PAUL ROUSE: Stephen Rochford’s critics rely on hindsight over evidence

Mayo manager, Stephen Rochford, has been the object of scathing criticism this week.

Rochford installed goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly in place of David Clarke for the All-Ireland football final replay against Dublin.

The selection did not work — it was arguably the single most significant factor in deciding the game.

In the opinions of some, it underlined Rochford’s ‘inexperience’; for others, it proved so fundamentally inexplicable a decision as to undermine Rochford’s future as Mayo manager.

This is nonsense.

The decision proved to be unwise, but its logic was clear. As Rochford explained after the game: “In selection, you make a calculated decision. We felt, in analysis of Dublin, that they had pushed right up on our kick-outs in the drawn game and we felt they would target that again. That was the reason.”

And Dublin — particularly towards the end of the first final — did have David Clarke in bother with his kick-outs. It was certain that they would target him again in the replay and, in response, the Mayo manager seized the initiative.

Hennelly is a better, longer kicker than Clarke, while Clarke is the better goalkeeper. The gamble was obviously that Hennelly’s goalkeeping would stand up, while his kicking prospered.

This was not an unreasonable position and it is too simplistic to dismiss the logic of this gamble by viewing it only through the lens of the result.

Just a fortnight previously, Rochford had been praised hugely for his tactical acumen in dismantling the Dublin attack.

Central to this was his deployment of Kevin McLaughlin — this same deployment was routinely derided earlier this summer.

Indeed, as the summer rolled on, Rochford’s flexibility with selections, and his clear, well-considered plans, became more and more apparent. He remade a team that many had consigned to the scrapheap. And remade it so effectively that it got within a point, in a replay, of dethroning a team now considered one of the greatest of all time.

And he did this without having the use of two of his best players (Lee Keegan and Donal Vaughan) for the second-half of the match.

The criticism of Rochford was a reminder of the broader tendency in sport to exclude from argument all evidence that is inconvenient to a position. Most of all, it is a reminder of how fickle people are.

This is a proposition that was brilliantly considered by the English cricketer, Mike Brearley in his famous book, The Art of Captaincy.

Brearley was a hugely successful captain of England, at a time when the captain decided the team, ran its tactics and training, and generally operated as manager. During the 1978-9 season, England were touring Australia. Brearley recalled people rushing to judgement throughout that long tour: “I knew what it was like to be regarded as a liability to the team one week and as the Duke of Wellington a week later.” He reminded people that — although he was successful, ultimately — he also failed along the way and that there was a reason for those failures.

Every decision, he explained, “is to some extent a guess, every step in life has an element of uncertainty.”

Brearley believed that two things, above all else, were essential to management: a good practical (as against theoretical) knowledge of the game, and the ability to motivate others.

C

ontrary to popular obsession, he railed against the notion that ‘charisma’ was in any meaningful way important — indeed, he believed it to be a quality that was entirely overrated: “Charisma does not imply steadiness, patience, concentration, or considerateness.”

All of these things, he believed, were much more vital in leadership.

And then there was the problem of those who do not manage, have not managed, and never will manage, offering their opinions as if they were tablets of stone, safe in the knowledge that they would never be tested in the furnace of reality.

Just as every parish has a brilliant hurler or footballer who has a brother who is deemed to be the best of them all, even though he was lost to the game in his teenage years (for whatever reason), so it is with managers-in-waiting and how they are viewed.

Tacitus, the great Roman historian, was a master of pithy observations on the record of those whose careers he surveyed. Most famous of all his observations was one he made about the contribution to Roman history of the Emporer Galba.

He wrote: “Omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset.” That is to say: “All would have agreed that he was capable of ruling, if he had not actually reigned”.

While that can be said of many of the critics that Rochford has had this week, it cannot be said of the man himself. In the round, he has done a brilliant job with Mayo. Like any good manager, he will have learned a lot about his team over the course of the season.

There is every reason to believe — given the advisors that he has around him and his own obvious qualities — that he knows what he needs to do next to fix the problems his team has and to develop its already powerful strengths.

Last weekend, on The Sunday Game, panellist after panellist dismissed Mayo’s chances of winning an All-Ireland in the next couple of years.

Maybe it was the constraints of TV’s running orders that demanded concise answers, but the curt and unanimous dismissal of the possibilities of such a success denies the progress that has been made.

There is every chance that, next year, Mayo will win the All-Ireland. They are a formidable team and they haven’t won because they are not yet quite good enough.

They are, however, closer to Dublin than all the others and that is something that really matters.


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