A second season in charge, a second All-Ireland final appearance. Put like that, Stephen Rochford has a record Jim Gavin can never match.
Obviously, it’s tenuous to claim Rochford enjoys superiority over his opposite number on Sunday when he has yet to guide the team to silverware but it’s not such a shabby return for a manager who admits his start at the helm was a chastening one.
An opening league defeat in Cork by nine points was followed by a loss at home to Dublin and again in Ballybofey. In the wake of the players’ revolt against Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes, the threat of relegation was pinned on them, but Rochford also felt that pressure. There was never going to be a honeymoon period. He’ll have learned quick enough the parameters by which observers judged him regularly shifted.
“This job, as in an inter-county manager’s job, right, you understand you are out there every week. You are under the microscope, you are in a situation whereby your performance is evaluated on Monday morning by a result.
“I would ask you to show me any other profession, and this isn’t even a profession, where you have got journalists, pundits, analysts, evaluating your performance on a weekly basis. I don’t see politicians, solicitors, whatever it is, getting that kind of scrutiny. And the narrative can change from week to week, depending on a result.”
Don’t colour him as ungrateful, though. This is a responsibility he sought and cherishes. “There is a lot in this job, this role, this position, and I am very privileged to be managing the Mayo team, getting to All-Ireland finals, there is a big workload in it but I knew that when I was signing up for the job.
“Things have moved on from those first two months, we lost the first three National League games, so when you sign up for the job initially, you don’t envisage losing the first three league games. That is not part of the plan anyway. That is the context of saying, two months in. It was my first foray into inter-county.”
When Mayo were 12 points inferior to Dublin in March’s Division 1 game in Croke Park, Rochford wasn’t wide-eyed. “We went into that game to look to win it. But we were under no illusions as regards where our preparations were, taking on Dublin in Croke Park. Dublin drawing games — they drew against Tyrone on a very wet night, they don’t draw too many other games in Croke Park. And taking Dublin there or taking them on the road — they are a different proposition.
“So that game was very disappointing, but it was a game, in some ways, that we just had to move on from. Dublin were missing a lot of players who will be playing for them the next day, and we were missing quite a lot too.”
In last month’s All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo didn’t lose first day out to Kerry although you might have been deceived, given the stink kicked up about Aidan O’Shea’s switch to full-back. Since swapping David Clarke for Rob Hennelly in last year’s final, understanding of Rochford’s methods haven’t always been in plentiful supply.
“We understand that is how things are,” he shrugs about the sharp analysis of his tactics. “We never selected Aidan to seek approval of a paper, or a pundit on a TV programme or a radio station. We looked to do it to try and win a game of football, that would have allowed us to get into an All-Ireland final. That might sound very simplistic but that is the way we look at it.”
What balances that out is the backing from inside Mayo as much as the group’s keenness to move on to the next challenge. “You work within your own county. You have a lot of support there. The Mayo support have been very good to me, to the team, and whatever sort of criticism we were getting in the week between the two games, because the replay was only six days after the drawn match, we sort of sheltered ourselves away from that as we had enough to be focusing on in relation to winning the replay, to not be distracted by a headline, a comment, or a line here and there.”
Tyrone are now on the receiving end of criticism for how they set up for Dublin.
Rochford says it’s not in Mayo’s plan to be “unconventional”, but asking questions of the All-Ireland champions is essential at the weekend. “Look, there was nobody at the game or any observer who was surprised by what Tyrone did. But at times, you know, all credit to Dublin, they matched like-for-like.
“They had 15 guys behind the ball at times. At times they had six guys in attack. And Dublin are basically saying, ‘Whatever way you want to come at us, we’ll take you on.’ And that’s just more evidence of the quality of players that they have; the level of achievement they have and the confidence they have within the group.
“At the same time, we have a strong belief within our group. Confidence is at a very good level. Physically, we’re in really good shape, and we’re really looking forward to that challenge. Only one of two teams left can be the All-Ireland champions and we’re one of them.”
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