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How coach Rochford has proved so crucial for Donegal

Pivotal role: Donegal coach Stephen Rochford
Pivotal role: Donegal coach Stephen Rochford
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Around 45 minutes before throw-in time, with the sense of anticipation building in Kingspan Breffni ahead of Donegal's semi-final win over Tyrone, a familiar figure was calmly stepping out distances between the cones he was setting down and the poles he was spearing in.

Just under two years ago, Stephen Rochford was on the line for Mayo as they headed down the stretch against Dublin in the 2017 All-Ireland final. He was minutes from a Mayo win and the immortality that would have brought.

Now here he was in Cavan town on a Saturday night, getting his hands dirty, going back to his coaching roots.

Donegal headed into the game in cranky form. Few gave them their backing after they lost their remarkable eight-year unbeaten home record in Ballybofey in a Super8s defeat to Tyrone the previous summer.

But here, they completely outfoxed the opposition tactically. A lot of Tyrone's failings were self-inflicted, but Donegal had them sized up. Throughout the latter half of the league they went long, most of the time in the air, to Cathal McShane and Matthew Donnelly.

Donegal robbed them of that tactic by placing the mountainous Hugh McFadden in as a deep-lying sweeper. Without a Plan B, Tyrone were outclassed.

From the previous summer to Kingspan Breffni, the transformation was immense. The variable? Rochford.

Alan Dillon, who was used by Rochford to great effect against Tyrone in 2016, said: "Usually when you go into quarter-final stages you look to bring something new, you want something different that the opposition won't expect. Stephen is probably a great thinker in terms of, 'What would I find uncomfortable?'

"And I think he has done that over the last number of years, especially with Mayo and now Donegal."

Rochford's deep experience of coaching is an advantage in predicting how a game will unfold, and he has brought that to his last posting.

"In his time with Mayo, he had himself, Tony McEntee and Donie Buckley. They always looked to bring something to the table and the first port of call was always to look at the opposition strengths and identify where they are vulnerable and where their weaknesses are," said Dillon.

"Donegal would have been seen as defensive, per se, over the last number of years. But now they are kind of in transition, they are seen as attack-minded and they have plenty of pace and power."

After Rochford stepped down from the Mayo job last August, it only took a matter of weeks before Declan Bonner convinced him to make the twice-weekly hike to Donegal for the 2019 season.

Bonner explained: "When he stepped away from Mayo, I just felt that within our group we probably needed to tend to that coaching element a bit more.

"Maybe get some more experience within the group, and Stephen has been there. He has been in two All-Ireland finals with Mayo and we knew that was the right fit.

"Then it was a case of getting Stephen. Once I met with Stephen, there was no issue. He knew the capabilities within the squad and he has been a breath of fresh air, to be honest."

To Dillon, it was: "A big surprise down here. Not many people would have put Donegal on the radar. And he is the type of guy who can work in any capacity.

"In terms of having the opportunity to work at inter-county level, he's very much building and reinventing himself and learning. And I am sure he will probably go back into management himself, but you can see he is enjoying it with Donegal."

There is an argument to be made that within the modern inter-county set-up, the coaches have more influence on the team than the manager.

In Donegal, practically all the coaching of the main group has been handed over to Rochford and Karl Lacey, and while they are capable of reprising their defensive shape of yesteryear - just look at how packed they made the central shooting column for Tyrone in the semi-final - they only deploy it sparingly and move the ball quicker through kick-passing.

It's all very Corofin.

"Stephen has been a breath of fresh air, he has been unbelievable to be fair," said Ryan McHugh, who has switched back to playing as a wing-back this season but is enjoying it as any of the other wing-backs did under Rochford's clever guidance, such as Kieran Molly, Liam Silke, Lee Keegan or Paddy Durcan.

"I think in Donegal over the last number of years we have always got used to Donegal voices coaching and being involved. Stephen has come in and he has new ideas, fresh and different, and theories on how he believes Gaelic football should be played.

"And he has really brought us on. I think with Donegal we were trying to bring it on and kick the ball a bit more, be a wee bit more expansive. And Stephen's training drills are designed all around that."

He continued: "Stephen takes most of the training. He is a top coach to be honest with you. I can't speak for what he did in Mayo, but in Donegal he takes the majority of the training.

"We are lucky at the moment, we have a top management team headed up by Declan, and then with Stephen and Karl Lacey, one of Donegal's best-ever players.

"To be playing under them is phenomenal."

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