Just as were finishing up chatting with Mayo's free-taker Kenny Feeney about the Nicky Rackard Cup final, we ask him one last question. With time almost up tomorrow and Mayo a point down, and they get a penalty, would he go for a goal to win it or tap it over to get the draw? Feeney responds "I'll have to ask 'Deno' [Brian Hunt, the Mayo captain]. The Tooreen man then roars the question across the roam at his captain, to be told he will be putting it over the bar. "That's the answer so, but I might go for goal still, ah I'm joking," he tells us.
Feeney is an engaging character to speak to, his love of hurling and passion for the game is written all over his face as he talks about the game and his passion for Mayo hurling. "Look being a Mayo hurler is what it is, you're not doing it to be playing in front of the big crowds, you're there because you love hurling and you're only tested four times a year in the club championship here. But playing with Mayo it gives you a chance to test yourselves against the top teams and it gives you a chance to play at good standard. You're not doing it for the crowds or the money or the fame. I don't think if 10 of us walked down the street they wouldn't know us, but we do it because we love hurling and want to keep the flag flying for Mayo."
When asked what would a win do for the game in the county he is very hopeful it would give it a big boost, especially among the children in the county. "A win would bring young lads into the hurling mentality and will get them interested, you would hope that they'll go out banging the ball against the wall and dream of winning a Nicky Rackard cup with Mayo and bigger. You would hope that the people would notice the hurlers are doing something, people might just check in and see how we're doing and if we're getting beaten they'll just keep going, but if they go to the games they will be surprised and enjoy the quality of hurling that Mayo produce, and that's what we want to get out there and show people what we can do."
The hurt of getting relegated last year is something that stung the Mayo hurling community last summer and making amends for that this year is something that Feeney is very keen on doing. "It was the worst ever, when you look at it in the first round we went up to Derry and we lost by a point, and they were in the league final in the division above us, and no one gave us a hope and that day we should have beaten them. Then we went and played Kildare and we threw it away really, we were seven points up with 15 minutes to go and they beat us by two points in the end. We conceded a soft goal and I put a penalty over the bar, then we went and played Wicklow and lost that and didn't turn up on the day, and the same against Roscommon in the play-off, I don't know were we drained of confidence at the time, but we just didn't show up."
The experience gained last year among the younger members of the panel has been invaluable for this year, and Feeney can see that particularly when the games have got tight this term. "I suppose what people don't recognise is that we didn't have a strong panel last year in terms of experience and lads with game time in it. This year the panel is a bit older and we have a few guys who have learned from last year a great deal, and the lads we have brought in have been good. When we were decimated with injuries in the last two games of the Christy Ring last year we just didn't have the players with the experience we needed to bring in. Lads weren't used to the intensity and the speed it's played at, whereas this year they are used to it and up to the pace, it makes a huge difference. Before if we got injuries we didn't have players to replace them, now if we get six injuries we've have the quality and players to come in easily."
He has been hurling for Mayo since 2010 and has seen the good and the bad times with the county side, only two years ago they were narrowly beaten by a Kerry side in the Christy Ring Cup semi-final, and since then the Kingdom have gone on to make serious waves in the All Ireland championship proper, and that's something Mayo can aspire to he believes. "I'm here since 2010 and we were always competing for the first few years, then it faded a bit, but then we had lads coming back who had been away and they came back into the panel, and we made the semi-final here against Kerry two years ago, but we only showed up for a half that day, after being 15 points down at half time we lost by five in the end. That's the level we were competing at then, and when you see where Kerry are now that shows the potential. But sure when I came into the panel, we were beating Westmeath and Carlow and they have gone on. But Mayo was hit hard by emigration and a lot of lads from Tooreen and Ballyhaunis left and when I came in was thrown in at the deep end and we became seniors before we knew it, whereas we probably should only be becoming senior members of the panel now. The teams that went on, the likes of Kerry, Carlow, and Westmeath, they were able to keep that group together, but we weren't able to and it affected us."
This year's league saw Mayo fail to make the league final when it was there for the taking and that is something that still hurts even with tomorrow's big game coming up Feeney tells us. "The league started brilliant for us, we beat Down and Meath away, the last time we got a result up there was a long time ago, when Adrian Freeman played his last game for Mayo we went to two of the toughest places to go at this level and the level above and got results there. Then against Wicklow here, we took our eye off the ball and sat on our laurels and that doesn't suit us, we need to keep attacking in games. Against Armagh up there, we just didn't show up, it's a simple as that, we hadn't the attitude right and it shows when you don't have the attitude right you won't win games."
As for facing the Orchard county for the third time this year with the score tied at one win each, it is winner takes all tomorrow in Croke Park. "Armagh are a serious outfit, they are probably the best side we played in the league and that's probably why they beat us in the league, along with our attitude, they are serious in the air, they have two of best corner fowards we are going to see this year. But look, we brought them down to Ballina in the early rounds of the Nicky Rackard and beat them. We didn't let them play well, we got in their faces, we didn't let them work on what they are strong at and it showed. We're ready for them, it's one all this year, we're not afraid of them and if we turn up with a good attitude we'll beat them."