2016 Nicky Rackard Cup Final
At Croke Park
Mayo hurling was at a low ebb at the start of the 2016 season. The previous year, the county had surrendered its Christy Ring status for the first time since the competition was inaugurated in 2005 after losing a relegation play-off against Roscommon. For a team who had pushed eventual Ring champions Kerry close in a semi-final in 2014, relegation to the third-tier Rackard Cup represented a crushing disappointment.
Mayo manager JP Coen had made a defiant commitment in the wake of that loss in Salthill though, stating: “If we do anything before we leave here this evening we’ll make a pact that we will try and go and get back into the Christy Ring again next year.”
Regaining their Ring status meant Mayo winning the Rackard in 2016. At that time the competition consisted of eight counties and ran in a double-elimination format, with wins in Rounds 1 and 2A sending teams directly to the semi-finals.
Coen remained at the helm and Mayo had a strong league campaign in Division 2B, with early-round wins over Donegal, Meath and Down. Losses to Wicklow and Armagh denied Mayo a place in the league final but their sights were very much set on the championship.
Ballyhaunis clubman Brian Hunt was corner-back and captain for Mayo that year and said that the collective mindset of the group was that a swift return to the Christy Ring was the be-all and end-all for Mayo’s campaign.
“We had a great buy-in from everyone right from the outset. JP gathered everyone straight after the relegation the previous year and told us that this was the opportunity to get straight back up. It was felt that the longer you stay down there, the more difficult it becomes to get out of the Rackard,” said Hunt this week.
Mayo were benefiting from having the full strength of the county’s hurlers from which to pick – this had not always been the case in the past and hasn’t always been the case since. Keith Higgins had brokered an agreement with the football side of things to be allowed play the entirety of the Rackard campaign, key men like Kenny Feeney, Cathal Freeman, team captain Hunt and Ciaran Charlton were fit and healthy and a host of younger players, like Shane Boland, Eoghan Collins and Austin Lyons were improving game-on-game.
The McManus brothers from Dublin, Joe and Ger, had also joined the panel under the parentage rule from St Jude’s in Dublin and had added real steel and quality to the team, while Fergal Boland and David Kenny rejoined the squad in May after winning the All-Ireland U21 football title with the county.
The Rackard campaign began with a Round 1 trip to face Tyrone, when a 14-man Mayo produced a blinding second half to see off the Red Hand. They then overcame Armagh in Ballina, but since that was the second of what would become a trilogy of games between the counties that year, Hunt recalls there was some shadow-boxing at play.
The wins sent Mayo directly to a semi-final against Donegal in Letterkenny. They came through that encounter by 1-18 to 2-11 – despite letting what had been a ten-point dwindle down to two late on – to secure a trip to Croke Park for the final, the county’s first hurling game at Headquarters in 12 years. Only two of the panel, Higgins and Shane Morley, had ever hurled at Croke Park before, in that All-Ireland B Championship loss to Kildare in 2004. Freeman and Kenny had played Mayo minor football there but for the most part, it was a new experience for the panel.
“We were lucky in that we had a bit of experience there in the panel with Keith, who had obviously played in Croke Park a number of times,” recalled Hunt, “but for the vast majority of the panel, myself included, we had never played there before. We said to the lads that it’s just another pitch at the end of the day, and it was a final that was there to be won.”
The final, on the June Bank Holiday Saturday, was played out under cobalt skies at Jones’ Road. It was the curtain-raiser to the infamous Christy Ring final between Meath and Antrim, when a scorekeeping error between the referee and the scoreboard operators caused huge confusion and ultimately resulted in the game having to be replayed.
Armagh, who had lost the previous year’s final to Roscommon, were a physically strong team with some excellent scoring forwards, and despite Darren McTigue getting Mayo off to the perfect start with a third-minute goal, the Orchardmen were back on level terms at 1-6 to 0-9 at the interval.
“There was a bit of ebb and flow to the game,” said Hunt. “We got off to a good start but Armagh, as they always did, fought back hard. They got a vital goal at the start of the second half, which put us under a lot of pressure. We were actually trailing for a lot of the second half until Kenny caught that high ball into the box toward the end of the game and finished it to the net.”
That goal, from Feeney, capped a man-of-the-match display from the Tooreen man in which he clocked 1-9. It restored Mayo’s lead with ten minutes to play and late scores from Sean Regan and Corey Scahill wrapped up the win. Mayo’s defence also stood solid as Armagh threw everything forward late on, with Ger McManus, Freeman and Higgins all outstanding.
“One of my main memories is that Keith had one fantastic block about 15 minutes into the second half,” recalled Hunt of his clubmate. “Armagh were right through on goal at the Hill 16 end, and if they scored a goal at that stage they might have pulled away, but Keith was in the right place at the right time, as he often is.”
Hunt had the job of climbing the Hogan Stand to receive the Rackard Cup, Mayo’s first-ever national senior title in the small ball game. Hunt, who had cousins in the camp in the form of selector (and current Mayo manager) Derek Walsh and panelist Stephen Hunt, said it remains the undoubted high point of his playing career.
“It’s surreal, when you think about it. When you’re a young fella pucking a wall against a wall in the garden, you have that image. That’s where you want to be. I cherish it, it’s a great memory. Even for my parents; if you go into their house that photo is up on the wall of me lifting the cup. It’s a proud moment,” he said.
The Mayo team returned victorious into Ballyhaunis that night. They still had the slightly awkward task of contesting a play-off against Derry to ensure their promotion back to the Christy Ring one week later, but that game was won without much fuss. That day in Croke Park remains the defining moment of a great year for Mayo hurling.
Scorers – Mayo: Kenny Feeney 1-9 (0-6f), Darren McTigue 1-0, Sean Regan and Fergal Boland 0-2 each, Shane Boland, John McManus and Corey Scahill 0-1 each.
Armagh: E McGuinness 1-1, D Coulter 0-5, R Gaffney 0-4 (3f, 1 ’65), D Carvill, C Corvan 0-2 each, C Carvill 0-1.
Mayo: Donal O’Brien; Brian Hunt, Ger McManus, Eoghan Collins; Cathal Freeman, Keith Higgins, Austin Lyons; David Kenny, Ciaran Charlton; John McManus, Kenny Feeney, Sean Regan; Shane Boland, Padraig O’Flynn, Darren McTigue. Subs: Pa Connell (for Lyons ht), Fergal Boland (for McTigue 42), Corey Scahill (for O’Flynn 54), Kieran McDermott (for Hunt 61), Gary Nolan (for S Boland 69).
Armagh: S Doherty; C Clifford, A McGuinness, C Devlin; J Corvan, N Curry, C Toner; K McKernan, S Renaghan; R Gaffney, C Carvill, D Carvill; D Coulter, E McGuinness, C Corvan. Subs: J King (for Renaghan 54), P McKearney (for J Corvan 61), O Curry (for Coulter 66).
REF: J Murphy (Limerick)