The same week Stephen Rochford embarked on his first of three underwhelming Connacht championship campaigns with a visit to Ruislip, another manager familiar with some football grounds in London as well as working with top players for a support base craving silverware brought out a book called Quiet Leadership.
In between his stints coaching Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Carlo Ancelotti reflected on his style of management and the nature of the job, observing that there was a process which he termed as "the leadership arc”.
First, there’s the courtship when an interested party identifies you and tries to procure your services. Then, there’s the honeymoon period when you’re given time to establish yourself, but only a limited period of time. Then, if you’re lucky enough, comes some level of success and stability. But eventually, this stability plateaus and cracks appear in the relationship, leading, finally, to the breakup and an inevitable parting of ways.
“It is important to be philosophical about the manner of the arc ending,” mused Ancelotti.
Stephen Rochford does not quite yet seem to be as sanguine about the nature of his break-up as the stoical Ancelotti would advise; in fact by trying to assemble a new backroom team, he clearly railed against the idea that the natural arc of his leadership had expired. But the reality is it had. For all the brickbats the Mayo County Board are taking in recent days and for all their existing flaws and previous errors, there’s no getting away from the fact they were right in recognising that everything has a cycle. Rochford deserved their courtship and to be trusted in the role for three years but by the end of those three years the relationship between him and the core of an exceptional group of players had got tired. It was time to move on.
There’s a natural sympathy for Rochford because of the dignified way he conducted himself in both victory and defeat over his three years, and a deserved level of respect too, with many noting that no manager brought Mayo closer to the summit or pushed Dublin harder in the championship the past four years.
The 2016 season turned on — or was salvaged by — an All-Ireland quarter-final win over Tyrone that was the combination of a proud group of players remembering who they were and what all they had done in Croke Park, one of Donie Buckley’s finest weeks on the training ground and not least Rochford’s brilliant deployment of Alan Dillon, a curveball that threw off even as sharp a football brain as Mickey Harte.
In 2017 then, the team earned another crack at Dublin by overcoming Kerry, something that they may well not have done only for Rochford’s bold decision to put Aidan O’Shea on Kieran Donaghy. But too much of the rest of the time too much was too off, especially in 2018.
It’s grand to dismiss the league as only the league and highlight that Mayo still stayed up, believing it’s acceptable to lose all four games in MacHale Park, including a 12-point hammering to Tyrone with 11 starters that had started in an All Ireland final, when in the last three years of the Horan era Mayo never lost by more than seven points.
And fair enough if you also think it’s no big deal to lose to Galway not once, or twice but for a third consecutive time in the Connacht championship, on the grounds it’s hardly another provincial title that this group of players wanted, needed or would be judged on.
But then there was the backdoor. No more second chances, no more excuses, no more ah-buts. After a late surge saw off Tipperary down in Thurles, thus setting up a qualifier clash with Kildare, the players were admonished for their performance in their first post-match review meeting.
The video analysis only included clips of poor play, minimal examples of what Mickey Harte would term “catching players doing right”.
And most damningly of all ahead of that Kildare game, there was no footage of their upcoming opponents.
While the rest of the country was wondering where Mayo would be playing, the team themselves knew little about who they were playing.
A group of players accustomed to a game-week atmosphere of buoyancy and anticipation heading into any championship game since, or most definitely in, the James Horan era were now subject to a flat, uncertain atmosphere and tone set by management.
In truth, for most of 2018 the set-up had gone flat, stale, a bluntly unacceptable state of affairs given the limited championship window left open for so many older, generational players. The fact that Rochford lost three of his selectors in one swoop was a measure of just how off it was.
Instead of managing a staggered transition, he was unable to retain any of the trio of Donie Buckley, Tony McEntee, and Peter Burke, leaving him in an invidious position, not least brought on himself because last year or the year before he didn’t ask any of them to step away and replace with someone new.
No doubt it would have been a hard – and in some eyes, a harsh – thing to do, to say thanks and farewell to a servant like the respected Buckley after he had again brought the county so close to winning the All-Ireland. But a more ruthless and shrewd operator would have anticipated and prevented such same voice syndrome setting in.
While Buckley is understandably being linked with his native Kerry, not least because he specialises in a facet of the game like aggressive tackling which Kerry are currently deficient in, Dublin since Jason Sherlock’s arrival have been a considerably better offensively coached team than Mayo, as reflected by their superior ability to carve out and take scores.
The Mayo project in recent years has had all the appearance of a one still propelled by the steam and culture of the Horan era, all the while as there was a gradual slippage in those established standards, offset only by the odd twist of tactical daring from Rochford and his management, or the inspirational but temporary work of Niamh Fitzpatrick in the summer of 2017, or the momentum gained from a close escape or big win.
Eventually though there’s only so long you can scrape past a Fermanagh and a Derry and hope to find yourself back in Croke Park where you summon every fibre of defiance and energy left in your body; eventually, you get caught and found out like with an early-summer loss in Newbridge.
Since Rochford’s departure, the vacancy has been described as “a poisoned chalice”, with other commentators claiming its opening has made Mayo “a laughing stock”. Both observations are well off the mark. The only thing that makes Mayo a laughing stock is when some of its own, mired in a regrettable and unhelpful degree of self-loathing, claim so readily it’s a laughing stock. When Eamonn Fitzmaurice stepped aside down in Kerry, it didn’t make Kerry a laughing stock. It was just unfortunate, undesirable, just as has been the case here when a gallant manager fails to recognise or accept where things on the leadership arc things were at. As Ancelotti says, that’s football, not only Mayo football.
This is no poisoned chalice. Instead it is the dream job for any capable and ambitious manager – which is why Rochford, being both, was so reluctant to let it go. The new man will inherit an exceptionally talented, dedicated and suitably-confident group of players and, contrary to some misperceptions, an extremely coachable group of players as well.
They crave your coaching. Only you better be offering something good and fresh when you enter that coaching space.
Kevin McStay is worth consideration; he’s done a very fine job with a Roscommon project that he has brought as far as probably he or anyone can bring, but a bit like Jules in Pulp Fiction when encountered with a diner robbery, this Mayo vacancy arises while he’s going through “something of a transitional period”, an existential crisis, even.
Should he walk the earth? Should he walk away from advocating attacking football? Is Mr 9mm here the good shepherd? Does he now go and coach more defensive football? Will anyone watch it? It’s trying, Ringo.
It’s really trying, really hard. But Mayo might make it easier for him all round.
The obvious port of call is the Sky Sports studio. Jim McGuinness has been both touted and dismissed as a possible candidate but is worth sounding out, even if that questioning process would have to include a rigorous scrutiny of how much of the Donegal template he would be looking to replicate with a more seasoned Mayo side.
James Horan is probably best suited to the position, both with his knowledge of the core group of veterans and having a proven record of bringing through new players, each key constituents for Mayo 2019 and beyond.
He also has an eye for surrounding himself with good people like his fiercely solid and trusted lieutenant Tom Prendergast and especially identifying left-field but inspiring coaching choices: Cian O’Neill, followed by Buckley.
Could he lure a Peter Canavan to improve Mayo’s forward play? Or even a Dub with the ambition and expertise of Mick Bohan to hone and improve their skills, once a central tenet of the Mayo project but neglected in recent years?
Horan would have the standing in the game to attract operators of that calibre while his study and work as a pundit over the last four years would have exposed him to a greater array of tactical possibilities than he employed during his first stint in the job.
Whoever it is, may the courtship begin.
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