Stephen Coen not missing Lucan-MacHale Park midnight shuttle

Coen is balancing his All-Ireland final countdown with the closing phases of his PhD

Mayo’s Stephen Coen and Paddy Durcan celebrate at the final whistle of the Connacht final. Coen wants a 70 minute performance against Tyrone this weekend. Photograph: Lorraine O’SullivanInpho

Mayo’s Stephen Coen and Paddy Durcan celebrate at the final whistle of the Connacht final. Coen wants a 70 minute performance against Tyrone this weekend. Photograph: Lorraine O’SullivanInpho

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The story of the Lucan-MacHale Park midnight shuttle is stitched into the fabric of Mayo’s football story over the last decade.

For years, up to a dozen members of the squad would meet up in a hotel in the outskirts of Dublin city on traffic clogged afternoons, sit on a coach for three hours, train their hearts out under floodlights in Mayo, drive again across the country getting home well after midnight, remembering to set the alarm for work the next morning. It wasn’t ideal.

One of the rare advantages of the pandemic lockdown was that it afforded Mayo’s footballers a chance to live in the county for a season or two. Stephen Coen was among their number. This season he is back in Mayo and is not missing those exhausting trips.

“Just travel wise, it was tough: it is tough on any team that has to commute for training all the time, three or four days a week. You’re getting to bed later. You are driving and get stiff. The body gets sore.”

The remote-study concept has been well timed, helping Coen balance his Mayo career with the closing phases of his PhD, exploring a strand of agricultural science. The academic demands are much like football in that they are deadline specific. There is simply no time for idle hours spent thinking about the All-Ireland final.

“I’m pulling my hair out to be honest, the football is a relapse, so I just have to write scientific papers, I’ve to write four of them, I’ve two written and two left to go - hand in the thesis and then hope someone will take me on after that. So if I spent three weeks worrying about football it is three weeks less on the PhD and my supervisor goes in a month’s time: ‘have you this presentation done?’

“So you have to keep that side of the deal going so, it is great to take your mind off.”

As a county, Mayo are past masters at the build-up to All-Ireland finals. But the five week gap between the team’s extra-time win over Dublin and Saturday’s final is an exceptional gap. Enough has been said and written about Mayo’s ‘wait’ but Coen doesn’t believe that it has ever become a kind of burden for the senior squad.

Stephen Coen captained Mayo to victory in the Under-21 All-Ireland final in 2016. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Stephen Coen captained Mayo to victory in the Under-21 All-Ireland final in 2016. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

“Not for me anyway - I suppose, a lot of us are mentally strong and you focus on the internal opinions of the 45-50 people in the group - that is all you can focus on. It is great now at the minute.

“If there is one positive out of Covid it is that we are all at home, fellas are working at home, you are away from the public. We appreciate the support and know it is all there, but you need to focus and do your own thing, it allows you to focus on your own stuff in your own time. I never wore it or saw it as a burden - it is just great to be involved.”

As a response, it mirrors the evenness of tone and temperament which James Horan introduced on first becoming senior manager a decade ago.

He is steady as they come and captained the county to All-Ireland Under-21 success in 2016. After a series of high profile retirements last winter and the dreadful injury suffered by Cillian O’Connor in the league, Mayo set about re-positioning their squad with lightning efficiency.

Suddenly, the first team was flooded with youth and the energy and vitality has rubbed off on brilliant veterans like Lee Keegan and the mid-career group led by Coen. It was notable that during the break in the extra-time period of the Dublin game, Ryan O’Donoghue, one of the younger players, was the focal point, issuing urgent messages to his team.

“Yeah . . . what I suppose is important is that we want to encourage anyone who is new, that you can talk as much as anybody else. Because those guys have learned a lot of stuff in their underage careers that a lot of guys have forgotten, you know. He’s ambitious, he’s a dog, he is going to expect as much from you as from anyone else and he doesn’t care what age he is. He just wants to win - he is going to do whatever he has to do to do that.”

As has been their form this year, Mayo left it dramatically late against Dublin. They’ve returned to the final despite underwhelming first half performances against both Galway and Dublin. It’s not a trend that is distracting Coen from the books.

“Obviously we didn’t intentionally go six points down in either game or be five or six points down at half time - we’d love to be 10 points up at half time, but that is just the way it played out. But it’s just: relax, what do you need to do? Let’s do it, execute, see where we need to go.”

It’s obvious where Mayo need to go now. Breaking through the fourth wall of an All-Ireland triumph is the last task. There is never any danger of Coen giving a Churchillian speech on the eve of the final as he gently absorbs the idea that winning it all, that lifting Sam Maguire would be the ultimate.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the be-all and end-all. Obviously it’s great to win tournaments and win cups and that’s what we want to do. It’s a symbol of your improvement and your success.

“No player is measured on medals and stuff they won, it’s how they performed and how they conducted themselves throughout their careers. It would be great - if I have 10 years left I’d love to win the next 10 All-Irelands. It doesn’t always happen.

“But, for sure, it’s a sign of improvement if we can keep going. There are plenty of guys in that dressing-room who want a lot of success and this will be a good sign if we can get over the next game.”

The next game, then.

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