Stephen Rochford’s pathway from Mayo to Donegal wasn’t exactly straightforward.
Still isn’t. The trip from home in Crossmolina to Convoy for training sessions with Declan Bonner’s squad takes in Enniscrone, Sligo, Bundoran, Ballyshannon, Donegal Town and Ballybofey. All told, it’s a five-hour round trip but it was complications in his own county that prompted him to point the car northwards in the first place.
The 40-year old was busy putting meat on the bones of Mayo’s schedule for 2019 as recently as late August before a perceived lack of support from the county executive prompted him to tender his resignation as manager. But not all of his plans were shredded.
Rochford soon let it be known that he was still in the market for an inter-county role somewhere this year. He was primed for it, his family had been prepared for it and, of the sniffs of interest he received, Bonner’s and Donegal’s carried the most alluring of scents.
Rochford will tell you that, like Joe Schmidt, he was an ‘accidental manager’. Coaching had always been his thing at club, college and inter-county levels until Mayo came calling and the beauty of Donegal is that he is back on the pitch with a bib and a whistle. The simplicity of it, compared to his last role, has been a revelation.
“Inter-county management, when January 1 comes it’s Jungle Land,” he says.
The one proviso he made for himself when he dipped his toe back into the waters after Mayo was that he wouldn’t immerse himself into any other Connacht county. Too close. Too soon. And he chuckles when he says that Kerry or Dublin didn’t come calling.
Donegal were a no-brainer.
Already Ulster champions, he shared the sense that there was another tier again in a team that was a whisker away from an All-Ireland semi-final place last season and his initial discussions with Bonner suggested a man with a vision and a plan as to how it would be executed.
What sealed it were the players.
When Rochford scanned the panel he was taken by the combination of raw potential and proven excellence. Youngsters like Niall O’Donnell, Jason McGee, Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson providing the yin to the yang of the Murphys, McGees, McBreartys and McGraths.
How could he not work with them?
“I was always attracted to working with teams, seeing how things play out, improving players and, as a manager, you are more detached from that because you have logistic elements, medical elements, county board, media and all the other things.
“My focus here is, yes, I have integration with medical and S&C and other members of the management team but, primarily, its Tuesday and Friday nights and analysis and its football-related and that’s what I enjoy most.”
Three wins and two losses from their opening five games leave Donegal at the doorstep of the top two in the second tier and in good nick to make an immediate return to Division 1 as they make the trek southwards to face Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn today.
His former charges’ compass has followed a similarly southern path this weekend as they face Kerry in Tralee and there is no trace of bitterness or enmity over the sundering of that relationship as he discusses what happened then and how they are shaping up now.
Whatever happens today and in the next few months, Rochford expects to see Mayo in the Super 8s. As for further down the road? Well, this is a county with a track record of going back to previous incumbents to fill the senior post.
Would he? Could he?
“As a Mayo person, it would be foolhardy to rule it out, but I wouldn’t envisage that to be any time soon,” he explains. “They’ve got a manager there who has a four-year term and I am in Donegal and I enjoy what I am doing.
“In four years’ time my personal situation may not be available for it, my appetite may not be there for it, so it’s something that wouldn’t be on the radar. It’s not something that I am particularly engineering or getting myself ready for a second coming of some sorts.”
You couldn’t blame him if he did feel that there was an itch there in need of a scratch, but if he is unwilling just yet to contemplate the future then the same applies to the past and the various ‘what ifs’ that will always haunt his team’s near misses against Dublin.
“I don’t see the value of reflecting on that. It is about the here and now. We were good enough to win on any of those days, but we didn’t. Dublin were better. We played damn well in the 2017 final, better than we did in the 2016 final.
“But it just wasn’t good enough on that day. Maybe two or three different incidents would have created the momentum for you to go on and win that game but it didn’t happen. And maybe Dublin would have reacted.
“They are a damn fine team that we all admire and respect. I have no doubt that they would have come back with an answer to one or two incidents. Would we have had another? That’s always the next question.”
Still seeking, still driving.