The Mayo hurlers get their National Hurling League campaign under way this Sunday when Derry visit MacHale Park at 2pm. In their last competitive game in 2016 Mayo defeated Derry to gain promotion back to the Christy Ring Cup and send the Oak Leaf county men back down to the Nicky Rackard Cup for this season.
One of Mayo's key men over the past few year's and in last years Rackard cup campaign is Tooreen's Kenny Feeney and he spoke to the Mayo Advertiser this week ahead of their league opener. "We need to have a good league campaign, the Christy Ring Cup is a higher level of hurling than we had last year and getting a good start in the league is a good basis for attacking that. Having said that we have a lot of new faces coming into the set up this year and a few lads we don't have that were with us last year. The league will be a good learning process in that sense of things for us. But we have aims in getting to the final of the league, so we'll be going out to win every game and get there."
Having to ply their trade in the third level of the hurling championship was somewhere that Mayo did not want to be, but after a very poor 2015 it was where they found themselves last year and they had just one objective last season according to the Tooreen ace. "I suppose we wouldn't have seen ourselves at Nicky Rackard Cup level, we'd have seen ourselves as better than that and we were very disappointed to get down relegated down to that two years ago. Our aim last year was to get back up to Christy Ring Cup level for this year and we did that. It was a great experience winning the Rackard Cup final in Croke Park, but we had to back that up again the following week against Derry or we'd have still been stuck down there despite winning the cup the previous week. We wanted to be hurling against the top teams at the level we feel we can play again this year."
Since JP Coen has taken over the managers position, the Ballyhaunis clubman has put his faith into youth and that is something for which Feeney reckons he should be given great credit for. Feeney said "Since JP has come in as manager he has been bringing in young lads, I think in his first year he brought ten young lads up to the senior set up and they've learned and progressed and are becoming real senior players every year. Players like David Kenny, Fergal Boland, Corey Scahill, David Harrision, and Shane Boland they have all matured so quickly and JP deserves great credit for putting his faith in them and he's doing that again now, bringing in lads and giving them a taste in training and some will mature quicker than others and could have a major impact this year.
"Lots of good young lads have come through again, like Conor Murray, Tony Sweeney, and Mark Phillips, they have all brought a freshness and something new to the set up, they are driving everyone else on and keeping the other lads on their toes. They are all well able to hurl and all they need is a bit of space to show it and if they get it they'll deliver on it."
As for their start on Sunday, it's not going to be an easy one for Mayo says Feeney. "It's probably as tough a start as you can get, Derry are going very well I believe, they have a lot of lads back who'd drifted away from hurling and they seem to have a very strong squad. But look, we are at home and you have to win your home games and set a marker for the rest of the league and that is what we'll be looking to do on Sunday."
Mayo did get off to a great start in last years league, but a bit of complacency crept in down the home straight which they used it as a learning curve for the bigger tests that they faced in the summer, Feeney said, "Last year we were disappointed with the way the league finished we had beaten Meath, Down, and Donegal and then just took our eye off it for a bit in the last couple of games, and got caught and missed out on the final, but you'd rather that have happened to us in the league than in the championship, and it gave us a plenty of drive to make sure that we didn't let it slip again come the Rackard Cup. You learn from those things, that you can't take anything for granted at this level and we used it during the summer."