Coen looking to continue winning ways

GAA: All Ireland Senior Football Championship Final

Focusing on the future: Stephen Coen is looking to be a key player for Mayo tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

Focusing on the future: Stephen Coen is looking to be a key player for Mayo tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

There's not much left to win in the inter-county game for Stephen Coen - well, just one thing really.

He's captained Mayo to All Ireland wins in both minor and u21 grades, he picked up a National League winners medal last year, so all that's left is the big one.

Combine those inter-county medals with a captaining UCD to a Sigerson Cup win in 2018 and both Mayo and Connacht intermediate club titles - the Hollymount-Carramore man knows about winning.

Tomorrow evening he goes once more to get the big one, Coen has been a fixture in Mayo squads for a number of years now - but this year he has nailed down a key starting role in the heart of the defence. Coming straight into the senior set up from minor set up and all the underage success he says he didn't feel pressure from the outside to perform straight away, but he did put it on himself in his early years in the senior ranks.

"I would have put a lot of pressure on myself to make the team straight away at 18 years of age when I came in. Then I got frustrated that I wasn’t playing, which is only natural for something like that to happen.

"It probably bothered me for a good while, I had to come to terms with that. But in terms of previous successes and the roles I played, I didn’t feel that pressure. Nobody expected that of me to be this massive leader, because we already had great leaders in the team anyway.

"As I got through it I just started to learn from others. Guys are very forthcoming with information and little nuggets here and there. I’ve learned a lot since I started playing and I’ve a lot more to learn."

But he has found himself become more of a leader on the field in the senior team in recent years and something that he is relishing: "I’d like to think so. I’ve learned a lot, grown in confidence. I learned so much from guys who have gone before me, guys who have retired, even the current players, you pick up a lot of nuggets. There’s a lot more trust put into me.

"With trust and playing in the team you need to be able to show leadership. I like to think that I work hard and I’m honest in the group. That way then lads will follow. But I’m just enjoying the time at the minute."

As for having a sustained run in the side it's something the PhD student with Teagasc and UCD has relished.

"I’m definitely enjoying the sustained run. Everyone wants to play so I’m enjoying that and appreciating the trust that’s been given to me. Everyone enjoys playing for Mayo, no matter if it’s for two minutes or 70 minutes every game.

"I’m building in confidence, working really hard, and thanks to coaches and teammates I’ve learned a lot this year. I suppose I’ve a good bit of experience now, good and bad, so I’ve learned a lot and I’m just hoping I can help the team out."

Farming and the future

It wasn't unusual for numerous players from Mayo to be involved in agriculture in times gone, but there are not too many these days and Coen is one of those exceptions - having finished his undergraduate studies in UCD he stayed on to study for a PhD in the area of bovine nutrition and reproduction.

It's a long haul with a bit still to go for the Hollymount-Carramore man but one he's happy being stuck in the middle of: "I’m two-and-a-half years into a four-year PhD, so I’m six-and-a-half years in college.

"I’m looking forward to finishing it at this stage. I’m doing a PhD with Teagasc and UCD in the area of bovine nutrition and reproduction.

"My Teagasc centre was in Grange in Meath, where we had over 1,000 animals on site. I would have had my lab, the animals on site and my office. I would have done a lot of data collections, work with animals, trial work.

"Once the data was gathered, I had to work on it in the lab and get my results. At the moment I have my results and I’m interpreting them and writing up papers at home here.

"Thankfully all my practical work is pretty much done up in Meath, whereas now I can just write up the papers. I need to write four manuscripts and put them together into a thesis and defend it then a year and a half."

As for where he hopes to go with his career once he's finished his studies - it's still to be decided he said. "That’s a great question. I’ve had a few different opportunities put to me already but I need to finish my PhD first, I want quality work out of that.

"I suppose the main reason I did it is if I want to go into academia, whether that be lecturing or research. But I wouldn’t rule out working in the industry either. So plenty of options but I want to make sure I do quality work here first, get my Level 10 and then go from there."

As for the future of the farming industry it's a real worrying time with the outcome of Brexit negotiations being a major player in how he sees the industry going in the future.

"Locally, in the farm at home here, it’s never been as good. Myself and my father are at home. Normally myself and my brother are away and the farm is a bit messy, but it’s never been in as good a shape."

The family run a beef and sheep farm with 160 ewes and 20 suckler cows, where they sell pedigree Texan rams as their main enterprise. While it's not their main source of income, it's a hobby they enjoy doing even if it does take up a good amount of time for them, Coen said.

"Sheep prices and beef prices at the minute are pretty decent. The big thing at the moment is Brexit and how that deal goes ahead. It’s not really about Covid as much, we haven’t been totally affected. I know the marts were closed for a while but then you had the online bidding, which was very successful apart from one or two blips.

"I think overall farms have coped pretty well. The big thing is that Brexit goes okay, and from there we can plan. That’s everyone’s concern at the minute."

Coen sees lots of similarities between farmers and Mayo footballers in battling against adversity, and he's hopeful that the Breixt won't be the end for small farmers in Mayo.

"If there’s a no-deal Brexit then the beef industry would take a major blow. Tim Cullinan said during the week that it’s the end of the beef industry if there’s a no-deal.

"Obviously in the west of Ireland we can’t run as efficient dairy farms as those in the south, we don’t have the same quality of land. I think the average size suckler farm in Ireland is 15 cows and three or four replacement heifers, and you’ll find umpteen amounts of them in the west.

"It’s a big part of rural Ireland. A lot of farmers like to socialise and meet in the marts two or three times a week, and if there’s no beef, there’s no trade. If there’s no trade, there’s no meeting up. So it keeps the rural economies going. If it happens it’s going to be a bit of a disaster and something I wouldn’t be looking forward to, so hopefully something can be made of it.

"I’m trying not to think that way. The one thing about farmers, they’re nearly like footballers, they’re extremely resilient. I think no matter what you ask them to do, they’ll adapt and try to get there as much as possible, no matter how harshly treated they are. No matter what happens farmers will look to adapt and make the most of what they have in their own patch of land. It’s very much up in the air but it’s coming to a melting point very soon, so we’ll see what happens."


Balancing work and life: Coen balances being a PhD student along with farming at home and being a Mayo player. Photo: Sportsfile

Three levels of experience

For the past few years Coen and his comtempories from the minor and u21 winning teams were seen as they younger kids on the block, but this year has seen a fresh injection of faces into the starting line up and championship panel making it three different groups in the dressing room, but they have all blended together very well he believes.

"Every one of those three groups has different learnings and different experiences, and when you blend it altogether, it’s actually brilliant for the group.

"Between defeats and success and not much experience, there’s a lot of good learnings in that on how to deal with different situations, you’ve come through things and been resilient, you’ve been positive, and even naive in other ways. It’s a good thing to have that blend.

"If you look at the younger lads, they don’t even think about stuff, they just go in and go for it, throw off the shackles. Then you have older guys with plenty of experience of big games, which will really stand to us. Between everything it’s a good blend, we’ve learned a lot from the older guys and from the younger guys. Hopefully it’ll bode well for us."

James Horan has handed out a number of debuts this year, but that didn't surprise Coen because he could see the quality of players that were coming through.

"I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. If you look at the calibre of player that’s come through, they’ve warranted game time, they're really good players, honest players, exactly the calibre of fellas and players that you want.

"James has instilled a lot of trust in all of us, he just allows the lads to play the best we can. Whoever is playing the best in every training session and is in good form, he’ll play.

"So I’m not surprised. The lads have taken their opportunities with both hands and worked hard and they deserve it as much as anyone else. It’s great to see the new energy that we have and they’ll be bringing something different."

Upping the intensity against the Dubs

The intensity level is going to go up a notch too from what has come before it so far in the championship Coen thinks. "I’m sure they will. The fact that the two teams are in the final, you’d like to think they’re the two highest-performing teams in the championship so far.

"They wouldn’t be there otherwise. So the intensity rises every time you go. The best teams will always come to the top. No doubt it’ll be a higher intensity but one that hopefully we’ll enjoy as well."

As for what they can learn and adapt on from the win over Tipperary there's not much time but there are always a few areas you can pick out.

"Because things have come so thick and fast, you don’t have a whole pile of time. I think we’ve learned over the last two months to focus a few key areas, what we’ve done really well and what we want to improve on. We’ve nailed them down fairly quickly. We’re training tonight to try and optimise the time we have together, just focusing on getting better as much as possible."

"The key things we need to focus on are the things we did well the last day. That’s what put us in a good position, that’s what makes us good. High-octane football, lots of pace, moving it quickly.

"Lots of pressure up top, great tackling. And then we just need to tighten things up a bit in the defence from the last day to get that balance right. It’s not easy to get the balance right when you press high but it’s something we’ll be focusing on.

"We’ve kept clean sheets in the championship except for the last day so it’s just striking the balance between the two. If we do that we feel we’ll have a good chance."

He also feels that big thing this year is that Mayo are just focusing on themselves and that has been a big benefit: "I think the big thing is that we’re focusing on ourselves. We’re trying to improve all the time. We’ve got a lot of new players who are extremely exciting.

"They don't even think about results or the next game or two weeks’ time, they think very much in the present. I think we’re all in that mindset at the minute.

"We’re going to focus on every 30 seconds, every minute of the game, break it down to those minute details and get the most out of ourselves for the 70 minutes.

"We did a lot of good things right the last day and if we can do that more often for the 70 minutes it’ll bode well for us."

A familiar face in the opposition

One potential match up that Coen could be facing down tomorrow evening is a player that he is very familiar with from his Sigerson career, Con O'Callaghan. "He’s a super player with a great attitude and a very good fella. He just wants to do well in football and is constantly looking to improve. He’s very honest and obviously filled with skill and talent and speed and power.

"There would have been very strong mutual respect amongst each other. We had good fun throughout our Sigerson careers, we played together for three or four years.

"He was playing with Cuala for a few years as well. We finished on a very positive note and we would stay in contact the odd time. I’m looking forward to playing against him the next day."


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