In only slightly different circumstances, Stephen Rochford would be travelling up to Croke Park this Sunday with Mayo, not on Saturday afternoon with Donegal. The man who quit Mayo under a cloud last August, citing a lack of support from officials, teamed up with Ulster champions Donegal just weeks later and has clearly had a significant impact.
After relegation from the top flight in 2018, Donegal achieved promotion at the first attempt this season and confirmed their place in Saturday’s Division 2 final by hammering Kildare. Unlike Meath, the 2012 All-Ireland champions were favourites to go up from the off though defender Stephen McMenamin said the addition of Rochford, who guided Mayo to All-Ireland deciders in 2016 and 2017, can’t be underestimated.
“I think Stephen Rochford coming in has been a massive bonus for us this year,” said McMenamin. “All the knowledge he has, and he comes in and he takes the training and he is just aware of the tactics that need to be brought in. He has bought into it 100%, he’s been a massive addition to the backroom team. Him and Karl Lacey work very well together and it is just good to have him in.
“Someone of his pedigree coming into the backroom drives players on to impress him as well. He is a new man coming in and he is not going to be biased, he is going to see whoever is playing well and he is going to play them. That’s what I like about him, he’s a completely new face in there.
"No matter who you are. He would see that a lot better than Declan (Bonner) or Karl because they have been there.”
Rochford is an unlikely revolutionary in Donegal, the county that denied Mayo in the 2012 All-Ireland decider. He was in charge of the Mayo side that drew with Dublin initially in the 2016 final, losing the replay, and McMenamin is confident the Crossmolina man can ultimately achieve his All-Ireland dream with the Tir Chonaill county.
“I would 100% believe he can bring us there and I know he 100% believes in us because he is coming from Mayo three days a week, why would you be doing that unless you believe in us? That is why all of us have such a great opinion of him.”
Bonner remains the boss though and McMenamin has the ultimate faith in the man who guided so many of the county’s current seniors when they were minors and U21s earlier this decade. After winning last year’s Ulster title, they can claim national silverware at Croke Park under the 1992 All-Ireland winner on Saturday when they play Meath in the Division 2 decider.
McMenamin agreed with the suggestion that with such a talented young squad, allied to the older players who have All-Ireland winning experience, it feels like Donegal’s time to shine.
“You look at the clubs doing well, even the younger players coming up, there are a few outstanding players coming through in Donegal,” said McMenamin. “Even in club football, Division 3, Division 2, there is no great difference in it, you could probably include Division 1 in that. I have a feeling it is (Donegal’s time), it should be. I think it will progress on, yeah, it’s very competitive in Donegal.”
McMenamin said it was important that Donegal didn’t stay in Division 2 too long after last year’s relegation.
“That was our goal at the start of the year, to go straight back up, that’s what we wanted,” he said. “You want to be playing the best sides in the country; Dublin, Mayo, Kerry, and that’s how you improve I think too. If you are playing the better counties you are going to increase your skill too. It was important.”
Donegal finished two points shy of Meath in the table though beat the Royal County when they met during the group stage. McMenamin said they’re keen to make it a double at Meath’s expense and to claim the title this weekend.
“It’s a run out in Croke Park and it’s a big enough deal for us. It’s silverware at the end of the day and every game we go out in, we want to win.”