Stephen Coen ready to do what is required if called upon

Mayo player sometimes starts, but can be held in reserve to put out whatever fires start

As if the match didn’t provide enough excitement, Stephen Coen is among the All-Ireland participants returning to college this week. After a summer spent in the relative luxury of training and living in the same county, the Mayo man will return for another winter in UCD.

Last year he made the move back to college in the days between the All-Ireland final draw and replay. This is fourth year in Ag' Science. His house-mates are all serious GAA players – Monaghan's Conor McCarthy, Barry O'Sullivan from Kerry and James Meagher of Kilkenny, so he doesn't have to worry about them sitting up all night watching Scarface on repeat.

Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan, Jack McCaffrey and Michael Fitzsimons are among the faces he sees on the corridor and on training evenings with the college.

“We have good craic, but will respect each other’s privacy the week before the game to see where it goes after that.”


Where it goes, of course, is generally down to the wire, and Coen is among the upcoming generation of Mayo footballers to have elbowed his way into a deeply settled and experienced team.

It is both a blessing and a curse that he is versatile: centre-back is his favourite position but he is comfortable at midfield and has the mobility to do an old-fashioned man-marking job when required.

Sometimes he starts, but on other days he is held in reserve to put out whatever fire invariably starts.

So when Donie Vaughan got black-carded after just three minutes in the qualifying game against Clare this summer, Coen was sent in. When Lee Keegan was controversially black-carded in the All-Ireland final replay last year, Coen was given the crucial task of marking Diarmuid Connolly.

Trust your instinct

“It’s just how it is. We train to deal with any situation really because you could be earmarked to play someone, you could be midfield or you could be at full-back. It’s the same when you’re a substitute. You just have to trust your instinct because these games take on a life of their own, and you just have to deal with it.

“It’s grand, I enjoy it. Yeah, I have, it works for me, and it works against me at times. Just whatever Stephen says I will go with. You have no other choice really because he is the boss. You are lucky enough to play for Mayo, so you play wherever you get a chance.”

If that sounds like Coen is content with a reserves’ role think again. The Hollymount-Carraroe player has been a serial achiever in his years wearing green and red, winning a minor and captaining his county to All-Ireland U-21 titles in 2016.

He is among a coterie of highly ambitious players like Conor Loftus and Diarmuid O’Connor who have made waves in Mayo’s senior squad, and at just 21 is already something of an old hand at All-Ireland final preparation.

Last year he was among a cast of players featuring in Mayo’s media day, and reappeared this year as a confident and communicative player who will say absolutely nothing that could be construed as off-message. Here he is comparing last September’s occasion to this time around.

Different game

“To be honest it’s a different year, a different season. Stephen has got another year in management, and we’ve got guys with more experience, and we’ve guys in with no experience before so it’s just important to embrace that. It’s going to be a totally different game to the one last year, so we’re just going to try and enjoy the build-up.”

Part of that may simply be pre-All-Ireland circumspection, but its also reflective of the way Mayo have come to judge and review themselves over the past six or seven seasons.

There has been a marked absence of fatalism, and victories and defeats have been reviewed honestly and coldly. When Coen talks about this summer he starts with the chastening day in Salthill when Mayo seemed like a long way off an All-Ireland final.

“I suppose we went out, we planned to beat Galway, but our performance wasn’t good enough on the day. They deserved to win. There is a time when you have to say, ‘right, get back to the simple stuff, get the basics right’ and you get working hard again. That is what we did.

Take confidence

“There were times after Galway when Derry could have knocked us out. Cork could have knocked us out, but they didn’t. Everyone has tried to beat us so far but they haven’t. So we take confidence out of that, but we know we have to go to win this game now.”

That may be the bottom-line for the Mayo mindset. It’s questionable whether any team has truly believed they can beat Dublin in this year’s Championship. Mayo won’t struggle with that approach, and Coen, if and when he is called upon, will be ready to do what’s required of him.

“There are a few things you can tweak here and there, but as I said we’re a different team this year and so are Dublin. So it’s going to be a different build-up and a different game plan, I’m sure. Whatever the boss man says we’ll go with it.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times