The life of a student playing Gaelic Football at the very highest level is one that many people would no doubt enjoy.
Depending on your timetable there could be plenty of time for training, recovery, gym sessions and hanging out with friends. It’s almost like the life of a professional at times according to some players.
Hollymount-Carramore footballer Stephen Coen is not one of those players. A student in UCD, where he studies Agricultural Science, Coen doesn’t think it is quite the level of a Premier League footballer, “For myself in college I wasn’t rushing to get up out of bed the following morning after training. I wouldn’t say being a player in college is quite at the professional athlete level of things but it is handier I suppose and in fairness to the Sigerson managers, in UCD anyway, they never put too much pressure on us because they know we’ve got a lot going on and with a pool and gym right there on campus it can be easier to get the recovery done.”
Perhaps it isn’t as straightforward being a student and GAA players as many would like to believe, especially when studying in Dublin and having to travel cross country twice a week for training and games. Over the Summer months that isn’t such a problem, the All-Ireland minor and Under 21 winning captain told The Mayo Advertiser.
“It’s nice to be home but it can be good craic travelling up and down as well with the guys that are based in Dublin but you know sometimes you get tired of it too and it’s nice to get to stay home and get a fresh view on it, arrive to training early and maybe get some physio done early. It certainly makes things a bit easier and I’m enjoying the Summer at home.”
That craic travelling between Mayo and Dublin can create a bond in players that other counties, in particular Mayo’s All-Ireland final opponents, never get a chance to forge. Long hours and late nights on the road through Kinnegad, Longford, Frenchpark, Swinford and on to Castlebar for training can make or break a group of players.
It also gives players the chance to pick each other's brains on the journey and as Coen says nobody is ever afraid to speak up, “The more senior guys are very humble and if they feel they can get an edge of one of us younger fellas they’ll ask us. That’s the quality of the group, nobody is afraid to speak up and we all get a chance to speak up and when we do we learn off each other.”
Amazingly for a guy who was born almost 18 months after Ireland’s World Cup 94 journey in the USA, Coen has more experience of playing in, and indeed winning, All-Ireland finals than almost any other player in the Mayo squad.
Coen, along with Conor Loftus and Diarmuid O’Connor, are aiming to complete a hat-trick of All-Irelands at minor, U21 and senior level. However, the man who captained both those underage teams isn’t even thinking about that, “To be honest, I’d love to win as much as I can in my career. That’s the same this year and any other year. I won’t get a chance to reflect now cause if I do I’ll just be wasting my time but I will when I finish and hopefully I’ll have won as much as I can.”
“We can’t forsee the outcome of the game right now but the hunger is always there and you’re dealing with guys who are very very ambitious. The players all want to win as much as they can in their career. It’s only if you retire this year that it’ll be the end of your career but look, even if we win the next day, or if we lose but the plan is to win, guys are gonna go out next year and want to win as much as possible again. We’re just focused on the here and now, you’ll get a chance when you retire to look back.”
At 21 years old, Coen has already marked himself out as a leader within the Mayo team. This year he has been seeing more game time than previously and is arguably one of the first guys Stephen Rochford will look to when bringing someone off the bench. The experience of being involved in last year’s All-Ireland final and getting on the pitch against Dublin is something Coen feels has stood to him and others.
He told The Mayo Advertiser, “Some lads have never had this experience before within the squad and some guys have loads of experience of preparing for an All-Ireland final. I’ll tell you one thing, nobody is comfortable because nobody is comfortable that they are going to start first of all and also they want to get the most out of themselves because we know we need to do that if we’re going to win this game.”
“There are different players and even guys who were playing last year they’ve got another year’s experience, guys like myself and even some of the older guys have learned a lot about themselves and Stephen is obviously another year in the job. We also had a bigger pre-season this year than last year because Stephen was late being appointed and that. A lot of stuff has changed and there are possible tweaks in game plan and stuff but that’s more game by game than year on year,” says Coen.
Everyone of them has plenty experience of playing games at the highest level, though, as Mayo face into their 10th game this Summer and 19th in the last 16 months. The players, according to Coen, have enjoyed all the games.
“We rather the games than the training because the training is the tough part. To be honest we’re not really thinking about that (game every week opposed to three weeks off ) you know, we play enough competitive games at training anyway so we’re well used to playing a game every week and we’ll have a few competitive games between ourselves before the final. The intensity in those games is huge cause, I’ll tell you what, in fairness to Stephen (Rochford ) it’s not easy to pick that squad for match days cause everyone is not happy with where they are, they want to keep getting better and better. It’s really competitive at the minute so there is plenty of hair flying in them games.”
It’s not just Rochford and the players though, as Coen spoke fondly of the backroom team, “In fairness to the likes of Donie Buckley and Tony McEntee, they are never comfortable in their position either. They are always trying to change things up in training for themselves just as much as for us and to keep everyone interested. Donie and Tony are low key sort of fellas, they don’t want to be up in lights and that’s up to themselves. They are great fellas who are 100% committed to the cause, everyone is because you can’t afford not to be but those lads are working doubly hard to make sure we are prepared for the games.”
Stephen wouldn’t be drawn into who he would have preferred see win the second semi-final between Dublin and Tyrone, “Really there was nothing we could have done about that (other Semi-Final ). There was nothing we could have done about who was going to win that game. I think Dublin deserved to win it on the day, they were the better team.”
But when asked about the idea that this Mayo team are over the hill, one which has been put forward by many over the Summer months this year, Coen was a bit more forthcoming, “I don’t have to be here, none of the lads have to be here if they don’t want to. We don’t have to play for Mayo if we don’t want to but it’s a great honour and there are so many people who would love to be in our shoes. We know that too, if we wanna stay up there we have to work hard so the idea of miles on the clock is really not bothering us. It’s irrelevant, I suppose everyone is entitled to their own opinion but the only opinions we’re concerned about is the 50 or so that are involved in the set up. We don’t really discuss that at all cause it’s not something that bothers us.”
It sounds like there will be nothing taped to the wall of the Mayo dressing room on Sunday.