NEXT Saturday evening will be the first time that Stephen Rochford has walked on to the pitch at MacHale Park since the Mayo team he used to manage were beaten by Galway in the Connacht championship almost 15 months ago.
The Crossmolina native is now a coach/selector with Donegal, his impromptu departure from the Mayo hotseat last August ultimately leading to the offer of a role with the Ulster champions from their manager, Declan Bonner.
The news of the move last October was met with surprise in Mayo and it was the same story in Donegal, according to Brendan Devenney, the county’s former brilliant forward.
“You hear some crazy news these days filtering through and you almost thought that this was a joke,” he told The Mayo News last week. “I couldn’t believe it – no one could in Donegal!
“I couldn’t get my head around it, but as soon as I had a minute to think about it, I was thinking ‘This is some move from Declan Bonner’.
“There’s so many egos involved in football right now, and there’s guys who have managed teams like Stephen, who wouldn’t want a role like this because their egos are too big. But he obviously saw real potential, and there’s a lot of admiration for him up here.
“Him and Karl Lacey are taking the training and a huge thing is the fresh outlook he has brought,” Devenney added. “The likes of Lacey and Declan Bonner would know all the players for years through county and club level, whereas Rochford didn’t, he is judging them solely on the training pitch.
“I’ve heard the guys really like what he’s doing. Jamie Brennan is playing unbelievable this year, Stephen McMenamin has really stepped up to be a county player, Shaun Patton has been like Brennan too, and Huge McFadden at midfield.
“And that’s what Rochford has brought. He has taken an open look at these kind of players.”
THE 40 year-old, who works as Head of Homes with AIB Mayo, resigned from his role as Mayo manager in controversial circumstances, citing a lack of support from the Executive Committee over his decision to remain on in charge for a fourth season in 2019.
Only 12 months earlier the same executive had given him a two-year extension after guiding Mayo to two successive All-Ireland Finals.
Ballinrobe native Maurice Horan, who worked as part of Rochford’s video analysis team during the 2016 season, was struck by how methodical he was and his the ability to remain calm in pressurised situations.
“I remember in 2016 during the National League, when Mayo lost a few games, he wasn’t panicking at all,” recalled the former Limerick manager. “He always had this natural feeling of the bigger picture.
“That was a busy time back then, going from week to week in the championship. We played Westmeath on a Saturday night in Croke Park, but his attention had already turned to Tyrone.
“He felt and believed Mayo were going to beat Westmeath and was already thinking of Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“The following day [after Westmeath] there was a meeting and the performance against Westmeath hadn’t been overly impressive. Everyone was worried about playing Tyrone the following week, but him and Donie [Buckley] really came together and after that meeting, the players came out expecting to beat Tyrone.
“Stephen has a good sense of emotional intelligence and he can almost sense what the players need to hear,” added Horan. “He knows that some of the senior players might not need to hear anything, but it’s the younger less experienced players who might get something from things he has seen.
“That impact will be over the course of months, as opposed to a few training sessions.”
Success has generally followed in Rochford’s wake from his time with Galway’s Corofin.
He has got a lot of credit for Donegal’s run this year, winning an Ulster title and playing an attractive brand of football.
Former Mayo senior Barry Moran can see some of Rochford’s traits through Donegal’s play this year, and says his influence is really going to come to fruition next weekend.
“His handprint is all over Donegal this season, on things like how they move the ball,” the Castlebar Mitchels midfielder told The Mayo News. “It was the same with the way he had Corofin and Mayo playing. He wants the ball moving fast to the key players as soon as possible. He’ll try and get the ball in behind you before you can set up any sort of a blanket or a sweeper.
“Donie Buckley in Kerry and Stephen now in Donegal, they know the Mayo lads intimately. It’s the small things when you’re coaching or managing a player for a few years, you know that player. Then when you have to come up with a plan to negate their top players, you have that knowledge of them.
“So that’s definitely going to be a help to Donegal.”
Regardless of the result next Saturday night, Mayo’s loss has been Donegal’s gain.