Tuesday 12 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Rochford does not deserve to be under such pressure, but he has made a rod for his own back


Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a team which overthrows its manager puts itself under huge pressure to deliver the goods.

The Cork hurling team which blazed a trail as regards player revolts always seemed conscious of its responsibility to be as committed on the field as it had been on the metaphorical picket line.

And the extraordinary rigour and ferocity shown by Galway against Tipperary was at least partly rooted in a determination to show their decision to get Anthony Cunningham his walking papers had not been a frivolous one.

Actually, universally acknowledged isn't quite correct. Mayo footballers are an exception. Since the coup against Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, the pressure has fallen on the manager who replaced the duo rather than the players who disposed of them.

Today Stephen Rochford will be under more pressure than anyone else in Croke Park.

That's because no-one has ever been able to fault the Mayo players for effort. You can't beat them with the 'under-achieving Fancy Dans' stick. Seeing them soldiering on for so long and going so close without any reward makes you feel kind of guilty. Few people have the heart to criticise them.

So while the Galway hurlers were excoriated for their ingratitude towards Cunningham, Mayo footballers got a free pass after their rebellion. Given that punditry abhors a vacuum this meant that Rochford (pictured) was under the spotlight in a way that Micheál Donoghue was not.

As time goes on, the heat from that spotlight is increasing greatly. On one level it seems unfair. Bringing a Mayo team perceived to be in decline closer than they'd been to All-Ireland victory in 20 years was no mean achievement for a neophyte inter-county boss.

Rochford should be absolutely secure in both his job and the affections of Mayo supporters.

The reason he's not is the same reason that any definition of the phrase 'making a rod for your own back' should have a picture of the Mayo manager next to it.

It's become an increasingly popular line of argument that the coaching of inter-county teams is such an arcane art that only those embedded with a side have the right to comment on its shortcomings.

But the truth is that you don't need to have managed at the highest level to see that Rochford's decision to replace David Clarke with Rob Hennelly for last year's replay against Dublin was the worst decision made in an All-Ireland final since Paddy Cullen thought he might take a stroll out to have a chat with Seamus Aldridge as Mike Sheehy lined up a free.

Anyone inclined to defend Rochford's eccentric call should ponder the fact that not only did Hennelly's mistakes hand the game to Dublin but that the Breaffy keeper was replaced before the end of the replay and hasn't been seen in a big game since.

The doubts that decision raised about Rochford's tactical nous were added to last week. Lee Keegan's policing of Enda Smith had brought him into the Roscommon territory so often in the first half that he single-handedly turned the tide back in favour of Mayo.

You can practically hear Kevin McStay saying to Liam McHale, "Do you think if we move Smith in full-forward, Rochford will move Keegan back full-back?" "He'll hardly fall for it Kevin but it's worth a shot." Yet fall for it the Mayo boss did and, having played perhaps his finest ever 35 minutes, Keegan was a peripheral figure in the second half.

Modern inter-county management may indeed be the impossibly complicated pursuit we're told it is. Yet to the unschooled eye the strangeness of Rochford's decision making seems obvious.

The withdrawal of Andy Moran when Mayo needed a couple of late scores against an out-on-their feet Galway outfit was bad enough. But the repeated subbing of a player who's been superb this year while most of his forward colleagues have struggled seems perverse at this stage.

And so does the persistent premature removal of the energetic Colm Boyle.

Rochford is of course privy to information that the rest of us do not possess. It may well be that Moran and Boyle simply don't have the legs to contribute for one minute longer than the time he allocates them. But the result of these decisions is that the Mayo manager comes under increasingly sceptical scrutiny with each game.

Today he can't win. A victory over an unfancied Roscommon team won't 'answer the manager's critics'. It will merely lead to a match against Kerry, the acknowledged masters of punishing tactical miscalculations by the opposition.

On the other hand a loss would make the pressure close to unbearable for Rochford, not least because it would be inflicted by a manager who increasingly looks like the man who might have brought Mayo those final few steps to All-Ireland glory.

McStay is under no pressure today because Roscommon are already in the bonus for this year. But Rochford, who less than a year ago was just a kick of the ball away from becoming the most celebrated manager in Mayo history, is practically on trial.

It does seem unfair. But what is Gaelic football except a huge machine specially designed to inflict pain and unfairness on Mayo men?

Irish Independent

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