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28 shots on goal with no reward - the day Mayo nearly came unstuck this summer

Stephen Rochford reflects on Mayo surviving a massive scare in the qualifiers.

Cillian O'Connor sees a shot saved by Derry goalkeeper Ben McKinless.
Cillian O'Connor sees a shot saved by Derry goalkeeper Ben McKinless.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THEY FINISHED WITH 11 points to spare on the first evening of July but as the Mayo footballers trooped off the Castlebar pitch, they could reflect on a game that had been anything but comfortable.

Mayo’s dramatic qualifier run has been a compelling narrative in the 2017 football season yet they almost came unstuck in their opening backdoor assignment against Derry, at a time when they were still reeling from a Connacht exit at the hands of Galway.

Stephen Rochford is preparing to guide his men into action on the biggest stage next Sunday but that difficult encounter does not stray far from his mind.

“When you invest into a provincial championship and it doesn’t go your way, your confidence is certainly rattled,” admits Rochford.

“There are a number of pros to the qualifiers. You’re getting your games, you’re getting match fitness up, the likelihood is that you’re getting more players game time.

“But it takes a lot of character to be able to deal with that. That Derry game was difficult because, you know, no matter how hard we were trying to score, we just couldn’t.

“We had 18 wides, five balls into the goalkeepers hands, and five times we hit the woodwork. That’s 28 shots on goal with no reward, plus what we had scored.

“So that may be 40 chances, and still we had to wait to see if James Kielt was going to knock us out of the championship.

Conor Loftus celebrates scoring a goal Conor Loftus celebrates that vital goal for Mayo against Derry. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“So, in those moments, you’re there wondering, ‘Holy Christ’. We’ve had a bad day in front of goal. We’ve done a lot well, to create those opportunities, and (snaps his fingers) could have been out of the championship like that.

“We were sort of stuttering our way through some games, doing well in certain patches of those matches – first 50 minutes against Cork, last 50 against Clare – but the frustrating element was that we wondered where we were going to get a 70 minute performance.”

It finally arrived in devastating fashion in Croke Park when they blitzed Roscommon in the quarter-final replay.

“That game, against Roscommon, we never looked at the scoreboard, we just looked at the next play, looking to achieve the next score,” outlines Rochford.

“The big thing that changed in the Roscommon replay, compared to the first day, was our retention of the ball. We just didn’t cough it up as easily as we had done the first day.

“It is not just a case of saying ‘throw off the shackles’. If that was the case, we would have been coughing up goal chances left, right and centre over the last few games.”

Stephen Rochford Mayo football manager Stephen Rochford. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Rochford is in only his second season at the helm but has been involved now in two campaigns that saw Mayo journey all the way to September.

He’s experienced the dizzying highs of growing excitement as Mayo move through the summer and the shattering low of losing a final replay by a point.

The Crossmolina native is accustomed to the pressure and demands.

“This job, as in an inter-county manager’s job, you understand you are out there every week. You are under the microscope, you are in a situation whereby your performance is evaluated on Monday morning by a result.

“I would ask you to show me any other profession, and this isn’t even a profession, where you have got journalists, pundits, analysts, evaluating your performance on a weekly basis.

“I don’t see politicians, solicitors, whatever it is, getting that kind of scrutiny. And the narrative can change from week to week, depending on a result.

“I am very privileged to be managing the Mayo team, getting to All-Ireland finals, there is a big workload in it but I knew that when I was signing up for the job.”

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