Rochford and Mayo still standing after year of living dangerously
But Mayo revealed their true potential the day they obliterated Roscommon in the replay
Stephen Rochford: “We look to set ourselves up take the game to the opposition – and invariably look to win the bloody game.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
When Stephen Rochford was asked to identify the point in Mayo’s summer when he felt like it was all in the lap of the gods, he immediately returned to that draining Saturday tea-time in MacHale Park when his team was on the rack against Derry.
That match has already alchemised in folk memory to a day when Mayo got a bit lucky. Rochford, though, pulls from his memory-bank a set of stats which suggest a less straightforward story.
“We had 18 wides, five balls into the goalkeeper’s hands and five times we hit the woodwork. That’s 28 shots on goal with no reward plus what we had scored,” he remembered at Mayo’s media night before the squad went into All-Ireland lock down.
“That may be 40 and still we had to wait to see if James Kielt would knock us out of the championship. And in those moments you are there wondering: Holy Christ, we had a bad day in front of goal. But we’ve done a lot well, to create those opportunities, and could have been out of the championship like that.”
Rochford snapped his fingers to emphasise the point. There’s no doubt that this has been Mayo’s year of living dangerously. If the ultimate ambition was to reach – and win –the All-Ireland championship, none of them could have imagined the route they would take.
Losing to Galway for a second consecutive Connacht championship exit was broadly interpreted as evidence of Mayo’s hastening decline. Nothing about them in the subsequent qualifiers changed that perspective. The outside world concluded that Mayo were hanging around waiting to get knocked out. The team themselves felt they were waiting to catch fire. It wasn’t until the quarter-final replay on a bank holiday Monday in Croke Park that they fully rediscovered what they are about.
“The Derry game was difficult because no matter how we tried to score, we just couldn’t. And then you look at how we were sort of stuttering our way through some games, doing well in certain patches of those matches – first 50 minutes against Cork, last 50 against Clare – but the frustrating element was that we wondered where we were going to get a 70-minute performance. There was nothing as simple as that.
Mayo’s championship story may have been filled with emotional swings but, Rochford’s unflappable calmness is at its epicentre
“The big thing that changed in the Roscommon replay, compared to the first day, was our retention of the ball. We just didn’t cough it up as easily as we had done the first day. In many ways the conditions played a part in that and also, Roscommon were chomping at the bit and yet they weren’t quite at it as they were in the replay. So it is not just a case of saying ‘throw off the shackles’. If that was the case, we would have been coughing up goal chances left, right and centre over the last few games.”
If following Mayo is not for the faint-hearted, imagine being the manager. One of the many intriguing elements of this All-Ireland final is that the progress of both teams could not have been more different.
Mayo’s championship story may have been filled with emotional swings but, Rochford’s unflappable calmness is at its epicentre. Since his appointment, he has been at once steady and analytical while utterly fearless in his approach. Here he is explaining that the heightened performance against Roscommon was not simply a matter of throwing caution to the wind.
“There were just a couple of things crying out there to be done, as regards you can’t go and win big championship games by handing over the ball to the opposition. You are giving them the ability to create their scoring chances while they were set up to defend.
“Maybe a little bit of the change we needed to impose had to be mental, that we needed to tighten our focus, but by and large, we just needed to continue to play the game through every ball and not start to think about what was happening on the scoreboard or whether there was a game next week.
“We just needed to play the game, play each ball, and once we stuck to that concept, we were a lot more competitive and were closer to fulfilling our quality.”
When it came to confronting Kieran Donaghy, the totemic Kerry front man who had spooked a generation of Mayo teams, Rochford changed the focus again. He reimagined Aidan O’Shea as a tailor-made fullback, took a barrage of criticism after the match finished in a draw and stuck to his guns for the replay. He shrugs with genuine indifference when asked if the victory vindicated his judgement.
“I don’t know. And to be honest, I am not looking to control that or anything like that. We understand that is how things are. We never selected Aidan to seek approval of a paper, or a pundit on a TV programme or a radio station. We looked to do it to try and win a game of football that would have allowed us to get into an All-Ireland final. That might sound very simplistic but that is the way we look at it.
“This job, as in an intercounty manager’s job, right, you understand you are out there every week. You are under the microscope, you are in a situation whereby your performance is evaluated on Monday morning by a result. I would ask you to show me any other profession – and this isn’t even a profession – where you have got journalists, pundits, analysts, evaluating your performance on a weekly basis. I don’t see politicians, solicitors, whatever it is, getting that kind of scrutiny. And the narrative can change from week to week, depending on a result.”
He says all this without rancour: it’s just the way things are.
Last September, he caused All-Ireland final day consternation by changing his goalkeeper for the replay against Dublin. It was a switch which didn’t work. He accepted the howls of complaint etc and has brought his team back to the same stage one year later.
Dublin are favourites and Rochford is effusive in his praise of the All-Ireland champions. But this Mayo team seems incapable of not rising to a challenge and the wild mood swings in form have made them a hard team to scrutinise. Everyone knows the names and faces but they have created the perception of being an unpredictable force under Rochford. He knows that notion is out there and accepts it as just another opinion that’s outside the remit of his group.
“I dunno. We haven’t set out with a strategy to be unconventional or unpredictable. We certainly don’t want to be readable but it hasn’t been strategic. We look to set ourselves up take the game to the opposition – and invariably look to win the bloody game.”