Stephen Rochford more than getting by with help from old friend Carey

Mayo manager and selector met while playing for the county's minors in 1995

Football people go by defining years so when Stephen Rochford was putting together his backroom team, he turned to Seán Carey, one of his minor team-mates from the endless summer of 1995 and from a championship that might have held an alternative outcome for that generation of Mayo footballers. Rochford was a wingback, Carey a forward.

They had big dreams, that team, which they never had a chance to fully sort out. It was the old story. Galway got in the way. Mayo were beaten. Carey is loitering around the late 30s mark now and recently retired as a player but he can summon up the details of that minor campaign as if they happened yesterday.

"This sounds bad now, it was a very good minor team, we were beaten in the last couple of minutes by a Galway team that had a lot of household names on it. [Pádraic] Joyce, [Derek] Savage, John Divilly, [Michael] Donnellan. I think they had got to the final or the semi-final the year before [it was the final, where they lost to Kerry].

"We would have been ahead going into the closing stages of the game and Derek Reilly, a guy who used to play for them, got a goal that's etched in my memory as you can see!


Close proximity

“But those guys have gone on, they won senior All-Irelands in ’98 and three years later. I think there were six or seven of that team involved in that. Tomás Meehan actually, another one.

“That’s where Stephen and I would have got to know one another and our clubs would be in close enough proximity to each other as well.”

Rochford’s call to join the Mayo senior staff came out of the blue and Carey didn’t have to debate for very long before joining what is a fairly deep backroom team.

Kerry's Donie Buckley and Armagh's Tony McEntee are always at training and Maurice Horan, the former Limerick manager, does a lot of video analysis.

Carey’s role primarily involves team selection and studying the opposition. The commitment of the support staff has been total. McEntee is, according to Carey down in Mayo “all the time” despite the arduous travel involved.

"There was a spell at the start I suppose when he would have done some of the training in Dublin for obvious reasons. I would say every weekend since the beginning of the year, if it's Friday, Sunday, he's there. Very committed guy."

Carey belongs to the ranks of very good footballers who didn't quite burst through to senior county status. He was sufficiently eye-catching to make the Mayo under-21 sides of 1996, '97 and '98 so he was on the periphery of the two major eruptions of senior Mayo All-Ireland heartbreak which occurred in those years. He was called into the senior panel for the 1998 season, in which Mayo were hoping to make it to a third final in succession.

Then came Galway, again, coloured by the same generation of dashing players which had ended the hopes of Carey’s minor team-mates.

"I think everybody thought Mayo were probably going to win it in '98 and Galway beat us in Castlebar and they went on to win it," he says simply.

Championship impact

“I would have been there in 2001 as well when Mayo won the league. I would have been part of that panel as well. I’d have been there or thereabouts from that time without ever really making any championship impact now, to be honest.”

That brief summary of his inter county life is delivered without emotion. He managed to extend his senior club career until the age of 39 and was debating whether he should retire when Rochford called his number, inviting him to leave frying pan for fire.

“I’m lucky my wife is interested in football or I’d probably have been shot a long time ago! Once I thought about it for a short spell of time I was very interested.

“And things have changed dramatically. I think somebody else asked me that earlier today, intercounty football around ’01 would be quite similar to what maybe clubs are doing now.

“Your average progressive senior club now would be doing what a county team 15 years ago were doing, probably more. That’s being truthful. So this is on a completely different level. It’s basically lifestyle and it’s a huge eye-opener to anyone who hasn’t been involved for a while as to what is required to compete at that level.”

Dictated the pace

The season dictated the pace and the demands. Carey says it has been enjoyable – to a point.

“There has to be something at the end of it too. That’s the way I would be anyway. You have to try and compete anyway and that’s what I’d get the buzz from, achieving something or trying to be part of something that is successful.”

Now, they are close, even if it wasn’t straightforward. In keeping with tradition, Galway were waiting again to attempt to trip Rochford and Carey up with their championship coup in Castlebar.

There was no added pressure on the Mayo team, he argues. It was just a derby evening.

“I don’t think so. I just think it was an evening where Mayo and Galway were two old rivals. They were very close right up until coming near the end of the game. Galway just got the upper hand.

“These things can happen. I don’t think it had anything to do with that at all and I think the fact that they have responded in the way that they have done shows that.”

Nor does he buy the easy line that the defeat actually helped to recalibrate Mayo and facilitated their All-Ireland run. Mayo haven’t put a foot wrong since that Galway loss. Instead, they’ve progressed through the championship almost unnoticed.

“Perception is like that in sport. If you go through the back door its a good thing for you as long as you’re progressing,” he says.

“I suppose the answer to that would be on the 18th.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times