Wednesday 21 February 2018

2016 Ones to watch: Can Stephen finally deliver the Holy Grail to Mayo?

Stephen Rochford, Mayo manager

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford.
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford.

Graham Clifford

Another year - and another 12-month extension to GAA's most inexplicable famine. As the 2015 Championship season ended, the knives were out in Mayo - a county which has now waited 64 years since its last senior All-Ireland football title.

The players revolted, issuing a vote of no confidence in the joint managers Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes. Murmurings inside and outside of the county suggested a host of interested parties would throw their respective hats into the ring, but when the dust settled, Ballinrobe's Stephen Rochford was unveiled as the latest in a long line of Mayo managers hoping to break the curse and bring Sam Maguire way out west.

Rochford, who persuaded outgoing coach Donie Buckley, former Armagh footballer Tony McEntee and his former teammate Barry Carey to come on board as selectors, was given a three-year term by the Mayo County board in November - though it will be reviewed on an annual basis.

Over the last few months he's waited for the first page in the 2016 calendar to turn. Now he can finally get to grips with arguably the toughest, but potentially most rewarding, gig in GAA management.

Rochford's pedigree is strong. He won an All-Ireland club medal with Crossmolina in 2001 and managed Galway club Corofin to the same title last March. He also had a spell on the line with Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Well-respected within the game, he is known as a hands-on manager and a shrewd tactician.

With every managerial appointment in Mayo, however, comes renewed hope that finally they can leave Croke Park on the third Sunday in September with silverware in tow. No matter how they try, the football-mad population of the county can't help but dream - and who could blame them?

But immediately upon his appointment, Rochford sought to stamp out such a frenzy before it had the chance to breathe.

"We will experiment during the league, we will want to maintain our Division One status and if we get more from it, then that's good. But there will be no talk of All-Irelands or anything like that. Connacht will be very competitive and we want to prepare for that," Rochford said.

The reality, of course, is that this county expects. League and Provincial titles, though welcomed, stand for very little in Mayo if the Championship campaign is again unsuccessful. Immortality awaits the manager who can conjure up an All-Ireland winning campaign.

Rochford's first Championship outing will take place on foreign soil when he leads the Westerners to Ruislip for a meeting with London.

The Exiles gave James Horan the fright of his life in his first competitive game in charge of Mayo - bringing the game to extra-time in 2011 - and they'll be hoping to go one better when the Connacht Champions (for the last five years in a row) visit London.

But, in many ways, Rochford believes the mileage on the clock and experience earned in recent campaigns will stand to his troops as they go into battle once more in 2016.

"The modern footballer is conditioned and rested and has got the very best of support, be it strength and conditioning and medical, nutrition. I think the longevity of the inter-county footballer, whilst knowing it is attritional, with that level of expertise, guys can go on. These guys, from what I can see, still have huge hunger. We're certainly not looking towards any crucial dates bar the first round of the league and our first trip in the Championship heading for London," he said.

In line with their total provincial domination of recent years, Mayo are 4/7 to retain their Connacht title in 2016 and 6/1 to lift Sam itself.

When the opportunity arose to manage his home county, Rochford said he couldn't resist. "It is a huge honour to be asked to manage your native county and it has been an ambition for some time. You just never know when you are going to get an opportunity so I'm grateful to be given the chance."

And while he acknowledges the weight of history is never far away. He believes the focus must be on the future only. "We can't change 2014 or 2015 or 2013 or back as far as 1951. We're looking to 2016 to write our own element of history and that's game by game, performance by performance."

Since Mayo last won the All-Ireland, they've lost seven finals - the hardest defeat coming in 1996 when a last-minute point from Meath brought the game to a bad-tempered replay, which the Royal County went on to win.

As Rochford settles into his new position, he's eager to maintain consistency in the dressing room.

"It is important, no matter what sport you are in, whether professional or amateur, that there is not a clean sweep. I would like to think we've got the mix right and we are all looking forward to the challenge," the 37-year-old said.

So, can the new manager be the one to shake off the shackles and finally deliver for Mayo? Time is running out for the current generation - rated by many as the strongest Mayo side in over 50 years. As Rochford begins his reign, there's certainly one good omen from which he can take confidence. The Old Moore's Almanac predicts Mayo will finally be crowned All-Ireland Champions in 2016!

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