IN AN EVENTFUL off-season that saw James Horan and Liam Sheedy reappointed as county managers, the news that Stephen Rochford is set to join Declan Bonner’s backroom team in Donegal may be the most surprising of the lot.
Rochford declared back in mid-August that he was remaining in charge of Mayo for 2019, but three months later he’s expected to be confirmed as Donegal coach for 2019.
The Crossmolina native, who lives in Ballinrobe in the south of Mayo, has wasted little time in returning to the inter-county scene.
Rochford was reportedly keen for a fourth season over Mayo, but handed in his resignation after “a lack of support” from the board executive over his new management team.
The vacancy in Donegal opened up in recent days after the news that Karl Lacey would be departing after one year on Bonner’s coaching ticket.
It’s believed he stepped away due to work and family commitments. The former Footballer of the Year has a young family and recently took on a full-time lecturing role in Letterkenny IT.
Rochford was sounded out over his interest in taking over from outgoing boss Kevin McStay in Roscommon, but ruled himself out of the running from the role. Instead, it appears, he’ll return to basics with a coaching role in Donegal.
It’s rare to see a high-profile manager move into a number two role so soon after leaving his native county. The move certainly shows a lack of ego on Bonner’s part.
If Donegal make major progress next season on the field, a good portion of credit will be conferred on Rochford. Galway made defensive progress for three years under Kevin Walsh, but much was made of Paddy Tally’s influence as they made it to the Division 1 final and the All-Ireland semi-final this year.
That comes with the territory. It won’t make too much odds for Bonner who gets the credit once Donegal enjoy more success 2019.
Many inter-county managers now talk about the inordinate amount of time they spend managing their backroom teams.
As management teams continue to swell, a county boss has become like the CEO of an organisation with statisticians, video analysts, selectors, strength and conditioning coaches, goalkeeping coaches, kit men, sports psychologists and medical professionals all working underneath them before they even start dealing with a 35 or 40-man panel.
The move tells us Rochford is keen to return to the training field and do what he does best.
He led Corofin to an All-Ireland club title in 2015 with an attractive brand of attacking football that was heavy on kick-passing. They defeated Diarmuid Connolly’s double All-Ireland seeking St Vincent’s in the semi-final, before winning a tricky final against Slaughtneil.
After he left to take the Mayo job, Corofin players gushed about Rochford’s attention to detail, his study on the opposition, his tactical insight and his unique training methods.
“We just felt so prepared,” said Corofin defender Kieran Fitzgerald last year. “It was preparation and a really thorough attention to detail I hadn’t seen since the days of John O’Mahony.
“The research on opposition. The tactics, how we were going to play. We were so prepared going into those big games. We were hugely confident in own ability and our own work. There was so much clarity in your role, what he expected you to do.
“He drills it into you. He could hit you with a pop question about what you’re doing or where you are meant to be. He’s on to you every evening about your role.
“He immediately brought a culture of professionalism. This boy was completely different. He bought into the club straight away. He was young and enthusiastic, open to ideas and, within reason, anything the players suggested.
“He had a plan, and was very methodical. In training you’d wonder, ‘Where is he going with this?’ and, ‘What’s that?’ But, as the months went on you could see the gameplan developing.”
As Donegal coach, he’ll be able to focus on the training field without worrying about the pressure and other distractions that come with being the main man.
The Ulster champions will benefit from all Rochford’s coaching experience and, as Tally proved in Galway this year, bringing in an outside voice can sometimes develop a group enormously.
Mayo drew with Donegal in a Division 1 relegation shoot-out back in March which saw Bonner’s side go down, so Rochford already has an insight into how teams look to exploit them.
At 40, Rochford is still very young in management terms and is likely eyeing up a return to a managerial role at some point in the future. That may be as an eventual successor to Bonner in Donegal or further afield.
Given his pedigree in Galway club football, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see Rochford take over from Kevin Walsh as Tribe boss at some stage down the line when he steps away.
Rochford worked with some fantastic coaches during his time over Mayo, including Tony McEntee and Donie Buckley, who are regarded as two of the best in the game.
After failing to make it out of a Super 8s group containing Dublin and Tyrone, Donegal will be looking to contend for the All-Ireland in 2019. Star forward Paddy McBrearty is aiming for a March return from a cruciate injury, so Bonner will hope he can reach top form by the time the summer rolls around.
Speaking at the championship draw in RTÉ last week, Bonner was asked about the challenge of taking down four-in-a-row champions Dublin. His comments make interesting reading in the context of Rochford’s likely arrival in Donegal.
“There is a no doubt there’s a gap between Dublin and the rest at the minute,” Bonner said. “It’s up to us as managers and players around whatever county you are in to try and close that gap.
“There is no point saying Dublin have x, y and z. We have got to look after our end of it and we have got to get those necessary improvements. It’s not going to be easy but listen, it’s a challenge we are looking at.
“There’s nothing impossible. It’s a big, big challenge. It’s a big ask, there’s no doubt about it.
“But, it’s one I’m sure a lot of the top teams are looking at. There are new management teams in place in Kerry and Mayo, and those teams that will probably be looking at challenging for major honours in the season.
“It’s where it’s at at the minute. I mean, Dublin can afford – they have not lost in the championship since 2014 – you might get them on the day, but it’s probably difficult to see Dublin being beaten twice in 2019, but in saying that, it’s up to us.
“It’s up to the rest of the counties that’s in that bracket to go and try and close that gap, try and bridge that gap. Yeah, I think it can be done, but it’s going to take a huge effort on everyone’s part.”
Bonner’s move to close that gap is to bring Rochford on board, the man who brought Mayo to within a point of Dublin in the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals.
No manager has come closer to beating Dublin in championship football since Jim McGuinness did in 2014.
Now Donegal have added Rochford’s insight and years of study on the champions to their armoury. That should be a major boost to Donegal’s chances in 2019.
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