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young guns ‘I’ve never seen young lads have such an impact on a group’ - Stephen Coen hails Mayo's youthful enthusiasm

Horan’s unsung hero has always been a leader – and now he’s driving Mayo on from the start

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Stephen Coen skippered Mayo to All-Ireland minor glory in 2013 and an U-21 title in 2016. Credit: Sportsfile

Stephen Coen skippered Mayo to All-Ireland minor glory in 2013 and an U-21 title in 2016. Credit: Sportsfile

Stephen Coen skippered Mayo to All-Ireland minor glory in 2013 and an U-21 title in 2016. Credit: Sportsfile

If you’re a Mayo manager with a plan to lift silverware, ring Stephen Coen. He knows what it takes.

Coen skippered Mayo to All-Ireland minor glory in 2013, ending the green-and-red’s 28-year famine after beating a Tyrone team that included Frank Burns and Conor McKenna.

Then he captained his county to All-Ireland U-21 success in 2016.

For good measure he led UCD to the Sigerson Cup in 2018.

In case you’re wondering, he’s not Mayo senior skipper – but the unsung hero of James Horan’s team has quietly tightened his grip on a single-digit jersey number as yet another All-Ireland SFC final, against Tyrone, looms into Saturday view.

Mayo have played 18 championship fixtures over the three-year expanse of Horan’s second coming. Coen was confined to one short New York cameo in the first of those games, didn’t feature at all in the next two outings against Roscommon and Armagh … but this son of Hollymount/Carramore has played in each of the remaining 15 SFC games, with 13 starts accompanied by two substitute appearances against Armagh (2019) and Sligo (earlier this summer).

Even after being replaced in the dying seconds of normal time against Dublin last month – in the chaotic preamble to Rob Hennelly’s retaken ‘45’ – Coen was promptly reintroduced for the start of extra-time.

In essence, he has become a mainstay without people even realising it. He doesn’t have the flair or acceleration or derring-do of fellow defenders Lee Keegan, Paddy Durcan or Oisín Mullin, he cannot boast their All-Stars either; but as his above CV graphically illustrates, Coen is both a winner and a leader. Now all that remains is to win the one that truly matters.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the be-all and end-all,” he protests, meeting our quizzical look with the unflappable, smiling visage that is Coen’s trademark. “Obviously it’s great to win tournaments and win cups and that’s what we want to do. It’s a symbol of your improvement and your success. No player is measured on medals and stuff they won, it’s how they performed and how they conducted themselves throughout their careers.

“It would be great – if I have ten years left, I’d love to win the next ten All-Irelands,” he expands. “It doesn’t always happen. But for sure it’s a sign of improvement if we can keep going. There are plenty of guys in that dressing-room who want a lot of success, and this will be a good sign if we can get over the next game.”

It’s seven years since Horan promoted Coen straight out of minor to the Mayo squad. Back in 2014 he was a rookie on the fringes; during the Stephen Rochford era he tended to be one of his go-to subs, coming off the bench in the two All-Ireland finals of 2016 and the Dublin rematch in 2017.

In a previous interview this summer he outlined how, on his return, Horan challenged him on “different things – it could be physical development, it could be footwork, tackling, kicking the ball, being progressive and things that I would have known myself. When he challenges you, you have to reply back and improve on it – if you don’t, you won’t play.”

Clearly, he was a good listener.

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But as he now relates, he absorbed lessons not just from his manager but “from coaches down the years and also 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 are guys younger than me who are going to be the same going forward.”

Not many were predicting that, in the face of so many retirements, Mayo would keep on driving forward.

“We’ve got some brilliant new players,” Coen reminds. “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, ‘Okay, 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. 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.”

That was encapsulated by the half-time huddle during extra-time against the Dubs. Who was doing most of the talking? One of the young guns, Ryan O’Donoghue.

“Those guys have learned a lot of stuff in their underage careers that a lot of guys have forgotten,” Coen explains.

“He’s ambitious, he’s a dog, he is going to expect as much off you as anyone else, and doesn’t care what age he is. He just wants to win - he is going to do whatever he has to do.”

Coen himself won’t turn 26 until December – yet for years he has been saying all the right things. He didn’t shy away from the significance of what Mayo achieved against Dublin – “We beat a good team, a really good team. That’s a huge buzz” – but there isn’t a hint of wallowing in the moment because “you couldn’t afford to” with one huge game still to play.

“We have so much to improve on. That’s the beauty of it,” he concludes.

No bad place to be.

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