Stephen Rochford focuses on ultimate destination

Mayo have used League to experiment despite the threat of relegation

Stephen Rochford is determined to put his own stamp on this Mayo team, and quickly. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

Christy O'Connor

In Clones last weekend, Ger Cafferkey followed his usual pre-match visualisation routine. Cafferkey positioned himself on the 13-metre line and repeatedly envisaged match-type scenarios. On occasion, he put his hand out to the side, visualising himself either pushing off an opponent, or getting a tackle in.

Cafferkey only had possession on five occasions against Monaghan but he had an excellent game on Conor McManus, whose only score from play was a penalty rebound. Cafferkey's form has been excellent but he has also benefited from the defensive system implemented around him.

Lee Keegan effectively played as a sweeper but he also marked McManus in the second half, up to his black card. Donie Vaughan picked up McManus afterwards. Wing-backs Shane Nally and Michael Hall were also consistently getting back as quickly as possible to protect the 'D' when Mayo lost possession. Monaghan failed to score from play after the 22nd minute.

The goal Mayo conceded the previous week against Donegal illustrated the difficulties they are still experiencing in trying to initiate a culture change. That was evident again last weekend when Monaghan still got back level with five minutes remaining, but at least Mayo are trying to get the balance right.


The new order was first evident against Dublin. Mayo-Dublin matches have always been scoring carnivals, gun-slinging shootouts. Dublin showed a new side to their game, and attitude, in last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay.

Mayo had often tried to rein themselves in but, when it came down to it, they just couldn't.

In Round 2 though, Mayo played complete blanket defensive football. Dublin only managed 0-9. Mayo lost but the result was almost irrelevant in the context of seeing them try something so at odds with their identity.

A week earlier against Cork, Mayo were so gung-ho and wide open against a strong breeze in the first half that they lined up with a three-man full-forward line and no sweeper.

When Tony McEntee managed Crossmaglen Rangers to two All-Ireland club titles, their style was completely orthodox, and very direct. They kicked as often as they handpassed. That style was a rarity in the modern game, and in complete contrast to Mayo's running style of recent years.

That is McEntee's philosophy but when Stephen Rochford recruited him to his backroom team, he wanted someone with a positive and analytical mind, someone flexible enough to marry with Rochford's overall vision for the team. Donie Buckley has that tactical mindset and flexibility but he didn't always have the licence to fully implement those ideas and game-plans under the two previous managements.

Every team with serious All-Ireland ambitions needs to be well set up defensively. They also need at least ten quality defenders, especially when Dublin are running their bench and wearing the opposition down. Mayo didn't have those defensive options in the past but this campaign has shown that they're steadily getting there.

They have deepened their defensive options. Brendan Harrison and Michael Hall have impressed. So has Shane Nally in stages. Patrick Durcan, man of the match in Castlebar Mitchels All-Ireland semi-final win against Crossmaglen Rangers, also looks primed to nail down a starting spot this season.

Mayo have been experimenting with more than just styles and systems of play because they have also been mixing up their kickout options. Tom Parsons is repeatedly going to the wings for short kickouts. Rob Hennelly has also been trying straight line-drives into players' chests around the '45'.

That's a high-risk strategy and Mayo were picked off for one point on that tactic last Sunday. Still, they won 63pc of their own kickouts against Monaghan, and Hennelly has such a huge range to his kicking game that management are clearly challenging him to try and reach a standard set by Stephen Cluxton and Paul Durcan.

They are still mired in a relegation dogfight but, with a crippling injury list, there was a realisation before the League even began that Mayo would endure a difficult start. Mayo have 33 players with Championship experience in a squad of 48 but for the Cork game, they were missing 18 of them.

Cillian O'Connor is likely to miss the whole spring campaign. Keith Higgins returned from injury but is now out again for 4-6 weeks. That has forced others to assume more leadership and Diarmuid O'Connor has really embraced that challenge and taken his game to a different level.

Big names are gradually returning. Seamus O'Shea got his first start of the campaign against Monaghan. Chris Barrett came on against Donegal and Monaghan. Andy Moran also appeared last Sunday. Alan Dillon, Alan Freeman and Mikey Conroy played with their clubs last weekend. The eight Castlebar Mitchels players will be soon back.

Apart from Barry Moran, Tom Cunniffe and Durkin, most of those Mitchels players are borderline team/squad players that Rochford needed to throw into League matches to fully assess. Yet Rochford may not be able to take a chance on any of them in Mayo's last two League games if they are still scrambling for survival.

Avoiding relegation is a priority for Rochford but it's certainly not his only one. Mayo have been an excellent League team over the last 15 years but they still haven't won an All-Ireland.

How they finally get there is completely irrelevant. Getting there is all that matters.