'Winning an All-Ireland in 2016 won't be a blind focus for Mayo'
Published 05/12/2015 | 02:30
A few years ago, while on holiday with his wife in Australia, Stephen Rochford found himself inevitably drawn towards business. Or, more to the point, the business of coaching.
In Melbourne a contact was able to arrange for him to attend training with AFL club Collingwood. So he spent a couple of days on the sidelines: watching, absorbing, learning.
His own concept of a paradise island.
"It wasn't a million miles away from stuff that you would be trying in Gaelic football but just seeing the culture, the little things that they were doing at academy level, screening players, videoing them, watching their technique and understanding it," he enthuses.
What struck him most was the level of adaption they brought to everything they did.
"Typically at that stage, if you were around Gaelic football you would have fellas saying "look at the way he is kicking the ball there, you need to change him.
"Whereas their view on it was 'he is 19/20 years doing it, how are you going to change him in a short period of time? So let's build his body around it, so that he is more comfortable and less susceptible to injury.'
"That's thinking outside the box, getting away from the conventional mindset that we have to change him because that is what other players did before."
Rochford tells the story to illustrate the power of "the drug" that football is to him, the satisfaction of learning new things.
He won six Mayo titles with Crossmolina, culminating in their 2001 All-Ireland club success. But from a young age there was a gravitation towards coaching.
He recalls a club game in the early 2000s "on one of those wet November Sundays" when he stepped in to an U-21 vacancy. He was still in his early 20s, still a player, but the move felt right. For the record, Crossmolina won that Mayo title.
Each step has given him greater elevation, greater insight. He was 27 when he linked up as a Mayo minor selector, in his early 30s when his journey took him on a path with GMIT through the Sigerson Cup. Three years ago he went for the Mayo U-21 management job when Tony Duffy was appointed.
But out of that disappointment came the platform of Corofin's 2015 All-Ireland club title, which has taken him to a job he always had ambition for. Maybe a little ahead of schedule but one, in his mind, he had been preparing for all along.
"You hear of lads standing in their back garden kicking ball and they are dreaming of the time that they kick that winning score for Mayo to win the All-Ireland. Once I got involved in coaching I always had an ambition to be involved with Mayo at some level," he says.
"When I got involved with Corofin I was saying 'yes, I would like to manage Mayo at some stage' but thinking that it would be three years on. A lot has happened in the last three years. I have gained a lot of experience; I do feel that now is a good time for me."
The 'how' of sports coaching fascinates him, a cross-pollination of hurling, rugby, American football and soccer feeding into his meticulous mind.
"I enjoy watching other sports, seeing moves coming off and wondering how they did that, whether it is American football or Aussie Rules, looking at great Kerry teams or the Kilkenny hurling team and saying, 'what did they do on the training field to exploit that opportunity?'," he says.
"It has always interested me. Then to go out and deliver that as a coach on the training field, seeing it come off then in a game gives me a lot of satisfaction."
"I really like rugby because of the structure it gives you but also that natural flair it allows.
"American football. . . especially around the set-plays and how imaginative they can be, like watching the Patriots and Tom Brady, how they can direct the game and deal with the pressure. That is a big thing, like out-halves in rugby, they have got to make decisions in a split-second."
Yet the principles of what he would like to achieve with Mayo will be constructed on simplicity. Something that former Irish rugby international Shane Horgan once said, when asked about the success of Joe Schmidt, has stuck with him.
"He said it was just about 'brilliant basics'. Don't get bored of doing the right things and the simple things. That is the way that I love to coach."
There are echoes too of Brian Cody in that sense. "Right now (for greatest influence), Joe Schmidt and Brian Cody are two guys who you would have to say. The resilience they show, they don't waffle, they talk about honesty, and talk about brilliant basics."
Rochford's backroom team of Donie Buckley, Tony McEntee and Maurice Horan has considerable profile and opinion that may not necessarily align, he concedes.
"I'm not looking for yes men," said Rochford. "I don't think that's going to serve any good. It won't serve the county any good, it won't serve me as a manager any good.
"You look at other sports, you look at Steve Hansen, he's gone on to win a world title with New Zealand. He was riding shotgun with Graham Henry so obviously he was a strong character. He had been a coach with Wales. We've had discussions around how the coaches are going to operate."
Buckley is back in with Mayo under a third different management but if Rochford had been appointed U21 manager in 2012, Buckley would have been with him.
"I spent a summer trying to influence him to come on board at a time when he was not involved with any team," says Rochford. "He came on board but I did not get the job and he went onto the seniors.
"Donie and I know each other so I approached him. I feel that level of consistency in the management team is vital; I don't believe that there is a necessity that, when a new manager comes in, you sweep out everything."
Former Limerick manager Horan will be involved in video analysis, while Barry Solan, despite working with Arsenal, will continue to oversee Mayo's strength and conditioning programme. McEntee's involvement provides a new angle.
"We are going to have a guy standing in the Mayo dressing-room with an All-Ireland winner's medal and I don't know if that has happened in a while. That is not going to win us games but it will help in gaining the respect of the players," says Rochford.
"Again, somebody that was analysing the game that wasn't emotionally invested in Mayo. He can tell me between the eyes, 'this is what it's going to be about, this is what the pressure cooker will be about'."
With 14 of the 34-man 2015 squad based in Dublin, McEntee will oversee their preparation during the week until May.
Rochford inherits a Mayo squad that is now routinely considered 'top three' in the game, a group that were sufficiently strong-willed to say no to a previous management that were only a year in to a three-year term. Some of the issues they had could be found in the small print, the little detail that Rochford is renowned for.
Significantly, in the many rounds of interviews that he has conducted since being ratified on Monday night, he hasn't once set in stone the target of an All-Ireland title. He has managed to skilfully deflect the question of urgency that seems to follow this team.
"As a Mayo person I wish we had won an All-Ireland over the last 20 years, but we haven't. We may or may not do that in 2016," he says.
"That won't be a blind focus. It will be about Cork first, Dublin, park. And then trying to gain momentum into the second part of the league. That might sound a little rehashed from manager to manager but that's the way you have to look at it. We're coming in with a new set of eyes on it.
"A guy once said to me 'every day is a school day'. I would guess, and I don't know from a players' perspective, is that they haven't maximised.
"Although they have a fair amount of experience there is a cohort of guys there that are still only coming towards their peak, Aidan (O'Shea), Cillian (O'Connor), Lee (Keegan).
"So I don't think their days of learning are over. I certainly have the energy, the team have. Be it video analysis, strength and conditioning - there is always something new in the sciences aspect to draw upon and add to the team.
"You look at Brian O'Driscoll going into his mid-30s. Did he stop learning at 28 or 29? I would hope that we can bring a bit of innovation, a bit of freshness."