Mayo players are owed answers from Stephen Rochford before regrouping - The Irish News
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Mayo players are owed answers from Stephen Rochford before regrouping

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford cuts a lonely figure on the Croke Park pitch after last Saturday's All-Ireland final replay defeat to Dublin
Picture by Séamus Loughran  

HEART breaking stuff. The stuff of nightmares. It just seems Mayo are destined to be the most unlucky team in the history of the game.

Being beaten by one of the greatest teams to have played the game is nothing to be ashamed of. It is just how it was lost. In fact, a bit like Rocky Balboa, no matter what was thrown at Mayo, they just kept coming back and back. You can argue the referee did them no favours, but Maurice Deegan just seemed lost on the day, generally. He was harassed and ‘lent on’ for every decision and it appeared as if the players were running the game rather than the official.

I have grown to hate the fact that every tackle now is deemed a black card. Worse still is that players are calling this out, influencing the decisions being taken. It was a huge problem in soccer, however, their excuse sometimes was there was often a language barrier, so the gesturing of a card was deemed to be translation. Gaelic football players have no excuse. The last time I checked, we all spoke the same language. 

The only thing worse than losing an All-Ireland final by a point is knowing you were the better team. Mayo were the better team for long periods of the game last Saturday. They matched the Dubs defensively, even after Lee Keegan left the field and I felt they played much better at centre-field, an area of huge concern beforehand.

Did they do enough up front to win the game? In my mind, they did. Lee Keegan’s goal came via a great bit of forward play by Aidan O’Shea, one of the few he produced last weekend. If there was a game where the players were let down along the line, this was it.

A player must have absolute faith in the management that, when it comes to the big game, the big day, management will get the decisions right. In the same way, they rely on you to deliver a performance. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. I have scanned search engines, read used papers I usually start the fire at home with and nowhere in any commentary based on the first drawn game has anyone felt or called for Mayo netminder David Clarke to be dropped. In fact, while I felt there were a couple of wayward kick-outs, neither of the two own goals were his fault. In fact, his shot-stopping was top drawer.

It is hard to blame Robbie Hennelly as this was a man who had not played any football this season. In 2008, when Tyrone were heading towards a third All-Ireland, Harte drafted Stephen O’Neill in at the 11th hour. An early injury to a Tyrone player meant an unlikely final appearance and while, by his own standards, he never reached top form, he certainly contributed at full-forward.

This decision would never have cost Tyrone an All-Ireland, but had the potential to win them one. Moreover, Harte knew as much. Changing a goalkeeper is a different proposition. Especially in a final. Especially given a lack of game time. I have seen many players who were superstars in training, but when it came to a match they wilted and vice versa.

The players will back their manager in public, they have to. However, they will - or should - be asking for answers from Stephen Rochford. David Clarke himself, before next season even starts, should be looking for an explanation from his manager. Whether you want to talk about it or not, family, friends and the public will be asking you the same question; what possessed him to make such a call?

If this is not ironed out before 2017, there may be a fair bit of ill-feeling held over in the wake of last Saturday’s result. The one thing Mayo players can hang onto is the fact that they will have an opportunity of playing football in Croke Park every year. Unlike yours truly, the opportunity was just not there year in year out. For Dublin (obviously), Kerry, Mayo and Galway, the odds are stacked in your favour.

Rochford and his management team, while rightly criticised, can still take credit for instilling a resilience and a huge level of character in the players. Over both games, they proved a match for Dublin and, on this occasion, Gavin’s experience and the fact that Dublin’s continuity of management - in particular their decision-making - is something you cannot take for granted.

Would I have dropped Bernard Brogan? No. I think I would have been justified in that decision as Mannion fared no better than Brogan had in the first game. Michael Darragh Macauley came in and did really well. I think the impact sub role suited him. He is a hundred miles per hour player and, when legs are tired, he is a willing runner and his decision-making seems a bit sharper. Cormac Costello was a substitution I did not see coming. Then again, I suppose that is why Dublin’s training sessions are supposed to be as good as any county game.

As a manager you have to pick players on form. It is fine having credit in the bank with the manager, but if the form does not improve it’s better that you sit a game or two out. This is Jose Mourinho’s thinking regarding Wayne Rooney, I guess. Back-to-back All-Irelands for the Dubs then; a great team in their own right.

Driving back down the road after the game, my first feeling was that, for every other possible contender in Ireland, Saturday night was a good result. It highlights the fact that Dublin can be there for the taking and it is possible to beat this great team. Over two games, Mayo showed the way. This very fact would enthuse me, make me run a bit faster, lift a bit more and train a bit harder. It would give me hope.

Not since the great Kerry team of the ’80s has Sam Maguire been retained in the same place for three seasons. So using the variable of probability, it is likely a new winner will emerge. From a neutral perspective, I hope that will be Mayo. Between curses and management imploding and sendings-off, surely these players deserve a Celtic Cross if there is any justice.

The Boston Red Sox broke an 80-year curse and won a World Series. There is no reason Mayo cannot iron out their problems. A start would be an explanation from Stephen Rochford, a clear-the-air meeting with the players and everybody moves on. Chances are they will all be back at the same place next year.

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