Squad turmoil, injuries and concussion controversy - Stephen Rochford's baptism of fire
Published 06/02/2016 | 02:30
Stephen Rochford was prepared for intense heat, the rattle of thunder and the crackle of lightning. He could even cope with hail and gale but, hell, did they all have to arrive together?
Ideally, he would have liked to have gone into the Allianz League with a full, fit squad in order to start applying his own designs on the structure that he intends to use.
That would have been a big challenge in itself but with injuries (short and longer term) and unavailability (Castlebar Mitchels are in the All-Ireland club semi-final) weakening his hand, the focus has switched to more pressing matters like surviving until such time as all-round circumstances are more favourable.
So, while it would be ludicrous to overreact to one bad day, last Sunday's nine-point defeat by Cork was precisely the start everyone in Mayo wanted to avoid.
And, in an unhelpful twist, the fixture list lined up Dublin as Mayo's next opponents, followed by Donegal in Round 3 on February 28.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Mayo lost the first three games. It's the toughest possible start, away to Cork and Donegal and home to the All-Ireland champions. No manager would want that, especially when he's without so many players," reflects Sunday Game analyst and former Mayo (and Donegal) star, Martin Carney.
Even if Mayo lost their first three games, it wouldn't necessarily spell the end of their prospects of reaching the Division 1 semi-finals (Donegal got in with seven points last year).
However, if Mayo were to get dragged into a grim relegation battle, it would not be the most fertile ground for the tactical tweaking planned by Rochford.
Mayo actually need to win the League title more than any of the rest but if that's not to be achieved, they must ensure that they finish the spring campaign in good order for the Championship.
Relegation has to be avoided at all costs. Mayo have the best record in terms of longevity in the top flight, having been there right through the new Millennium. None of the other big-hitters can match that.
Already, Rochford has experienced how short the honeymoon is going to be in a county where managers are now judged on one simple criterion: has Sam Maguire come west? Even after one League game, Rochford copped some criticism from former Mayo player Billy Joe Padden.
In his Mayo News column this week, he questioned Mayo's set-up and game-plan against Cork.
"I just couldn't understand why we tried to play a style that was so dependent on athleticism and stamina when we knew we hadn't the same amount of work done as Cork," Padden wrote.
"We were kicking more often than not. That led to chasing and trying to get the ball back, and we were always going to run out of gas quicker than Cork trying to play that way. They had more training done, were fitter than us, and so it was little wonder that they were out of sight before the end of the third quarter.
"I felt Mayo needed to slow everything down, keep it tight, guard possession when we had it, and run the ball through the hand much more, especially against the wind."
The reality for Rochford and Mayo was that circumstances left them relatively easy prey for Cork.
Even if injuries and unavailability weren't disruptive tenants when Rochford walked into the managerial house, he was starting from a disadvantage anyway, since his appointment didn't come until three weeks before Christmas.
By then, new Cork manager Peadar Healy was six weeks into his job. Rochford would, no doubt, have liked a much longer run-in but his involvement with Corofin complicated matters.
Still, he was the obvious choice to replace Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly after the Mayo squad decided to dump all responsibility for last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat by Dublin on to management.
The players can dress it up any way they like but that's what happened. The successful revolt loads a new pressure on the players but they face other challenges too, not least the change of emphasis Rochford will bring.
In his playing days, he was regarded as one of the best foot passers around, so it's no surprise that he favours boot to hand in his tactical approach.
"He brings a sound philosophy to the game and he communicates it well," says Carney. "The question is can you change fellas in the short term?
"The Mayo players have been used to playing a certain way but they are going to have to adapt to something different. How long that takes remains to be seen."
A big issue for Rochford - although not one he has to address yet because of his depleted squad - is the eventual line-up of the panel.
"Interestingly, last year's entire Championship group declared themselves available but since Rochford has added (with more to come no doubt) some new faces, there will be casualties later on."
Will some of them be high-profile? And, if so, what will be the reaction of their colleagues?
Mayo didn't win the All-Ireland in recent years because they weren't good enough. The players may think differently but nobody else does. Now, under a new manager, they know that change is inevitable, both in personnel and tactical terms.
After all, there's no logic in going back with essentially the same squad and the same approach. If it failed before, why should it succeed now? Rochford won't do that, although it remains to be seen what new talent will force its way into the starting 15. And, once there, will it be good enough?
"We'll be looking to be competitive and, every day we go out, that we can be honest and say we did ourselves and the county proud. If we do that, I think we'll be going in the right direction.
"We can't change 2014 or 2015, or back as far as 1951.We're looking at 2016 to write our own element of history, and that's game by game, performance by performance," said Rochford shortly after his appointment.
There wasn't a whole lot to please him last Sunday on a day when the excellence of goalkeeper Robert Hennelly saved Mayo from a really embarrassing defeat.
"Without him, it could have been 15 points," Carney admits.
Now, Dublin, who beat Mayo by 14 points in last year's League clash in Castlebar, are heading west after launching so impressively against Kerry last week.
"It's unfortunate for Stephen and Mayo that they're without so many players for the start of the League," says Carney. "If he had a full-strength squad to pick from, he could have got on with whatever tactical adjustments he plans to make.
"As it is, they just have to battle through these games as best they can. They'll be glad of the three-week break after the Dublin game to get a lot of work done.
"The season is only starting so things have to be kept in perspective, especially when there are so many players missing."
As 10/3 outsiders to beat Dublin (2/7) tonight, it's difficult to anticipate Mayo upsetting the odds. However, Rochford will be looking for a really gritty performance in front of a large home following, many of whom are still uneasy over how the players treated Holmes and Connelly last autumn.
That has nothing to do with Rochford who, in any event, has enough on his mind to keep him occupied without worrying about events over which he has no control.
It was always likely that Mayo would lose to Cork last Sunday but the manner of the defeat, coupled with the Lee Keegan concussion controversy, was the worst possible start.
Keegan misses this evening's game, further weakening Mayo against opposition that looked really good last week.
"Lads will really have to stand up against Dublin," reasons Carney. "They know that the Cork performance wasn't good enough. Losing is one thing but losing heavily is another as it could be very important later on when scoring difference can decide where teams finish on the table."
Indeed, Mayo missed out on a semi-final place to Donegal on scoring difference last year after a three-way tie with Kerry on seven points. Such considerations will be a long way from Rochford's mind tonight. This is all about undoing as much as possible of the damage from last Sunday before heading into the three-week break before the next game.
If he anticipated heavy pressure from the start, the job has certainly lived up to expectations.