Rochford returns to Castlebar with Donegal but it’s Galway that’s watching.

I spend a good chunk of my working week on the N84. At this stage, I know the road arteries between Tuam and Westport like the back of my hand. On a good day, it’s about an hour’s commute, there’s little in the way of traffic but there is a trade-off in tarmac quality. It’s bumpy, twisty and narrow for the most part.

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The section of the N84 that I travel, Kilmaine to the turn-off in Partry, is the best stretch of track in the 65 kilometre run. So when I hit the indicator light in Kilmaine and turn right for Ballinrobe I also usually hit the cruise control button in my brain and start to day dream.

A time to ponder life’s big questions. Like, are Mid West Radio playing too much melancholic Country and Western music in the evening and what effect is this having on the Mayo half forward line driving home from training ? – You know that kinda thing.

The Football championship has given us a weekend to catch our breath for the first time in nearly 3 months. As I’ve been passing through Ballinrobe this week I’ve taken to thinking about a man that lives in this neck of the woods. Stephen Rochford. A man very familiar with the old Jimmy Buffet, C & W classic

” If the Phone doesn’t ring it’s the Mayo County Board”

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As many of you will know Stephen Rochford is a big part of the coaching ticket in Donegal this year. Yet another intriguing subplot to next weekend’s events in Castlebar. A 3 year stint with Mayo didn’t yield an All Ireland and Stephen was quietly yet firmly edged to the door. However it shows the lack of ego of the man and love for the game, that he was prepared to go into a number 2 role straight away with Donegal.

Donegal arrive in McHale Park a week from today and there will be many, many eyes on that game. Galway eyes in particular. I get a sense there is a gathering, groundswell of opinion that Rochford should be next in line for the Galway job.

Last week we saw Donegal and Kerry throw up the best game of the year. While Mayo supporters were delighted the game finished in a draw, Galway supporters would have been noticing that Donegal scored 1 – 20. We are big fans of teams that can ratchet up that kind of firepower.

Galway people would have further noted that Donegal weren’t quite this freewheeling, free scoring machine 12 months ago with largely the same players. Rochford must take some credit for that and people here have not forgotten the All Ireland club title that he delivered managing Corofin.

In the traditional football heartland of North Galway these characteristics of humbleness and flair minded football in a manager are important. No more than Stephen Rochford, North Galway has lost some of it’s swagger in recent years as it relates to the county team. There are a couple of reasons for this I believe.

The first is the decision in the late 90s / early 2000s to invest heavily in the redevelopment of Pearse Stadium in Salthill and allow it to usurp Tuam stadium as the number 1 football ground in the county. The lack of similar investment in Tuam over the last 15 years is not only unfortunate but arguably deliberate.

Tuam town and Tuam Stadium have always been at the heart of Galway football and it is terrible to see the facility’s absolute decline in comparison to Pearse stadium. Tuam is a football town. Salthill as lovely as it is, most certainly is not.

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The second point handicapping North Galway football is the decline of St. Jarlaths College as a football nursery. If you pull out the roll of honour in All Ireland Colleges football St Jarlaths is still the Number 1 school in the country. It is a long time since it has resembled anything close to that.

St Jarlaths College was a finishing school for young footballers in Tuam and the surrounding North Galway villages and indeed South Mayo. No doubt, a lot of it’s success was predicated on the fact it was a boarding school, which it no longer is, but it has become disillusioning to watch how this once fine footballing academy has dropped off the radar in Connaught never mind at national level.

Historically St Jarlath’s has produced some of the county’s and country’s most talented footballers. Sean Purcell, Enda Colleran, Ja Fallon, Padraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Declan Meehan, Michael Meehan, Shane Walsh and Sean Og De Paor, just to name a few off the top of my head. Sean Flanagan, Padraic Brogan, Kevin O’Neill and Kenneth Mortimer are just a few Jarlath’s graduates that most Mayo supporters would remember fondly as well. In fact there isn’t a town or village on the N84, from Shrule to Castlebar, that didn’t have a couple of footballers educated in Tuam.

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It is not an accident, that all of the above, were highly comfortable in all the skills of the game but particularly in the area of kicking and attacking play. Whether as a back or as a forward. St Jarlaths deserves a lot of the credit for this because it was a school that gave footballers confidence. On the first day of their first year of education, students were left in little doubt that they were attending the finest footballing school in country. Teachers and students alike reminded the latest recruits of that fact. Football was everywhere.

I don’t think it’s a lie to say that North Galway absolutely hates how this current Galway football team plays football. When Mayo dumped Galway out of the championship in Limerick a few weeks ago, after the initial dismay, there was the consolation of not having to watch them for the rest of the summer.

The sad fact is Galway have some really talented footballers who are something less than a sum of their parts. I understand Kevin Walsh and the Galway backroom team have done a lot of work trying to improve the defensive strength of this Galway team. Indeed the focus in the last couple of years has been to try and build on the defensive solidity and improve the transition into attack. Unfortunately, as of today the only manager that has managed to win an All Ireland playing this brand of football is the architect of it, Jim McGuinness. In the current climate there is not likely to be a second.

North Galway don’t want to win an All Ireland playing this brand of football at any rate. Even if it could be guaranteed. Too often, despite best intentions, the games end up a convolution of aimless running and hand passing across the middle third of the field. Defensive football requires a lot of different ingredients. Huge work ethic, massive fitness levels, executing systematic and co-ordinated drills of defending and breaking forward. What it doesn’t rely heavily on is skill and in North Galway we love skill players and sexy football. Kickers of a football. jinkers with a football. High fielders of a football.

We’ve had 5 years of the current football experiment and it’s time to lay it to rest. What we require is a good experienced coach interested in playing attacking football but one without the suffocating weight of expectation that comes with being a Mayo man managing a Mayo team attempting to end a famine.

If Donegal beat Mayo next Sunday in a free flowing game the odds on the Galway county board taking a spin down the N84 to re-open the Rochford files will drop significantly.

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