Now that the two points from the the Mayo-Kerry football game are in the bag, attention for the small ball followers turns to today’s National Hurling League opening round tie against Derry in MacHale Park. This one throws in at Castlebar at 2pm this afternoon.
This is Mayo’s first competitive game of the season after the Connacht Senior League didn’t happen this January due to the withdrawal of the Galway College sides. Nevertheless, the hurlers have been paving away under the radar in recent weeks in preparation for their date with the Oakleafers.
Firstly the management is relatively the same as last year with JP Coen (Ballyhaunis) in the Bainisteoir bib. Derek Walsh, Dave McConn, Tom Feeney and Tom Phillips are still on board in the backroom team. However, not returning this season is coach Liam Donoghue (Clarinbridge) with his role being filled by Damien Fox (Tullamore) this season. This management will now enter their third year at the helm in 2017.
From last years All-Ireland Nickey Rackard Cup success we have lost a good few of the starting fifteen. Retired are ‘keeper Donal O’Brien and Padraig O’Flynn. Eoghan Collins has joined up with the Clare footballers under the parentage rule and so therefore can’t feature this season in a Mayo jersey. Ciaran Charlton is taking a year out from inte-rcounty hurling also this year, while Adrian Brennan hasn’t returned for duty this year either.
On the other side of the balance sheet we have a few new arrivals to the small ballers this season, with imports Diarmuid McLoughlin (St Judes) and Padraig Hickey (Broadford) both new names to feature on this weekend’s teamsheet.
McLoughlin joins his clubmates Joe and Ger McManus on the trips West this summer and takes his place at left half-forward against Derry. Hickey from Broadford in Clare is a former Clare Intermediate hurler and also played Fitzgibbon Cup with LIT.
Other local newcomers to the set-up this season include Martin Parsons (Castlebar), Tony Sweeney (Castlebar), Adrian Phillips (Ballyhaunis), while Stephen Leneghan also returns to the panel after returning from Australia last year.
Named at numbers 25 and 26 respectively in the match line-up are our dual players Keith Higgins and Fergal Boland, who both came through the Kerry football game relatively unscathed. Both intend to play some part in the match against Derry and could be the difference between the sides if introduced.
It will be a difficult juggling act for both dual players again this season, but the fixtures do fall kindly, with so many football games on Saturday evenings and the hurling fixtures following on the Sunday afternoon. David Kenny – who was released from the football panel a fortnight ago – takes his place at centre-half-back on Sunday.
Derry can be hot or cold in hurling. Their current county senior champions Slaughtneil are in the All-Ireland Club hurling semi-final against Cuala in a fortnight so they won’t be available for selection.
When Mayo played Derry last summer – in the Ring/Rackard promotion/relegation play-off – Mayo comfortably defeated the Northern lads to expel them to the Rackard Cup for 2017. However, Derry will be odds-on favourites to win that competition, and the attraction of a day out in June in Croke Park may attract a level of interest to the Derry hurling panel which wouldn’t be there usually.
In their warm-up tournament in January – the Conor McGurk Ulster Cup – Derry overpowered Donegal convincingly before going down heavily themselves in the semi-final of that tournament to Down.
The Mayo hurlers struggle to get any sort of meaningful support from the Mayo GAA public for home games (or, indeed, for away games either). Everyone knows the landscape that exists in relation to the small ball game within the county. Therefore, every extra voice or face that comes along to support makes a difference. Derry won’t have many supporters with them either this afternoon.
So, if you’re up for a different type of Mayo GAA experience, give the hurlers a twist. You’d never know, the extra space offered in the stadium may be what you’ve always needed. If you have any claustrophobic Mayo friends, bring them along as well as we can guarantee no queues or crowds.
We can guarantee one thing, however – the lads out on the field love hurling for Mayo and will play their hearts out whether there’s a crowd present or not.
Mayo for Christy 2017…….
Mayo (NHL Division 2B v Derry, 12/2/2017): Davog Freyne (Tooreen); Brian Hunt (Ballyhaunis), Ger MacManus (Judes), Austin Lyons (Ballyhaunis); Cathal Freeman (Tooreen), David Kenny (Tooreen), Gary Nolan (Tooreen); Sean Regan (Tooreen), Kieran McDermott (Ballyhaunis); Joe MacManus (Judes), Padraig Hickey (Broadford), Diarmuid MacLoughlin (Judes); Shane Boland (Tooreen), Kenny Feeney (Tooreen), Corey Scahill (Castlebar). Subs: Martin Parsons (Castlebar), Darren McTigue (Castlebar), Sean Mulroy (Castlebar), Shane Morley (Tooreen), Tony Sweeney (Castlebar), Adrian Phillips (Ballyhaunis), John Cotter (Castlebar), David Harrison (Tooreen), Stephen Leneghan (Tooreen), Keith Higgins (Ballyhaunis), Fergal Boland (Tooreen).