Steady Stephen is keeping calm ahead of another final showdown

GAA: All Ireland SFC Final - Interview

There is just one glittering medal left for Stephen Coen to add to the collection.

All Ireland medals at minor and u21 level are already in the bag, a division one National Football League medal also has been placed on the sideboard, a few Sigerson Cups with UCD too - so it is just the big one left for him to add to his haul.

Coen has been one of the quietly consistent performers for Mayo over the past number of years, going about his business with little fuss and much precision. The Hollymount-Carramore man can operate anywhere between the middle of the park and the full-back line with ease and will always give you nothing less than 100 per cent.

Speak to those who've played with him and they have nothing but the height of respect for what he brings. both as a player and a leader. Coen stepped straight from minor in 2013 into the senior set-up, making his senior debut as a sub in the league in February 2014, against tomorrow evening's opponents. He didn't feature again that year, but it was still some achievement for a player that young.

In the years in between he struggled to nail down a starting place in the side, due in part to both his versatility and the calibre of players that were occupying the Mayo back six and middle two already. But over the past few years he has become an invaluable part of the Mayo machine - the kind of player that you would be confident about dropping into almost any position and who would do a consistent job, no matter who he was facing up against.

The learning curve

But Coen acknowledges it was a learning curve for him and it is constant learning that has propelled him to where he is today and listening to management down the years, particularly James Horan, saying: "Yah, lessons from him, lessons from coaches down the years and also you have to remember we have had some brilliant players down through the years; class players, that you know are not just going to say, here, come on Stephen you can play. They are all going to want to play.

"I’m in a similar mindset at the minute and there is guys younger than me who are going to be the same going forward. So, obviously, it is difficult to break through when there is such really high calibre of player, but definitely coaching and pointers here and there, and if you can meet that challenge then you deserve your reward for playing."

That progression and learning is something that is deeply embedded in the whole squad and the younger players have seen that level go up even more, Coen believes. "Teams progress with players, like, we’ve got some brilliant new players. I’ve never seen young lads to have such an impact on a group, in terms of obviously their physical attributes are savage and you can see that on the pitch.

"The way they challenge people and you know, you’d often see an older fella challenge you and you’d say, ok, I have to back it up here, but if a younger fella challenges you, you really have to back that up.

"But that is great, because you want that worry, that competitiveness like, when they are demanding so much off you. You can’t let them down, if they are somewhat looking up to you - I think it is the other way around at this stage to be honest. But they have added so much to the group and there is more and more to come."

At half-time in extra time against Dublin, it was one of the younger faces who was seen leading the team talk in their huddle before they went back out, with Ryan O'Donoghue seen giving instructions - something that didn't surprise Coen one bit.

"What I suppose is important is that we want to encourage anyone who is new, that you can talk as much as anybody else. Because those guys have learned a lot of stuff in their underage careers that a lot of guys have forgotten, you know. He’s ambitious, he’s a dog, he is going to expect as much off you as off anyone else and he doesn’t care what age he is. He just wants to win - he is going to do whatever he has to do to do that."

Getting over the Dublin hump

Dublin had been Mayo's kryptonite in recent years, up to the semi-final victory four weeks ago. But there are still vast areas for Mayo to improve their game, despite knocking out the team who had won the previous six All Irelands, Coen believes.

"We weren’t happy with a lot of our performance, to be honest. Obviously, there were periods where we were very good, but in the first half, we could have done a lot more. It’s just trying to improve on that."

Keeping a clean sheet was key, but there is more to it than just that to be carried forward into Saturday, he adds: "Well, we never want to concede goals anyway. But some of the scores, yeah, we probably gave them away too easily and that’s something we’re not happy with. Any good player at this level, if you give them two yards of space, he’s going to kick it over the bar. So we’ll try to improve on that intensity. Then, when we were behind in the second half, we had to really go for it. It’s just trying to improve on that for the next day.

"We have so much to improve on. That’s the beauty of it, and we got three weeks to do that. And even from the game before it, we had a lot of stuff to improve on. So we’re far from the finished article, but it’s great to have room to improve and loads to do."

The nature of it never allows any doubt to creep into your mind during the game, Stephen says and that was the same against Dublin when they were still trailing at the second water break, despite putting in a huge third quarter.

"I suppose if you stopped to think about it, there would be doubt. But in these games, you can’t afford to think about anything. It’s literally just the next play, the next play, what can I do to influence this play? Because otherwise, you’d never get out of bed, you’d never bother playing the game.

The next play, always the next play

While supporters are worrying and having all kinds of possibilities running through their minds during a game, it's all about the next play and moving on when you're involved in the action, it's the way it has to be, Coen continues.

"It probably is (calmer on the pitch than in the stands ), because we can influence it. I know, if I was watching a game, I’d be panicking, because you'd be like, ‘I can’t do anything about this.’ If you’re in the game at least you can do something. You can’t really take in anything around you because you’re so focused on the play.

"There were 30 to 40 players involved the last day; everyone made at least one mistake. So if you dwell on that for five minutes, your next five minutes could be a waste of time. It’s very difficult to do that, but you try to just let them go as much as possible."

One of the many plays from that game that will stand out in people's minds and live long in the memory, was Diarmuid O'Connor's outstretched leg keeping the ball in play and setting up a vital score for Kevin McLoughlin, when it had looked like a lost cause. But that is just typical of O'Connor, a man Coen knows so well, having soldiered with him up through the ranks at minor, u21 and now senior level.

"I’d say if you watched, you focused on his whole career with Mayo - you’ll find loads of those moments. I suppose just because it was a key one that people could see, but he does so many of them that we would notice all the time; he is such a selfless player and he will never give up on anything and that is why he has been so successful in his career and why he will help other teams be successful, so he is just a great member of the squad to be here.

"He will never give up on lost causes and I hope that everyone else would follow in his footsteps with that, so, it was a really big play, but no surprise to us who did it."

Mayo have trailed by more than a few points at the break in both the Connacht final and the All Ireland semi-final this year, but there was no panic in the dressing room at the break in either of those games - just focusing on the next play and doing what you know to be the right thing was the message in there, Coen says.

"It is always just constructive and what do we need to improve on, not why did you do that, there is no point reflecting on something that went wrong. Obviously we didn’t intentionally go six points down in either game or be five or six points down at half time - we’d love to be ten points up at half time, but that is just the way it played out - but the focus is just relax, do what you need to do, let's do it, execute, see where we need to go."

Focusing on their own game

The vociferous Mayo support was back in full flow against Dublin in the semi-final and since then, the support has been ramping up at home, but it is all about concentrating on what happens inside the camp for Coen and his comrades in arms.

"I suppose, a lot of us are mentally strong and you focus on the internal opinions of the 45-50 people in the group - that is all you can focus on.

"It is great now at the minute; if there is one positive out of covid it is that we are all at home, fellas are working at home; you are away from the public, but we appreciate the support and know it is all there, but you need to focus and do your own thing, it allows you to focus on your own stuff in your own time. I have never worn it or seen it as a burden - it is just great to be involved."


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