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Sunday 25 September 2016

'We have to help ourselves... it's up to Mayo to make this work' - Rochford

Stephen Rochford
Stephen Rochford

Stephen Rochford has a pithy riposte for those naysayers who suggest that it's "now or never" for Mayo; that this squad simply couldn't sustain yet another All-Ireland defeat.

"Every year for the last three years that has been said about this Mayo team, and yet they've come back every time," he tells the Herald.

It may be year one of his reign, but Rochford has inherited a group that's been to hell and back, several times over, chasing that elusive dream.

Yet the Mayo boss rejects the "now or never" thesis as something that isn't relevant to his group. "Squads evolve," he points out. "There are players now not part of this Mayo squad who were part of the start of the (Connacht) five-in-a-row, part of this era in one way. So players come and go all the time.

"What I will say is there is huge resilience in this Mayo team, and in Mayo football. I think that's proven by the fact that three Mayo clubs contested the All-Ireland club finals this year in junior, intermediate and senior; Mayo won the U21 title; we're now in the senior final. So Mayo football ... I don't really see it as now or never.

"I think Mayo football is always going to be a very serious contender. And there may be players on this team who have ten more years to play."

INFURIATING

For now, though, their focus is very much in the moment. It's all about Sunday, how to outsmart Dublin, how to extend those 10 or 15-minute purple patches that have been a prolific yet infuriating feature of their meandering route to the final.

Asked about their flip-flopping ways and how frustrating they have been, Rochford reasons: "I wouldn't say it's frustrating - it's part of the challenge of management."

The Tyrone quarter-final was, he accepts, "our most consistent performance of the summer", a day when "a lot of what we had been doing well came together."

He expands: "I think it showed as well that our players are big-game players; that they are able to play well when there are real challenges facing them. And Tyrone represented provincial champions, obviously - a very fine footballing county - and we met that challenge head-on.

"The players' focus was good in the build-up - but the players' focus has been good in the build-up to all games. Our tactical approach - we probably got a lot of things right that day against Tyrone, but I'm long enough around to know that, you know, everything is right when the result is right. There were a lot of things that we didn't do great against Tyrone ... "

Now the challenge is to eradicate those weak points while enhancing the best elements of that quarter-final. Why? Because a Dublin team unbeaten in 27 league and championship games is the ultimate benchmark.

There is one common theme, though: Mayo were 13/8 outsiders before facing Tyrone ... now they're an even less fancied 10/3 to win on Sunday. "I don't know will being underdogs really help us," Rochford demurs.

"I think we have to help ourselves. It's up to ourselves to make this performance work - to make it the best performance of the year if we can, and to get the best out of ourselves."

As he reflects on an eventful maiden campaign, the man who led Corofin to All-Ireland club glory in 2015 knows he has Mayo where he wants them to be.

Last autumn, though, as the squad embarked on mutiny against another year-one management team (Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly) there was very divided opinion on whether here was a dream vacancy or poisoned chalice.

Rochford insists he was never wary about the circumstances. "It was always a dream of mine, an ambition of mine, to manage Mayo and when the opportunity arose I was delighted to take it," he says.

Ambitious

"I recognised that there existed a very ambitious and talented group of players in Mayo, already at senior level. And also that Mayo underage football has been going well, as shown this year by the U21s winning the All-Ireland. So I was confident that this was a good time to take on Mayo."

Nor was he worried that off-field events might have any residual negative impact on the players themselves.

"Players know that every year is a new year, and I've got the very strong impression from them, right from the start, that they were keen to focus only on 2016," the Crossmolina native explains.

"Some of the early league struggles … I think the issue there was that we were late coming back to training, and we were also down some key players and that didn't help. But we recovered well and saved our league status and had some very good performances as well.

"Did it have an impact on the performance against Galway? No, I don't think so. I think the better team won on the day. We didn't play well. We got into a match-winning situation; we didn't take it."

MacHale Park in June must seem a lifetime ago. Mayo now stand at that familiar September watershed: 70 minutes from heaven - or purgatory.

As Rochford waxes lyrical about Dublin's "fantastic" forwards and players with "huge big-game experience", he concludes: "We'll have to be very, very good to beat them ... it won't be easy, but All-Ireland finals aren't easy."

In a word, does he believe Mayo will win?

"Yes."

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