Around 45 minutes from throw-in time, with the sense of anticipation building in Kingspan Breffni Park ahead of Donegal’s semi-final win over Tyrone, a familiar figure was calmly stepping out distances between the cones he was setting down and the poles he was plopping in. Just under two years ago, Stephen Rochford was on the line for Mayo as they headed down the stretch against Dublin in the 2017 All-Ireland final.
He was minutes from a Mayo win and the immortality that would have brought. Now here he was in Cavan town on a Saturday night, getting his hands dirty, going back to his coaching roots. Donegal headed into the game in cranky form.
Few gave them their backing after they lost their remarkable eight-year unbeaten home record in Ballybofey in a Super 8 defeat to Tyrone the previous summer. But here, they completely outfoxed the opposition tactically.
A lot of Tyrone’s failings were self-inflicted, but Donegal had them sized up. Throughout the latter half of the league they went long, most of the time in the air, to Cathal McShane and Matthew Donnelly.
Donegal robbed them of that tactic by placing the mountainous Hugh McFadden in as a deep-lying sweeper. Without an ability to scramble themselves into a Plan B, Tyrone were outclassed.
From the previous summer, to Kingspan Breffni, the transformation was immense. The variable? Rochford. It wasn’t the first time he haunted Tyrone. In the 2016 quarter-final, the Red Hands came with a counter-attacking system to the All-Ireland quarter-final.
It was predicated on teams coughing up turnovers, but Rochford sprung a surprise by handing a rare start to Alan Dillon who played as a third midfielder, carving up openings to go into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead in the opening stages. It forced Mickey Harte to take off Justin McMahon after just 22 minutes and go man-for-man.
“Usually, when you go into quarter-final stages you look to bring something new. You want something different that the opposition won’t expect. Stephen is probably a great thinker in terms of ‘what would I find uncomfortable?’” explains Dillon now.
“The likes of Justin McMahon and Colm Cavanagh playing, sitting in as a third sweeper in terms of the Tyrone structure, you just gotta make sure you draw them out and we look to punch holes a bit further up the field and look to get quality ball in. And I think he has done that over the last number of years, especially with Mayo.”
Rochford’s deep experience of coaching is an advantage in predicting how a game will unfold, and he has brought that to his last posting, states Dillon.
“In his time with Mayo, he had himself, Tony McEntee, and Donie Buckley. They always looked to bring something to the table and the first port of call was always to look at the opposition’s strengths and identify where they are vulnerable and where their weaknesses are.
Donegal would have been seen as defensive, per se, over the last number of years. But now they are kind of in the transition, they are seen as attack-minded and they have plenty of pace and power.
After Rochford stepped down from the Mayo job last August, it only took a matter of weeks before Declan Bonner convinced him to make the twice-weekly hike to Donegal for the 2019 season.
“When he stepped away from Mayo, I just felt that within our group that we probably needed maybe to tend to that coaching element as bit more,” explains Bonner.
“Maybe experience within the group, and Stephen has been there. He has been in two All-Ireland finals with Mayo and we knew that was the right fit. Then it was a case of getting Stephen. Once I met with Stephen there was no issue. He knew the capabilities within the squad and he has been a breath of fresh air, to be honest.”
To Dillon, it was, “a big surprise. Not many people would have put Donegal on the radar. And he is the type of guy who can work in any capacity; as coach.
“In terms of having the opportunity to work at inter-county level, he’s very much building and reinventing himself and learning. And I am sure he will probably go back into management himself, but you can see he is enjoying it with Donegal.”
There is an argument to be made that within the modern inter-county set-up, the coaches have more influence on the team than the manager. In Donegal, practically all the coaching of the main group has been handed over to Rochford and Karl Lacey and while Donegal are capable of reprising their defensive shape of yesteryear — just look at how packed they made the central shooting column for Tyrone in the semi-final — they only deploy it sparingly and move the ball quicker through kick-passing. It’s all very Corofin.
“Stephen has been a breath of fresh air, he has been unbelievable, to be fair,” says Ryan McHugh, who has switched back to playing as a wing-back this season, but enjoyed it as any of the other wing-backs such as Kieran Molly, Liam Silke, Lee Keegan, or Paddy Durcan who came under Rochford’s guidance.
“His coaching is phenomenal and his CV speaks for itself, what he has done with Corofin and Mayo. With Mayo he was probably extremely unlucky not to get over the line.
“I think in Donegal over the last number of years we have always got used to Donegal voices coaching and being involved. Stephen has come in and he has new ideas, fresh and different. Theories on how he believes Gaelic football should be played.
And he has really brought us on. I think with Donegal we were trying to bring it on and kick the ball a bit more, be a wee bit more expansive. And Stephen’s training drills is designed all around that
“Stephen takes most of the training. He is a top coach to be honest with you. I can’t speak for what he did in Mayo, but in Donegal he takes the majority of the training.
“We are lucky at the moment, we have a top management team headed up by Declan, with Stephen and Karl Lacey, one of Donegal’s best-ever players. To be playing under them is phenomenal.”
After getting the job, Rochford did a quick natter with some of the local press corps up in Donegal. He had another quick few words with other press men, but to date, there hasn’t been the big sit-down and he has politely turned down a few requests.
On match-days, he is not hovering on Bonner’s shoulder, seeking to be noticed, but rather wired up to the sidelines and sitting in the stands.
It suits Rochford, but something must also be said for Bonner and his lack of ego to take in such a high-profile coach.
“The way the modern game has gone, it is not about me,” says Bonner. “It’s the team I build around me and the management team that is there have been top-class. The experience he has brought to the group has been great. And he is really enjoying it. He sees it as a fresh challenge for himself.”
And an Ulster medal might soon be on that CV.