus what we had scored. So that may be 40 chances - and still we had to wait to see if James Kielt was going to knock us out of the championship.

"So, in those moments, you're there wondering, 'Holy Christ'. We've had a bad day in front of goal - but we've done a lot well, to create those opportunities, and (snaps his fingers) could have been out of the championship like that."

But Kielt's free fell short. Mayo cut loose in extra-time, survived a few more July bouts of Russian Roulette - and then caught fire in August.

Now, all they need do is finish the job in September. A 66-year-old conundrum distilled down to 70 minutes. Easy-peasy, eh? The Rochford Files have one last case to crack ...

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