Mayo should shut out din and trust Rochford’s in­stincts

Rochford’s ploy of putting O’Shea on Don­aghy could be deemed a par­tial suc­cess

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - GAELIC FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP 2017 - Keith Duggan PHO­TO­GRAPH: RYAN BYRNE/INPHO

It has been a ghoul­ish week for cov­er­age of Gaelic foot­ball. For the second suc­ces­sive cham­pi­onship sum­mer, Mayo’s man­ager Stephen Rochford has been widely pil­lo­ried and mocked for dar­ing to make a tac­ti­cal switch. The lat­est re­ac­tion be­trays the pre­vail­ing scep­ti­cism and fear of try­ing any­thing orig­i­nal or dif­fer­ent in Gaelic games.

And the tone of the com­men­tary re­vealed a deep-down sus­pi­cion that there is a ge­netic im­pulse for self-de­struc­tion within the bor­ders of the county; a dis­dain­ful sense that only they would try some­thing this breath­tak­ingly left­field and flash. The howls of de­ri­sion were shrill and in­stan­ta­neous and un­der­lined by a mean de­light. Look! They did it again!

On Mon­day morn­ing, a head­line in the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent caught the spirit of the age in its scathing ver­dict on the man­age­ment: “Tac­ti­cally, Mayo are lions led by don­keys”.

It was one of those stag­ger­ingly in­sult­ing head­lines you couldn’t quite believe even though it was there in front of you in black and white.

In a way, it was the in­evitable con­clu­sion to the free-for-all of mirth and de­ri­sion aimed at Mayo’s side­line – and specif­i­cally at Rochford – which be­gan al­most as soon as Ai­dan O’Shea, Mayo’s no­tional full-for­ward, trot­ted to the full-back po­si­tion to mark Kieran Don­aghy, Kerry’s totemic full for­ward.

The head­line sim­ply clar­i­fied a tru­ism of re­cent years that when it comes to this Mayo team, it is open sea­son all the time. Peo­ple feel at lib­erty to say or write what­ever they please.

Try to imag­ine that head­line writ­ten about any Dublin foot­ball man­age­ment – and the sub­se­quent up­roar. Or try to imag­ine In­de­pen­dent House ap­ply­ing the same head­line to the Kerry foot­ball man­age­ment. It sim­ply wouldn’t hap­pen.

With Mayo, to whom re­spect has al­ways been ra­tioned in Dick­en­sian por­tions, it is dif­fer­ent.

Prior to Sunday’s grip­ping semi-fi­nal, for­mer Mayo mid­fielder and pun­dit David Brady spec­u­lated that Mayo might just try O’Shea on Don­aghy. They needed to try and can­cel the omi­nous ae­rial threat with which the age­less Tralee man has haunted a gen­er­a­tion of Mayo full-back lines. The no­tion was ridiculed and dis­missed but, min­utes into the match, it was clear that he was the only an­a­lyst in the coun­try to cor­rectly call the match-up.

Sin­gu­lar bold­ness

Tomás O’Se was one of the few who pub­licly ac­knowl­edged that while he had rub­bished the idea, Brady had, in fact, called it right. Maybe Brady had a di­rect line to the thought process of the Mayo man­age­ment but it’s un­likely. How­ever, he knew that the na­tional pres­sure on Mayo to “do some­thing” about the full-back po­si­tion had be­come ex­treme.

The scru­tiny of Ger Caf­fer­key, back to full fitness this sum­mer after a 14-month ab­sence, was un­re­lent­ing, with Joe Brolly es­pe­cially adamant that Mayo couldn’t per­sist with the same back­line. It’s true that Brolly has been the Mayor Quimby of re­cent Mayo cov­er­age, flip-flop­ping with out­ra­geous im­punity all sum­mer. After the Gal­way de­feat, he de­clared Rochford “lost” and “in­de­ci­sive”. Still, he backed them to beat Kerry in the lead-up to the All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal and, struck by the sin­gu­lar bold­ness and orig­i­nal­ity of the Brady proph­esy, reck­oned in his Sunday In­de­pen­dent col­umn that there were “sound rea­sons” for try­ing O’Shea at full back.

Min­utes into the game, it very quickly be­came clear that the vast ma­jor­ity of those in the Croke Park press box be­lieved the switch in­stantly be­longed to one of the “Bad Ideas” in which Mayo are al­leged to spe­cialise. The move had an ob­vi­ous com­par­i­son in place – goal­keeper David Clarke re­place­ment by Rob Hen­nelly for last Septem­ber’s All-Ire­land fi­nal re­play.

That move dra­mat­i­cally back­fired with Hen­nelly hav­ing a night­mare in broad day­light and ended with Clarke be­ing re­stored to the goal­mouth when Hen­nelly earned a black card after con­ced­ing a penalty. It didn’t work. Mayo lost by a point and the ver­dict was that Rochford and Mayo would be haunted by the de­ci­sion for years. The ar­gu­ment was that he should have left well enough alone.

Rochford tried, in vain, to ex­plain that he didn’t feel things were, in fact, well enough after the drawn game. Dublin were ham­mer­ing Mayo’s kick-out. Hen­nelly was a proven goal­keeper who of­fered a dif­fer­ent op­tion. So they made the switch. If Hen­nelly had come in be­cause Clarke had pulled a ham­string at train­ing, no­body would have bat­ted an eye­lid. But be­cause Rochford made the de­ci­sion; be­cause he acted with an in­de­pen­dent mind and per­spec­tive, the switch was treated as a freak show.

The gen­eral con­sen­sus this week was that Rochford’s use of O’Shea was also dam­ag­ing and counter-pro­duc­tive.

“A bizarre de­ci­sion,” said Colm Cooper on the Sunday Game. “A worse de­ci­sion than chang­ing goal­keep­ers last year,” tweeted Mike Quirke, the for­mer Kerry mid­fielder. “Dis­as­trous,” lamented broad­caster Matt Cooper. These are al­most ran­dom ex­am­ples.

Sim­ply wrong

The broad agree­ment was that Don­aghy was in­volved in 2-6 of Kerry’s to­tal. That is de­bat­able, to say the least. But the di­rect in­fer­ence that O’Shea was there­fore at fault for the same con­ces­sion is sim­ply wrong.

Look at both of Kerry’s goals. The first, in the 13th minute, be­gan when Séa­mus O’Shea, fa­tally hes­i­tat­ing in pos­ses­sion at mid­field, was in­stantly gob­bled up by blue jer­seys.

Stephen O’Brien got a hand in and the ball spilled to An­thony Ma­her, who looked up to see Don­aghy am­bling to­wards him, back to goal. Ma­her hand­passed to him and then moved to Don­aghy’s right as a pass op­tion. Keith Hig­gins in­stantly cut across to track him. O’Shea, stand­ing 10 yards off Don­aghy held his ground, wait­ing for the Austin Stacks man to ad­vance.

The crit­i­cal fault lay with four Mayo de­fend­ers who al­lowed O’Brien to sprint through them and cre­ate a two-on-one sit­u­a­tion, which Don­aghy read per­fectly. It was bread and but­ter stuff to him. Any one of them could have tracked O’Brien and can­celled that op­tion. O’Shea held his ground, blocked Don­aghy’s path to goal and then tried to re­cover as O’Brien struck for goal. Noth­ing, how­ever, about that se­quence of play was his fault.

Kerry’s second goal also orig­i­nated from a mo­ment when Mayo had the ball, mov­ing out of de­fence and in com­plete con­trol. Hig­gins kicked a cross­field ball to O’Shea, who was wait­ing on the left wing. The pass was slightly over­cooked and it skid­ded out of bounds.

In­stantly, Kerry sought to play a high ball into Don­aghy. Séa­mus O’Shea had stepped in to shadow Don­aghy and he rushed in to con­test the ball. He was “tight” to Don­aghy; pre­cisely how the en­tire coun­try be­lieved Ai­dan O’Shea should have marked him all af­ter­noon. And he won the ball.

Watch the re­play: Séa­mus O’Shea gets his fist to it. Don­aghy doesn’t touch the ball at all. And look what hap­pens. Kerry are sud­denly in Fitzger­ald-Sta­dium train­ing rhythm now. David Mo­ran has swooped in to clean up the mess, sub­tle as a waiter at the Ritz. A sub­lime solo; a de­cent shot; Johnny Buck­ley pounces on the re­bound and scores a goal.

Imag­ine, for a second, if Ai­dan O’Shea had been mark­ing Don­aghy in the planned style, hang­ing back. Yes, Don­aghy or Mo­ran would have got the ball, but O’Shea would have per­fectly been po­si­tioned to chal­lenge what­ever was com­ing through the centre.

The second goal was, if any­thing, the most ex­plicit vin­di­ca­tion of Rochford’s de­ci­sion. The one high ball di­rected to­wards Don­aghy in the ab­sence of Ai­dan O’Shea re­sulted in Mayo’s worst fears: a goal.

Was Don­aghy a big fig­ure on Sunday? Ab­so­lutely. Did he turn O’Shea in­side out for that non­cha­lant point? He did.

But he also fin­ished with 0-1 to his name and a Kerry full-for­ward line ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing de­fences com­bined for 0-5 from play. Don­aghy’s won­der­ful pass to Peter Crow­ley was another ex­am­ple of his in­flu­ence in open play. But he had to go out around mid­field to get the ball, miles from the Mayo small square. Mayo and Rochford clearly de­cided that that was the lesser of two evils.

Zero frees

O’Shea, as full back, gave away zero frees (on an af­ter­noon when his spe­cial­ist-de­fender col­leagues were clumsy) and had no turnovers. He tried to help the de­fence when­ever he could – wit­ness the block­down on Shane En­right’s close-range shot which led to a point for Cil­lian O’Con­nor at the other end of the field. And nei­ther Don­aghy nor O’Shea were par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial for the last 20 min­utes of the match.

Over­all, the ex­per­i­ment could be clas­si­fied as a par­tial suc­cess or par­tial fail­ure. But it wasn’t the wil­fully dumb de­ci­sion for which Rochford was cas­ti­gated. At half-time on Sunday, Pat Spil­lane pointed out that Mayo had gifted Kerry five handy frees. This was true. When Mayo review Sunday’s game, they will ac­knowl­edge that they gifted Kerry two goals from need­less er­rors and six points from clumsy frees. Those were crit­i­cal fail­ures lost in the pan­de­mo­nium over one po­si­tional switch.

On Sunday evening, The Sunday Game’s Ciarán Whelan de­clared that full back was a “spe­cial­ist po­si­tion” but of­fered no al­ter­na­tive name to re­place O’Shea. Be­side him, Dessie Dolan sug­gested that maybe Séa­mus O’Shea should be thrown in there.

Ai­dan O’Shea and Kieran Don­aghy share a mo­ment dur­ing their much dis­c­cussed match-up last Sunday The con­flict­ing propo­si­tions caught the in­ten­sity of the de­bate. Mean­while, the Kerry bus was al­ready below in Tralee and its man­age­ment were free to dis­cuss the pluses and mi­nuses of the day without any sim­i­lar back­ground din. Why does any of this mat­ter? The best rea­son is to be found hid­den in an ab­sorb­ing in­ter­view Colm Parkin­son did with Rochford after the match on Sunday.

Parkin­son has made a bril­liant tran­si­tion from Gen-X dis­en­chanted ball player to en­er­getic ra­dio-man and he man­ages the rare trick of be­ing ir­rev­er­ent while al­ways re­spect­ful of play­ers and man­agers.

You can hear this in his po­lite push­ing on Rochford, who demon­strates ex­treme for­bear­ance as Parkin­son de­liv­ers a light lec­ture on the strengths of Lee Kee­gan. But it is when Parkin­son jok­ingly sug­gests that Rochford is go­ing to have to take a few days off work to think through tac­tics for the re­play that the house of cards comes down.

“Well, I will prob­a­bly be con­sid­er­ing it if my boss lis­tens to the GAA Hour,” Rochford laughs. “You might put in a word.”

And you re­mem­ber then: this guy has a job. This is a part-time thing. He is the very thing that he was be­ing in­di­rectly lam­basted for from the early stages of Sunday’s game: an am­a­teur.

It is hard to pin­point the year when Gaelic games man­agers de­vel­oped a siege men­tal­ity against me­dia cov­er­age. But it’s a while ago. The real shame of the PR-ifi­ca­tion of Gaelic games, com­bined with the para­noia of too many man­agers, lies in the swift elim­i­na­tion of the en­dur­ing im­por­tance of Gaelic games: the peo­ple who play it and the sto­ries they tell; the chron­i­cling of their life ex­pe­ri­ences. The trade-off has been closer and often damn­ing anal­y­sis of the ac­tual games.

Na­tion­wide fas­ci­na­tion

Uni­formly, man­agers in­sist that they never read or lis­ten or watch any­thing in the lead-up to big games. In Rochford’s case this week, you hope that is true.

Still, they can’t co­coon them­selves from so­ci­ety. Ire­land is small and it is talk­a­tive and the in­tense re­ac­tion to the O’Shea switch will be keenly felt by Mayo as a county. The sus­tained push for an All-Ire­land by this re­mark­able team has led to a na­tion­wide fas­ci­na­tion in their pil­grim’s progress.

That fas­ci­na­tion is molten this morn­ing as the faith­ful gather around Croke Park and any­one with a pass­ing in­ter­est in sport ar­ranges their day around the three o’clock throw-in. And the big ques­tion hasn’t gone away.

Don­aghy is six days older now and just as dan­ger­ous. The re­ac­tion to the O’Shea switch has left Rochford in an in­cred­i­bly ex­posed po­si­tion. If he doesn’t per­sist with O’Shea at full back, it will be in­ter­preted as an ad­mis­sion that he made the wrong call last week.

The truth is that he may de­cide to move away from it be­cause Kerry will have had six days to work on ways to ex­ploit it. But if he opts to stick with the O’Shea-Don­aghy move and Kerry win, it will be dressed up as another act of self-sab­o­tage by Mayo.

The most overused line in the whole furore was that Mayo were “rob­bing Peter to pay Paul”. Pierc­ing. It will take ex­cep­tional strength of mind for Rochford and his back­room to re­mem­ber that they couldn’t give a rat’s ass for ei­ther Peter or Paul.

It will take true char­ac­ter to close the door of the Mayo dress­ing room and shut out the din and con­tinue to go their own way, re­gard­less of what the out­side world thinks.

For­tu­nately for them, they are pretty good at that.

‘‘ The second goal was, if any­thing, the most ex­plicit vin­di­ca­tion of Rochford’s de­ci­sion. The one high ball di­rected to­wards Don­aghy in the ab­sence of Ai­dan O’Shea re­sulted in Mayo’s worst fears: a goal.


Below: Mayo man­ager Stephen Rochford pa­trols the side­lines near the Kerry man­age­ment team

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