Mayo’s most reliable route might not be the most straightforward

Stephen Rochford has struggled in first league but path to recovery isn’t always linear

Stephen Rochford is the latest to take up Mayo’s quest, which at times makes the pursuit of the Holy Grail appear half-hearted. Photograph: Andrew Paton/inpho

There was a moment during Aidan O'Shea's press conference to promote his American adventures – which the PR firm had encouraged us to examine in every detail – that encapsulated the Mayo condition.

When he was in the US shooting the documentary about his experiences of trying out for American football, the idea occurred that it would be interesting for O’Shea to meet Pádraig Carney, the Flying Doctor of legend who had travelled back and forth from the States to play for Mayo in the 1950s and who is one of two survivors from the last team to win an All-Ireland.

Then in the course of a thoroughly modern promotion came the most ancient of queries. What did Dr Carney make of the long gap since Sam Maguire last went to Mayo? Even the experienced medical practitioner had no miracle cure.

“I asked him, yeah,” said O’Shea, “but he didn’t really give me any great insight into why. He thinks we’ve been a bit unlucky over the last couple of years.”


It took Mayo 38 years after 1951 to reach another All-Ireland final and in the 27 years since they’ve lost seven in the course of 12 management changes.

Stephen Rochford is the latest to take up the quest, which at times makes the pursuit of the Holy Grail appear half-hearted, and he is already under scrutiny (not really pressure) because of the poor league campaign to date.

For the players who unceremoniously forced the resignation of the previous management after just a year there is surely a realisation that this will be a stick with which to clatter them should the upcoming championship register no significant improvement.

Touching distance

Rochford is well aware that such an expectation is out there. The almost consensus narrative is that Mayo are just within touching distance of the biggest prize but realistically that distance has increased in the past two years which have seen championships ending at the penultimate rather than final stage.

More problematically the team has lost winning positions in at least three of the four replayed semi-finals played in the two most recent seasons.

Rochford and his impressive back-room team have had to decide whether the shortest route to winning is bridging the narrow divides of the last four years or going backwards and finding a different pathway altogether. Realistically change is needed but where?

Asked before the start of the league which of Mayo’s most conspicuous problems – failure to put away matches or the unhappy knack of conceding untimely goals – Rochford was sufficiently diplomatic to suggest that both areas needed work.

Yet it is almost certain that there will be more beefing up in attack than at the back. Keith Higgins, when fit again, looks likely to play up front even if that means sacrificing his pace and man-marking in defence.

Undoubtedly the two All-Ireland semi-finals against Dublin last summer both presented chances to put the opposition away. But the eventual champions were able to survive and in the replay conjure the goals that made the difference.

As an up-to-date snapshot Sunday in Castlebar showed a period of exceptional defending by Mayo in the first half and if that broke down in the second half the inability to translate opportunities into scores was the most glaring problem. Circumstances also made the team a bit panicky, which isn't a habit to cultivate.

Rochford wasn’t taken entirely seriously back in January when he appeared unmistakably bothered by the danger of relegation. Events since have given substance to those concerns.

Those were based on an extensive injury list and club commitments. Mayo had champions at senior, intermediate and junior levels involved in the All-Irelands.


Loss of points is one thing but the inability to experiment and run in a first-choice forward line during the league has also been debilitating. The reliance on O’Shea, who hasn’t been in top gear so far, as the focal point of the attack isn’t what Rochford would have wanted.

There appears to be some anxiety that if the league goes wrong that the year is already on a downwards trajectory.

That would be overly pessimistic. New management can’t be judged on its merits until there’s a full team available to make any road-testing meaningful. So far that hasn’t been the case.

The more fundamental concern for Mayo has to be that this project is not a simple, linear one that leads from semi-final defeats to All-Ireland success either directly or in remaining increments.

One shrewd observer of these matters made the point that new managers have to be careful not to spend too much time in the early stages learning what they already know. That’s Rochford’s challenge.

Learning on the job has become a lot easier in the era of the qualifiers. One of Mayo’s difficulties in recent times has been the lack of regular competition in Connacht. That may be about to change given Roscommon’s resurgence and if so it will be to the Mayo manager’s advantage given that provincial diagnostics have played a major role in most of the six All-Ireland titles won through the qualifiers.

One Mayo man after last Sunday’s match said with gallows humour that maybe they could get Kevin McStay in to give a few hints. Turned down for the Mayo job 18 months ago, McStay is currently running the Roscommon project with Fergal O’Donnell.

Before the year is out that might actually happen.