It will be 501 days since Stephen Rochford stepped out on to the field in Croke Park and raised his arms in celebration after guiding Corofin to glory in the All Ireland Senior Club Championship on Saturday. Tomorrow will mark his return to GAA headquarters as a manager, this time with the hopes of a whole county resting on his and his players' shoulders.
While there might not be a national title up for grabs, the stakes are equally high as Mayo go looking to take their place in the last eight of the All Ireland senior championship for the sixth year in succession, and for only the third time ever after 2002 and 2005 through the qualifier route.
Standing in their way, is a Westmeath side Mayo have not met in the championship for 15 years, the first year the qualifiers were introduced, and when they met the Lakesiders dumped them out of the competition at the round four stage of the qualifiers, the exact stage we find ourselves at this weekend once more.
Mayo go into the game as warm favourites, but Mayo manager Stephen Rochford is not taking anything for granted at all ahead of the game. "You know, they are Leinster finalists, they have plenty of quality throughout their team, they have in John Heslin a footballer that could make any county team up or down the country, a fine free taker also. But they are peppered throughout the team with fine footballers. They had a very structured defensive system in place, they held Dublin for long periods of the game and maybe they will feel they could easily have been ahead at half time in the Leinster final. The likes of Paul Sharry, Kieran Martin, Ger Egan, James Dolan, and Francis Boyle, they have plenty of quality players there and we are acutely aware of that."
Rochford has seen Westmeath at close quarters, making the trip to Croke Park for their Leinster final against Dublin, "I was in Croke Park, I saw Westmeath put in a good shift. Bernard Brogan chipped on a goal and Kevin McManamon at the very end, and maybe that shows a wider gap. Certainly Westmeath could have been leading at half time; not necessarily by a big margin. They have a lot of good footballers and as I said already, the likes of John Heslin and Ger Egan. Ray Connellan being out injured now will be a loss to them because I did feel that he was giving Dublin problems on their half-back line, and that’s a good half-back line there as well. They have plenty of qualities to them."
Having been dumped out of the Connacht Championship by Galway there were a lot of questions asked about what went wrong that day, no more so than in the group itself and it has been used as motivation he said. "I haven't been going around asking one by one to say are you over it. I don't think it is, I think the disappointment in the performance is something that can't be and shouldn't be erased with one or two performances. It's something that we feel that we are still as a group, we can perform better than we did against Kildare and that's within us, and we know we need to do that in order to progress, if that motivation is to be for individuals or the the group that it has hurt, then so be it. I know it's not something we are discussing, or focusing on, it's around addressing the areas that we've highlighted need work on a bit, like our kick-outs and midfield and that's what we are focusing on, and certainly into the future not into the past."
Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin said in the aftermath of the Leinster final they had looked to get a raise out of Diarmuid Connolly on the field, Rochford is not afraid that his players will react if provoked on Saturday. "Look, I certainly think my lads are well able to mind themselves as is Diarmuid, or whatever I think it’s a recognition to Diarmuid. I’m not reading between the lines to say they targeted him in a sledging way and I hope I’m not taking Tom’s quote out of context. Every team will target Diarmuid Connolly from the point of view that he’s their best player. Targeting can be….it would be extreme to say it's sledging or it can be ‘we are going to put a man marker on him and if we don’t see you for the day’ maybe that’s what it is. That can be targeting as well and I would see that as a positive recognition to the quality of footballer that he is. I’m not going to be condoning the targeting of someone from a physical point of view and that."
In Mayo's victory over Kildare, Colm Boyle took a black card for the team when he hauled down a Kildare attacker trying to break through, Rochford did not encourage him or any of his players to do such a thing, but he did admit that in the past they were criticised for not doing the same. "I certainly didn’t go out and tell Colm Boyle if he got the opportunity to take a black card. Again it’s moments in games. Colm went and made a tackle. Experts will say Lee Keegan was going to make a tackle there, so in hindsight you can take one position or the other. At times maybe players were criticised for not taking them, so I don’t want to take the moral high ground in relation to what it is. Instances happen, someone might pull Cillian to the ground in a week's time and that has become sort of part of the game even though it’s something we maybe don’t like to discuss."
Being back in Croke Park is where everyone wants to be, but you cannot just turn it on or off because you are there, the freshman Mayo manager says. "I mean the cliches are there, Croke Park is where you want to be, but you've the reality as well that most teams play their best football there, and that's my belief around what this team is capable of doing, just because you arrive into Croke Park isn't going to give you a God given right, that you'll lift your performance again, it's around your mindset and that's what we're working on and I expect the lads to be at."