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What’s Stephen Rochford’s next move?

Sport

ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS Mayo manager Stephen Rochford has less than two weeks to reorganise his troops for the All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers. Pic: Sportsfile

Analysis
Edwin McGreal

PUT yourself in Stephen Rochford’s shoes this week and try to plan for the Qualifiers.
You’re in your first year as manager of a high-profile team who were aiming for their sixth consecutive Connacht title.
But a provincial title is not the target for this team for 2016, winning in September is.
And so with a view to later on in the year, you try to implement a system now that can maybe make the difference in crossing the line in Croke Park, where the team have agonisingly come up short four years in a row.
The team and the system you sent out saw Mayo beaten by three points against a Galway team they had not lost to since 2008, and turned over very comfortably in many of the games in between.
As a rookie manager at inter-county level you are listening to plenty of criticism this week of how you set up your team to take on Galway.
The decision to play a sweeper — Kevin McLoughlin — is being questioned, as well as the way he played the role. So, too, the decision to play Keith Higgins in the forward line, even though many felt earlier in the year this was a necessity.
The apparent tactic of your defenders standing off and the implementation of a zonal defence system is being discussed. People are also querying how Mayo would win a game with a half-back line not attacking as much as they usually do, and with little in the way of a playmaker in the half-forward line (where Kevin McLoughlin’s link play was missed).
The pressure to revert this Mayo team to type and go with their high intensity, running game that they know best must be strong for the manager.
Does he do this even though what he tried to do last Saturday is a de-facto admission that Mayo will not win an All-Ireland playing the way they did in previous years.
So does he revert to type and go back to what Mayo know best for the Qualifiers and see where that takes them? Or does he persist with what he feels is the way Mayo need to play if they are to triumph in September?
It comes down to a question of, not so much of belief in the system, but whether or not Rochford believes whether this Mayo team can play the way he sees them playing in the short window available to them.
Mayo players are blessed with many attributes but game intelligence is not always one of them. Changing systems of play is easier said than done and for this Rochford must take some blame.
Trying to roll out this system in June seems very late in the year when an entire National League campaign passed without an examination of this system of play, save for playing a sweeper, Shane Nally, against Dublin.
At different stages against Galway, Kevin McLoughlin and Keith Higgins both looked uncertain of their roles. All-action players like Colm Boyle and Paddy Durcan looked very unsure, backing off their men — it was akin to putting muzzles on lions.
It was when Mayo threw off the shackles in the last ten minutes of the first half and Messrs Boyle and Keegan drove forward, that Galway looked in bother.
Before that Kevin Walsh’s team (featuring five rookies) must have thought this championship lark was easier than people had told them as Mayo stood off. Belief started to course through their veins. The Mayo surge before the break did not destroy it as the second half would prove.
Last year against Galway, Mayo’s half-back line attacked with much less frequency than they had under James Horan. Clearly Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes felt that this line needed to defend a Mayo full-back line that had often been left hopelessly exposed in previous years.
There was merit in that tactic but the trouble was, as that game went on, we saw how much Mayo relied on this unit from an attacking perspective. Were it not for the glut of warranted frees awarded to Aidan O’Shea that day — frees he and others found altogether harder to come by under Conor Lane’s watch in MacHale Park — Mayo would have been on dodgy ground.
Aside from Cillian O’Connor, few Mayo players regularly chip in with more than a couple of scores a game. It’s why having running threats from all over the field is important to this Mayo team.
The platform for so much of that comes from the exceptional half-back line and the high-octane game that they so often initiate.
It’s a tough time right now being Mayo manager, but if Stephen Rochford can find a way of improving Mayo without curtailing that line, he could be onto something.
Clipping their wings is to invite failure.

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