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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Mayo make it another final date with Dubs

Rochford brushes off the crticism after Kerry win

Paul Geaney of Kerry is tackled by Mayo players (l-r) Keith Higgins, Séamus O’Shea and Aidan O’Shea during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park Pic: Sportsfile
Paul Geaney of Kerry is tackled by Mayo players (l-r) Keith Higgins, Séamus O’Shea and Aidan O’Shea during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park Pic: Sportsfile

We encouraged Stephen Rochford to gloat on Saturday evening but he politely declined.

The Mayo manager sits perched on the brink of a second All-Ireland final appearance in the two years that must feel like several eternities he has served in his role as driver of this crazy roller-coaster.

So much has happened to his team since the last one ended in a replay defeat to Dublin last October that any indulgence would have been forgiven.

But no.

Sidewinder

"I don't do things with this team to seek outside approval - or disapproval for that matter," Rochford shrugged when it was put to him that some of the coverage of his tactical sidewinder in the drawn match six days previous had skirted a bit too firmly into personal territory.

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford celebrates near the end of the match on Saturday Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford celebrates near the end of the match on Saturday Photo: Sportsfile

'Lions led by donkeys,' was the barb and in this c ontext, the bait we dangled before him.

"The players and the supporters concern me. I can't control what journalists write or editors put in headlines."

"I didn't lose any sleep about it. It may not be the nicest headline I ever got but at the same time I didn't bat an eyelid at it.

"We control what we can, not headlines in newspaper. We are aware that if we don't deliver in three weeks' time there will be another headline coming but so be it."

This from the man that dropped an All Star goalkeeper for last year's All-Ireland final replay and also the man that played Aidan O'Shea at full-back on two consecutive weekends in a man-marking role in Kieran Donaghy.

You couldn't accuse him of lacking imagination or bravery.

This time last week, he was denounced as having engaged in tactical witchcraft. Russian roulette with team selection.

When he spoke to us on Saturday, the perception of his latest ruse had changed completely.

Almost symbolically, Donaghy had slumped off the pitch with a minute left of injury-time in Mayo's five-point win, perhaps his last act as a Kerry footballer being a double swipe at O'Shea and the red card which followed.

"Aidan had a fine game. No doubt about that," he agreed in the closest thing to self-praise Rochford flirted with all afternoon.

"I was delighted for him because he has sacrificed himself and his play for the betterment of the team.

"It says a lot about him."

Éamonn Fitzmaurice could attest to the vagaries of management also.

On Saturday, he sacrificed James O'Donoghue to protect his frazzled full-back line and took heat for going against Kerry's sacr osanct tradition by deploying Paul Murphy as a sweeper.

Few in Kerry thought to mention his use of sweepers after the 2014 All-Ireland final victory over Donegal, though.

He made four changes from the drawn game and on Saturday in a disjointed performance, it seemed like one too many.

Yet, when Kerry beat Mayo in their replay in Limerick in 2014, his decisiveness and bravery was widely praised.

"You can be moving pieces around your tactics boards and meetings all you want," he pointed out.

"It's a different kettle of fish out on the pitch.

"I'm sure people will be wondering what the hell we were trying to do, but the days it goes well then you end up winning the game and you look like a genius."

As for the specificity of what went wrong, Fitzmaurice had only hunches rather than stats to hand.

"I think the kickouts in the first half were a big factor," he noted. They got on top of our kickout and won all of their own kickouts, so they had a lot of possession. We were playing a bit of catch up."

The match figures showed that Mayo won 29 kick-outs to Kerry's 18 over the span of a match the Connacht team dominated.

Kerry were beaten all over the pitch when it came to individual battles.

Folly

The idea that they have had one eye trained on Dublin all year now seems like folly.

Saturday confirmed suspicions about the quality of some important elements of this Kerry team.

Both Kerry's half-forward and full-back lines have been less than authoritative this summer and Saturday was the day it all came apart.

Without James O'Donoghue - sacrificed in FItzmaurice's tactical reshuffle-- only Paul Geaney threatened in the Kingdom attack.

"I stand over what we did 100 per cent," he insisted, "what we were trying to do."

Luck wasn't exactly on their side but Kerry's indiscipline made it seem like an apocalyptic defeat.

Other than Darran O'Sullivan's black card, which Fitzmaurice was adamant "should have been the other way," Kerry deserved what they got, namely two players and a selector sent off.

Nuclear

Fitzmaurice has a year yet to run on his agreement with the Kerry county board and if he does manage his county again in 2018, he will first have to brave a nuclear winter.

"I haven't thought about the future, to be honest.

"We were all so zoned in on today, that was our only focus. Any time there's a loss we're all going to think and re-consider and see what the best way forward for Kerry is, and we'll do that over the next couple of weeks."

These same September weeks are becoming an annual routine for Mayo.

They have been here before many times but never after such an authoritative semi-final performance.

In a season when they came within inches of crashing out on so many occasions in their nine matches, it would be the epic All-Ireland win that their story demands.

September 17 will be Mayo's fourth All-Ireland final in six years.

On Saturday, they ticked off one of the few major achievements they had yet to complete by beating Kerry in the Championship.

All that's left for Mayo now is real immortality or yet another soul-crushing September heartbreak.

All-Ireland SFC semi-final
Mayo 2-16 Kerry 0-17   

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