"Once the dust settled on last year, we felt we let the county down and we said we had to dig in and see where we can bring this" Mayo hurling manager JP Coen told the Mayo Advertiser when we sat down to speak ahead of Saturday's Nicky Rackard Cup final. The dust he was speaking about was Mayo's relegation from the Christy Ring Cup last year.
When asked if he ever had any doubts about coming back for a second year in charge, Coen was honest in his appraisal of what happened last year, saying, "Probably, if we didn't get relegated you might have said this isn't for me because we'd done so poorly in the league and championship. Maybe not as bad in the championship where we put up a good account of ourselves the first few days, when we were unlucky against some top teams. Derry we should have won, and against Kildare in Ballina and they went on to get to the semi-final, but after that we didn't do so well."
When they decided to stay on, making sure everything was keyed up and ready to go from day one this season was their priority, he said. "We met very early last autumn and said where can we go and together we got together as a management team and brought in Liam Donoghue as a coach, and we went out and brought a few more players back into the panel, and we changed it up and got a great commitment from the likes of Keith Higgins and that all just added to what we were going to try and do this year."
Last year saw Coen and his management team introduce a number of new players to the senior set up, and they did not have the time to bed everyone in before the season got going he told us. "We had way more lead in time, we were just parachuted into the side last year through circumstances, and I suppose we did a lot of the early work you want to do before the league during it and it caught up with the players. A lot of the guys we brought into the panel last year, it was their first time into the county set up and it took them a while to get used to it, no more than ourselves as management team. We're more used to it, we're better planned and prepared, and we knew what was coming more and we saw that in the early games in the league."
The league started off brilliantly for Mayo winning three from three at the start, and one more positive result from their final two games would have seen them reach the league final. However things did not work out that way, but they have learned from it the Ballyhaunis native believes. "It showed those early games 100 per cent these guys are well capable of playing at the higher reaches of the Christy Ring and please God that's what we'll get back to. To beat the likes of Meath and Down and to hold Wicklow as close as we did shows how good they are.
"We were disappointed from a management point of view that we fell away at the end of the league, when there was a league final place there to play for. We felt we maybe took our eye off the ball a small bit in the Wicklow game when we were five points up, and we should have probably changed tactics in the second half and made some personal changes, but you learn from them. We got over it and have gone on from there."
The start of the Rackard did not go to plan with Mayo struggling against Tyrone early on, but they got over the initial storm and have not looked back since. "The long journey is something we didn't factor a lot further than we expected, little things like that can dip a game in a opposition's favour and they put it up to us in the first half and it took us a while to click into gear. We had that 12-13 minute period where we did click into gear and ran away comfortable enough in the end.
"The Armagh game in Ballina was one of the most pleasing points of the season, where as management team and the team we all learned where our failings were in the league and we could turn them into positives in the championship. In fairness to the lads they all learned from that on the day and they all turned in huge performances.
In the semi-final Mayo looked to have things well wrapped up early in the second half, but they switched off and let the Ulster men back into the game, and not letting something similar happen tomorrow is something that Coen has been drilling into his side since. "We are making a conscious point that if we do get ahead like we did against Donegal to shut up shop and play out the game, we don't want to end up getting caught like that again. I've a funny feeling though there won't be that many points in this game and it will be a very tight battle.
"But in fairness to the lads it was put up to them down the final run in the Donegal game and they stood up and held on and showed their worth, they were coming back at us in waves and waves and waves, and we eked out a couple of scores at vital times, but so did we to bring it up from three points to four points to see us over the line.
Part of their plan for this year was to bring some new players in to the panel and the introduction of Dublin based brothers Ger and Joe McManus has been a big boost to Mayo this year, and Coen is delighted with the way they have fitted in with the rest of the side. "Ger and Joe are as Mayo as it comes with their dad just living out the road from Ballyhaunis in Knock, they have been coming here summer after summer and know Mayo like the back of their hands, and you couldn't have two nicer and better fellas come in, and they've integrated brilliantly with the lads. To get the likes of Cathal Freeman back and committed for the year is brilliant too."
There are plenty of good people trying to spread hurling around the county who have been putting in a lot of work on the ground, getting a result on Saturday and bringing an All Ireland title to Mayo would be a massive boost to those Coen thinks. "That's the goal, to get as many hurling as we can. The first thing we want is to get as many Mayo people in Croke Park as we can, it's a massive day for all the lads, it's a massive day for all the clubs and their families and friends. If school kids come it would be great, you look at the likes of Keith Higgins who has made it at both levels and he's back in Croke Park with the Mayo hurlers in a big final, and it gives something to aspire too."
If things go to plan, then they will be on course to spread the gospel of the game a bit more around the county.