Saturday 21 July 2018

Mayo add to 2020 vision

The decision to secure Rochford follows a pattern of stability among football's elite

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford consoles Aidan O’Shea after their defeat to Dublin in this year’s All-Ireland SFC final. The pair will be key figures in the county’s quest to end their long wait for Sam Maguire. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford consoles Aidan O’Shea after their defeat to Dublin in this year’s All-Ireland SFC final. The pair will be key figures in the county’s quest to end their long wait for Sam Maguire. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In just a few months the top inter-county Gaelic football teams have all made significant moves to bed down for a more stable mid-term future.

Dublin got the ball rolling in May when Jim Gavin, whose latest agreement to manage the county's senior footballers was due to expire this season just gone, had his term extended by a further two years, putting him in place until 2019.

In Tyrone Mickey Harte is always keen to have time in hand and for the most part of his managerial career he has been afforded that.

In recent years however, those credits have dried up and twice Harte has ended seasons at the All-Ireland semi-final stage with nothing in the bank except a desire to continue.

In September however, not long after their disappointing exit to Dublin, Tyrone reached further than anyone might have expected by giving their long-serving manager a three-year extension, taking him to the end of 2020.

By the end of last month Kerry were also thinking along the same lines.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice, in place for five years with a year to run, sought an extra two years on top of that in the knowledge that some hard choices would have to be made and a step back might have to be taken before they can move forward with a cohort of talented young players laden with All-Ireland minor medals from the last four seasons.

There were some misgivings but they didn't amount to much and Fitzmaurice's extension was ratified last week.

The fourth of this year's provincial winners, Roscommon, added another year to Kevin McStay's time in charge on the back of his Connacht success, leaving him in place until 2020.

Stephen Rochford was perhaps the most unlikely of the quartet of top managers to take an extension to the three years he had already committed to managing Mayo for.

After exhaustive back-to-back campaigns encompassing 19 matches and so much disappointment, 2018 will bring a breakthrough or a fall from which there might be no picking up the pieces from.

Elusive

As long the big prize remains elusive for this group, can there be real focus on long-term strategy anyway?

Rochford's commitment to a further two years at least gives the illusion that there is some thought beyond the current cycle. But is there really?

Committing to 2020 removes the 'last-year' attachment to his stewardship and creates the impression that time is still on their side.

Quite often though, these agreements that managers enter with their county boards are not worth the paper they are written on and a result-driven outcome generally determines futures, irrespective of time credit.

But there's a prospect now that Gavin, Fitzmaurice, Harte and Rochford will all be in place for 2019 at least and, if Gavin extends in the meantime, 2020 too.

The picture at the top has never looked as stable. Can we expect the elite corps to change much in that time? Not really, especially with the tightening of these managerial nuts and bolts.

Dublin and Kerry won't slip too far and Tyrone look well placed to continue to hold the strongest hand in Ulster until probably Donegal recover ground.

Mayo may be most vulnerable beyond next year but, in the short-term, they look well placed to mount a sustainable challenge again.

Blending a better kicking game with the more explosive running game that has taken them so far, and was apparent in their last four matches in Croke Park, was this management's big success in 2017.

Andy Moran was first over the trenches with his readiness for battle just nine days after their most recent All-Ireland final defeat and so far there has been no indication of anyone retiring, though speculation does fall on Alan Dillon's future.

Attention will fall on Rochford's back-room team now. Donie Buckley has been involved with three different managers since coming on board with James Horan in 2013 and is a key component that they would like to retain.

It's hard to see Buckley walking away now, even five years on, though he's expected to spend a good chunk of the remainder of this year and some of the early part of 2018 in the US, as he does some years.

With family and travel commitments Tony McEntee also has a sizeable decision to make on his involvement.

Rochford's focus will be to extend the depth of their squad with more meaningful options.

Diarmuid O'Connor, Brendan Harrison and Paddy Durcan have progressed in the last four years but the numbers flowing through have been small.

Much investment was made in Fergal Boland during the league but he was no longer part of the 26-man squad for the All-Ireland final.

Aidan O'Shea was probably quite prophetic in Croke Park on Wednesday when predicting how Mayo's league campaign would yield wins from games they are expected to lose, losses from games they are expected to win and the obligatory hammering that sends everyone into a spin.

But ultimately, when championship comes around they'll be ready. They have it down to a fine art. As much as it will need maintenance of form from those in place now, putting together a better bench is paramount to Rochford's early work in 2018.

Conor Loftus should see more game-time than just the one start and two appearances off the bench that he made in last year's league campaign that saw Cillian O'Connor play every minute of all seven games.

Brian Reape's expected development hasn't materialised yet in the wake of the 2016 All-Ireland U-21 success but after spending time in the US this year there are hopes that he can put himself in the picture as an auxiliary forward.

Adding two years to Rochford's term gives the impression of steady work in progress in Mayo but the clock still ticks to the same rhythm as it always does for them.

Irish Independent

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