Friends Buckley and Rochford must pit their wits against each other, writes
Back in May, Kerry and Donegal met in a challenge match in Kiltoom, just outside Athlone.
Distance is an obvious reason why the counties have no history of playing challenge games but the match was easy to stitch together through the strong friendship of both coaches.
A couple of weeks back, Stephen Rochford and Donie Buckley were spotted drinking coffee in a café in Galway. The two men regularly meet up for chats to share ideas. Almost 20 years separate them in age but Buckley was always drawn towards Rochford’s warmth and his vast knowledge of the game.
The close bond was formed during their three years together with Mayo between 20016-19 but their diverging paths in the meantime has taken them to opposite ends of the country.
Buckley had already departed the Mayo set-up by the time Rochford was harshly cut loose by the board last September but Buckley was equally as hurt by the manner of how it was done.
It obviously cut Rochford far deeper but going to Donegal was his way of moving on and starting all over again.
Mayo, and their manic quest to win Sam Maguire, has long made them a romantically eternal GAA story but their Super 8s group has thrown up a multitude of sub-plots.
Tomorrow’s clash with Meath has reignited tales of the 1996 drawn and replayed All-Ireland finals but one of the most interesting dynamics is the intersecting narratives between Buckley, Rochford and James Horan.
Buckley, who was Horan’s coach in 2013 and 2014, will always be grateful to Horan for giving him the opportunity to get back into the inter-county game after departing as Kerry coach in 2012.
Last weekend, Buckley went up against Horan while he squares off with Rochford on Sunday. In two weeks-time, the Horan-Rochford match-up will dominate the pre-match discussion between Mayo and Donegal.
Rochford wanted to remain on as Mayo manager for 2019 but he didn’t have the full support of the board. Some of the players were also itching for a change.
Horan had always been open to the idea of returning but going back for 2019 was a couple of years earlier than he expected.
Horan’s status as the godfather of modern Mayo football had earned him that right to choose but once support gathered for his return, the end-game was imminent for Rochford.
The clock had begun ticking in the aftermath of Mayo’s qualifier defeat to Kildare in June 2018 when there was speculation about the future of Rochford’s backroom team.
Buckley had made up his mind to depart after the devastating 2017 All-Ireland final loss but his loyalty to Rochford convinced him to stay on.
Buckley had no intention of remaining for a seventh season but when he, Tony McEntee and Peter Burke confirmed they were stepping down, Rochford announced in mid-August that he would be staying on to serve the two-year extension given to him by the county board in the autumn of 2017.
A couple of days later, county chair Mike Connelly and four other county board officials met with three players for an annual review meeting in MacHale Park.
On August 23rd, Connelly told club delegates that Rochford had been given a deadline of 31 August to come up with his backroom team for 2019.
Rochford subsequently submitted the names of former Mayo captain Peter Ford, who also managed Galway and Sligo, and Ford’s joint-manager at the Breaffy club, Shane Conway.
When Rochford met with the board’s executive committee he expected them to ratify his new backroom team but they didn’t endorse Rochford’s new selectors. Rochford subsequently stepped down the following day.
Just two weeks earlier, Jason Doherty had welcomed Rochford’s decision to continue but not making a collective stand on the issue afterwards was the loudest declaration from the players.
After the fallout from the Pat Holmes-Noel Connelly heave, the players didn’t want their names anywhere near mention of another possible push.
Rochford’s phone bulged with messages of goodwill but he knew full well that the players only had eyes for Horan by then.
Horan had spent the previous two years with the Turloughmore hurlers in Galway in 2017 before managing Westport in 2018.
Horan had been a newspaper columnist and an analyst with Sky Sports during Rochford’s three years in charge but Rochford silently accepted that if anyone was going to take his job, it was bound to be Horan.
Their paths had never really crossed within Mayo because they had always operated in different orbits. Rochford went for the Mayo U21 job in 2013, when he had asked Buckley to be his coach, but he was beaten by one vote. Horan subsequently recruited Buckley that winter.
Before Rochford got the senior job at the end of 2015, there was some speculation that he and Horan might team up and go together on the same ticket. Horan didn’t declare any interest in the job at the time and any talk about a potential partnership certainly never came from both men.
Taking over after the messy outcome of the Holmes-Connelly affair wasn’t an easy start for Rochford but he had already shown his steel as a young manager with Corofin.
After being turned down for the Mayo U21 role, the Galway club moved for Rochford at the end of 2012, and the timing was perfect for both parties; Corofin were craving something to ignite a talented but underachieving group, which was why they went for an outsider for the first time; Rochford was a pissed-off young manager desperate the prove himself, especially to those who rejected him in Mayo.
Rochford certainly showed his elite manager status with Corofin.
He was organised and ultra-professional and he completely changed the culture in the club. Corofin’s breakthrough game as a modern superpower – the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final against St Vincent’s – provided a perfect case study in just how attentive to detail Rochford really is.
Beforehand, the players were presented with a 2,400 word dossier, which was more like an FBI forensic report than a statistical breakdown on the opposition.
The core detail was classed under seven different categories while the analysis on each individual Vincent’s player was even more microscopic, with a chart measuring their form in 11 different categories.
The massive planning and research offered a unique insight into Rochford’s mindset but he also proved his coaching class with Corofin. Rochford had played some rugby, which had given him insight into running lines and width. Traditionally, Corofin had never played with the width Rochford forced them to but it became an ingrained part of the style which has seen Corofin win three All-Irelands in five seasons.
Some of Donegal’s play this season, especially in how they hug the side-lines to maximise the use of space, has Rochford’s stamp all over it. Rochford is thriving in his new role but Donegal have also benefitted from Rochford’s fresh ideas and non-Ulster voice and perspective.
He has been surprised and excited by the standard of players in Donegal, and even more energised by the opportunity to make those players better.
Buckley, who studies and analyses the opposition with the manic zeal of an obsessed NFL coach, will have spent the week trying to come up with strategies to close it down.
Buckley has long been recognised as one of the game’s greatest coaches and most innovative minds but, after four one-point All-Ireland defeats to Dublin (Kerry in 2011, Mayo in 2013, 2016 and 2017), this Kerry project has given him an opportunity to finally get the job done.
Despite the level Mayo consistently reached under Buckley’s coaching, it was time for a change for both parties after seven years. Under the partnership of Rochford and Buckley, Mayo were set up differently in terms of style and structure to how they were during Horan’s first term but Horan has tried to maintain the high-paced running-kicking game established by the duo.
Horan has developed a new group of young players but Rochford had also initiated much of that process. Matthew Ruane, Fionn McDonagh, James Carr, Fergal Boland and James McCormack were introduced to the Mayo set-up in 2017 and 2018 and were put on S&C and nutritional programmes with a view to playing in 2019.
Nobody has still done more to alter the modern Mayo culture than Horan. He is an excellent manager but the big difference this time around is that he doesn’t have a Buckley or a Cian O’Neill to lead the coaching charge.
The management team he has assembled is inexperienced but Horan was always a coach first, and replicating the model used by the Irish rugby team, including an operations manager to handle outside obligations, has freed Horan up to take greater control on the training field.
That’s where Rochford and Buckley had always been most comfortable and tomorrow’s fixture will see the two close friends pit each other’s coaching and tactical wits against each other for the first time.
By that stage, Rochford will already know the result from Mayo’s game against Meath, where a Mayo win or draw will set up the most fascinating sub-plot yet in this group – Rochford versus Horan.
Privately, running into Mayo was the last thing Rochford wanted.
Yet all that is irrelevant for now. Because Rochford has to try and outwit his great friend first.