Mayo get off to winning ways - but work is only beginning

GAA: National Hurling League

Manning the line: Mayo defenders line up to block a late effort at goal from a Cormac Doherty from a free for Derry. Photo: Ciara Buckley

Manning the line: Mayo defenders line up to block a late effort at goal from a Cormac Doherty from a free for Derry. Photo: Ciara Buckley

The Mayo senior hurlers got their National Hurling League campaign off to a winning start last Sunday in MacHale Park, having seen off the challenge from visitors, Derry.

Derek Walsh's men had to dig deep late on, when the Oakleaf county put themselves right back in contention after it looked like Mayo were going to pull away from them.

Having not too much training behind them and no challenge games going into it, was a bit of a concern, Walsh said afterwards, stating: "It was a worry before the match, we had two A v B the last two Sundays and while they were competitive, you still don't know where you are at until you go into the heat of battle.

"There were plenty of mistakes in the first half, 13 wides, some crazy shots, but we said all along that we were not going to be the finished article in the first game of the league; but we never panicked and calmed down in the second half.

"We actually spoke at half time and thought we'd play better against the wind; we have small lads inside and the ball stuck more in the second half. The ball in the first half was coming in from 80 or 90 yards, we are better with the ball up the pitch. We were delighted with the win, first game out of the way."

Walsh and his team are looking to try out players in a few different positions during the league to have as many options as possible come championship time and he was happy with how his side adapted on day one to such changes.

"Sean Kenny is one, I don't think he ever played corner back in his life, but I think we saw something in him and trying to play out the ball, he's a good stick man and I thought he was outstanding. There are four or five other lads that were injured today that would be playing in different positions and have been, but we're just trying to see what would help. If a forward looks like he can add something from the half back line, we'll try it and throw him in and give him a chance. We are all about trying to improve lads and the team each day."

The introduction of newcomer Pearse McCrann to the set-up has added something extra too that Walsh recognised they needed: "I remember talking to the Press after the Rackard Final in Croke Park and saying there is a few positions we needed to strengthen physically a bit and Pearse brought that. He won a lot of ball and plays there with his club in Galway, I am delighted to have him in with us. He's working in Castlebar and living in Westport - so delighted to have him. We've Conor Daly as well in with us, he did his hamstring during the week and he's a few weeks away."

One man that a lot of attention was on for Mayo was Keith Higgins, who is now back full time with the hurlers after retiring from inter-county football earlier this year and his experience is something that Mayo will look to draw on Walsh says. "It is hard to quantify what he brings, but it is leadership qualities, he's captain for obvious reasons and you can just hear out there and talking to the lads, keeping the shape and even if they make a mistake, it's on to the next one and keep going.

"Look he's been there and done it at the top level and he has loads of room to improve himself, I said it to him afterwards, he was rusty enough, but he hasn't a lot of hurling done either - but we are delighted to have him, we've 32 lads and it's a competition for the match day 26 first and then to make the starting 15."

As for the man himself, he enjoyed his first game back in a few years as a Mayo hurler - even if it took a bit out of the lungs. After the game he said: "I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable, a lot of heavy lungs, but we got through it. It is the games like that that you take so much from when you grind it out sometimes, compared to great performances. But it is good to be back and everybody is on the same page when it comes to that, glad to be back playing.”

Making the changeover to full time inter-county hurler from footballer isn’t something he’s found difficult, he added: "For me personally it is not too difficult to change over; you know the football was a big part of life for a long time, but it is done and dusted and this is the main focus in life now and it is very simple and straightforward and you just want to make the most of it."

As for having one eye on the footballers this weekend, when the hurlers are also in action - that’s not going to happen, he added, explaining: “It will be different but - and I don’t want this to sound bad - but that is done and dusted for me. Derek gave me the captaincy and I can’t afford to have one eye elsewhere, the focus has to be on this and that is the way it is going to be."

Just having the few weeks preparation isn't ideal for the start of a competitive season but Higgins is just happy to be out there and at it again, he said: "Two weeks we had and we’d two in-house games the last two weekends, but they were nothing compared to the intensity that Derry brought out there; in fairness, as much as you try and replicate it, it is very difficult.

"That game will bring you leaps and bounds just from the contact you’re getting, the hits you are getting, it’ll be a good hit for the lungs as well. But every team is in the same situation, two and half weeks is very difficult preparation.

“You can do all the straight-line running you want over the last four or five months, but when you’re out there and there are three or four lads trying to knock lumps out of you, it is a different feeling.

“An extra week, maybe a challenge game, would have made a huge difference, but to get two points today is huge and we have that game under our belt and we have two points as well, so you hope you can build on it."

Mayo face Roscommon in round two of Division 2B of the National Hurling League, on Sunday, May 15 at 2pm in Hyde Park.


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