Stephen Coen hoping long road to Croke Park ends in Mayo glory

For six straight years between 2004 and 2009, Kerry players marked autumn by the failing evening light as they trained in Fitzgerald Stadium. Stephen Coen has measured it the last two seasons by getting back on the bus from Dublin to Mayo.

Mayo's Stephen Coen at a press conference at Breaffy House Hotel, Co Mayo. Picture: Seb Daly

In the final year of his agricultural science degree in UCD, he returned to Belfield on Monday having spent the summer at home. It meant getting back on board with the rest of the Dublin-based players in Stephen Rochford’s panel, who have been returning for training once during the week and at weekends.

The bilocation of the Mayo panel is a moot point. Former backroom team member and Irish Examiner columnist Ed Coughlan believes those logistics have held them back. Rochford is more diplomatic: “From a Division 1 perspective, between ourselves and Donegal, we have the larger demand on players commuting. But Dublin is the capital of the country and that’s where a lot of the jobs are, a lot of the top jobs, and where an awful lot of guys go to college. I think in the earlier part of the year it’s a lot more challenging. Certainly, from about a mid-May perspective, when lads get home from college, it allows us a bit more time to be consistent with what we’re trying on the field.”

The journey this week couldn’t be shorter for Coen. Besides, he knows he has it easier than others like Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons, who work in the capital. “For me, personally, from January to May I have to travel up and down. Now, I’m in college so recovery is a lot easier for me. In UCD you have a gym and a pool right on your doorstep so it is very easy for me to recover the next day after training. But I suppose for the guys working it must be very difficult. At the same time, they still have to get the work done while they’re training. At the same time, we have good craic coming up and down so it’s not too bad.”

In the earlier part of the year, the likes of Tony McEntee and Donie Buckley would have taken midweek sessions with the Dublin-based crew with the entire panel meeting for training in Castlebar on Fridays. Aidan O’Shea has admitted he moved home to aid his football career.

It’s a choice Coen knows he might have to make next year. “That’s something I’ll have to consider but I suppose I’ll have to consider my studies as well and whether I want to advance my education. That’s important too, not just football. Look, we don’t have to do this. We don’t have to play for Mayo if we don’t want to but we all want to and if that’s what it takes that’s what we’ll do.”

Living with Monaghan starlet Conor McCarthy, Kerry’s Barry O’Sullivan, and Kilkenny hurler James Meagher, Coen is immersed in GAA in UCD. The Dublin trio of Jack McCaffrey, Mick Fitzsimons, and Con O’Callaghan are also college mates. “We have good craic, but will respect each other’s privacy the week before the game to see where it goes after that. We know a lot about each other, both groups do. It is about trying to focus on each other’s weaknesses now to make the most of that.”

Not 22 until December, Coen started the games against Galway and Derry but has been a substitute in the other seven championship outings this year. There have been a few blips along the way. He could have done better for both Cork goals in the qualifier in the Gaelic Grounds while he was intercepted for the free that led to Luke Connolly’s equaliser. “With the pace of the game being very, very quick at inter-county level, you just have to get up to it. If you are that bit off, you’ll make those mistakes, but then you have other days when you can pitch in straight away, get your first touch out of the way, you just get going then, same as everyone else.”

Last year’s All-Ireland U21-winning captain also fouled the ball, which gave Enda Smith the platform to give Roscommon a second bite of the cherry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Those incidents aside, Coen has been a steady presence when introduced in a variety of roles.

“We train to deal with any situation really because you could be earmarked to play someone, you could be midfield or you could be at full-back. It’s the same when you’re a substitute. There are one of nine fellas that could come and mark so you just have to trust your instinct because these games take on a life of their own and you just have to deal with it. You have to go with your instinct because you literally haven’t any time. In fairness to Stephen, he isn’t afraid to make any call. He will put you in if he thinks you are good enough to play.”

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