The Mayo senior hurlers got their National League season off to a winning start last Sunday, when they saw off Donegal in MacHale Park in round one of the league. This year sees Mayo drop down to the Nicky Rackard Cup for their championship campaign in the summer time and we caught up with Mayo senior hurling manager JP Coen during the week to look ahead to the season and what he expects from his charges.
Overall he was happy with his side's performance against Donegal, but there were still a lot of things to improve on he told us. "It was good to get a winning start and to get points on the board for us. We're happy enough with what we did, we could probably have done a few things a bit better. Our accuracy in front of goal wasn't up to what it should be, but I suppose it's the first real game in anger and we created enough chances. It's given us plenty of food for thought going into this week and we know that we are creating those chances, it would be worse if we weren't creating those chances in front of the posts."
Mayo had a man advantage for most of the second half when Christopher McDermott was shown a second yellow card, but they found it difficult to exploit over the final 30 minutes, but there were reasons for that Coen explained. "It's a tricky one, when a team goes down to 14 men what do you do, do you push up on them and maybe leave yourself exposed at the back or do you leave yourself just ticking over? We tried to keep ourselves just ticking over and not over extend ourselves, we were wary that Donegal were dangerous and they could come back at us. In their warm up games they scored a lot of goals against the likes of Derry and Down, so we wanted to make sure that we were not going to let that happen and keep our defensive unit pretty sound and keep a clean sheet."
They also gave away a large number of scoring chances from frees that kept Donegal in the game, they will not be able to do that on Sunday against Meath, the Ballyhaunis man knows. "It's something you have to worry about going on, because at the end of the day we gave away 14 scorable frees and they scored nine of those, and we really kept them in the game ourselves through our own indiscipline and that's something we definitely need to watch going to Meath, it's something that we can't do and give away that amount of frees or we won't be able to win the game."
This time last year Mayo also took on the Royals in the second round of the league and were given a spanking by the Meath men, and Coen is keen for this not to happen again telling us: "It'll be a right tough game, Meath will be one who are looking to make the league final this year, for ourselves it's about pitching ourselves against a top quality team like Meath. They have some right good players there, they gave us a right good beating in Mayo last year in the league on a day that was difficult condition wise, so we'll be hoping for better conditions and a lot better of a result. But they are the teams you want to be playing in this league, and it's tough and a strong league. The likes of Meath, Down, and Armagh would be seen as the top teams in the league, and then you have ourselves and others coming along behind them. But it will be a nice tough test at the start of the league to see where we're at and can we compete with a good top quality team and we're looking forward to it and go with confidence to it.
New and returning faces
Mayo have welcomed some new faces into the panel this year on the field and in the management team, with brothers Gerard and Joe McManus from the St Jude's Club in Dublin opting to play for Mayo from where their father hails, and former Galway goalkeper Liam Donoghue coming in as selector and things are going well on both fronts so far says Coen. "I'm happy with Ger and Joe McManus, that's the first real competitive game with Mayo, they got a few in the Connacht League and they are good honest lads and will be a benefit to Mayo going forward." As for Donoghue he said: "It's a great bit of experience to have with us, he's a great guy to have there on the field also and in the dressing room with the lads. The lads have taken to him quite well and they like what we've done with the training, we've changed it up a bit and he has great experience and he brings something to Mayo that we haven't had before, that was goalkeeping experience at this level. It's something we highlighted ourselves in our review last summer and it was one thing we were conscious of, that if we did get someone in that they would have some goalkeeping experience, because every county management team that come in, come in and train the team as a whole, but you have to look at your goalkeepers, we're trying to bring through goalkeepers as well. There are a few goalkeepers in the county that are quite good, but they just need that extra bit of tutoring and help and Liam will bring that added bit of bonus to them too."
But it is not just new faces from inside the county that has given them some extra firepower, there are some others who have committed to the cause that Coen believes will see Mayo bounce back up the hurling ranks. "We have to do ourselves a bit more justice than last year, we let ourselves down and we let the county down, and everything that we're trying to do this year is to be better than last year. So we went away and got fellows like Joe and Ger in, we got Pat Connell, Cathal Freeman, and Michael Morley back, and we've done a proper arrangement with Keith [Higgins] as regards championship and league [availability] so we've done our homework a bit better. I suppose because we knew we were in that bit earlier this season it gave us a chance to get things organised and settled in a bit quicker. It's the aim to go far in the league and go well in the championship when it comes around.
Springboard to later success
As for being in the third tier of championship hurling, Coen believes that it can be good for Mayo and they aim to use it a springboard to progressing in the future, telling the Mayo Advertiser: "I suppose that's the question everyone is throwing at us and it was put to me a few weeks ago, is the fact we went down to the Rackard a poor reflection on us or is it a realistic reflection of where the team are, and probably if we're being honest over the past four to five seasons it's probably a bit more realistic being in the Rackard. But looking at the strength in the panel that we have now and the talent that's there we would be very down if we didn't reach at the very least Rackard final. I suppose it's a lot more achievable than a Christy Ring title for this bunch at the moment. I would say that Mayo would have a serious look at the Christy Ring when they get back up there. Because there is a serious and savage bit of talent in the panel at the moment if it can be held together."
While having some new faces from outside coming in along with older more experienced heads being a major plus this year, Coen and his management team really want to see younger players from within the county pushing on and making the breakthrough and staking a claim for a starting spot in the team, he explained telling us: "We're constantly looking and it's something we're very conscious of, that we just don't have a strong older panel, but that we blood younger guys, the likes of Cory Schaill, Sean Mulroy, these guys who are coming in, you've John Cotter who came in as well, we've asked other younger lads to come in, so we're happy with the lads that are coming in, and the likes of Fergal Boland and David Kenny, they'll be part of the panel as we move through the season too, so we're looking forward to it."