Saturday, February 04, 2023

Tom Phillips and Dave McConn were appointed as joint-managers of the Mayo hurling team last October and their first acid test comes this Saturday. They discuss that — and the season to come — in the company of Mark Higgins.

Mayo joint managers Tom Phillips and Dave McConn at the Connacht Centre of Excellence last Sunday where they oversaw training in advance of this Saturday’s Allianz Hurling League opener against Roscommon in MacHale Park, Castlebar.

A new era begins for the Mayo senior hurlers this Saturday afternoon as Tom Phillips and Dave McConn lead the county into competitive action for the first time. The Ballyhaunis duo took the reins at the helm of the county team last autumn after their clubmate Derek Walsh decided to stand down after five seasons in the role.
Both Philips and McConn served as selectors under Walsh during his time in charge, and all three served as selectors under the previous regime of JP Coen in 2016 and 2017, meaning there is plenty of continuity in the coaching staff as Mayo face into a new season.
Mayo will play their league hurling in Division 3 this year for the first time since the 2011 season. In the years since, they have been an ever-present in Divisions 2A and 2B, but lost that status last year after being defeated by Wicklow in a relegation play-off in Tullamore.
That relegation placed them in Division 3A of this year’s league, wherein they will face off against Roscommon, Fermanagh, Armagh, Monaghan and Louth over the coming seven weekends. The top two teams at the end of the round-robin will earn a place in the league final, fixed for the first weekend in April, with only the winner earning promotion to Division 2B for 2024.
The campaign opens this Saturday with a local derby against Roscommon. Mayo are set to be without their Tooreen players for the opening rounds of the league; only three weeks will have passed between the Blue Devils’ All-Ireland Club IHC final appearance and the start of the league and the Tooreen players are yet to return to the county squad. They will filter back in over the course of the league but at the outset, Mayo will be relying on players from the county’s other clubs.
“We will be continuing in the league with this great bunch of lads we have. We’ve got a great relationship going with them, a great buzz going,” said Dave McConn, when he and Philips sat down after an in-house game at the Centre of Excellence in Bekan on Sunday morning.
“We’ll be playing the first one or two matches with our present panel. After that will be another story as the Tooreen lads start coming back. We hope to progress the panel at that stage. But we’re quite happy with where we are. We’ve done as much work as we possibly could and our coach has done very well, Mike Ryan from Loughrea. We’re looking forward to Saturday.”
The absence of the Tooreen contingent will obviously be a significant challenge for Mayo in the early rounds of the league but Phillips said allowing them some time to rest and recover is fundamentally a player welfare issue.
“If one of them was your own son or your brother, you’d prefer to give them a bit of rest and a bit of time,” he said. “There are four or five of them that are dual players and you have to take that into account too, that you don’t burn them out.
“We have approached about three-quarters of them at the moment and the response has been very positive. We’ve agreed a timeline for them to be coming in to us over the next month. They’re happy with that and we’re happy with that.”
Phillips and McConn said that of the Tooreen players they have approached, 95 percent have indicated their intention to join up with the county squad over the next few weeks, although they opted against naming individual players.
Mayo have already played one game this year, against Leitrim in the pre-season Connacht Senior League back at the start of January. A very experimental Mayo side lost that encounter by 4-23 to 1-18 in the AirDome at the Centre of Excellence.
Experimental though it may have been, Mayo’s teams for the opening rounds of the league will be based on that pre-season squad. A number of players with recent inter-county experience, including Ballyhaunis’ Adrian, Cormac and Mark Phillips and Jason Coyne, Conor Murray and Barry Lane from Castlebar and Westport’s James Gallagher, will all have important roles to play in what will be a relatively inexperienced side for the games against Roscommon this weekend and away to Fermanagh on Sunday week, February 12.
Newer players such as Moytura’s Heraty brothers, John and Evan, and the likes of Paddy Dozio and Luke Connor from Caiseal Geals will be given their chance to show what they can do.

Castlebar Mitchels hurler Ronan Treacy in action for Mayo at the Connacht GAA Air Dome during Mayo’s clash with Leitrim at the beginning of January in the Connacht Senior Hurling League. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

“They’re doing very well,” said McConn of those new recruits. “I say that bearing in mind that they haven’t been in a senior situation like this before. Particularly the strength and conditioning in hurling, it’s a real challenge. But they’ve been through it for a number of weeks now and to a man, they have performed well.”
The absence of the Tooreen players clearly makes the task facing Philips and McConn more difficult, but Mayo should still be aiming for nothing less than immediate promotion out of Division 3 this spring. This is a team which competed in a Christy Ring cup final last June, after all; none of the other teams in Division 3A will even hurl in the Ring this year. Roscommon, Fermanagh, Armagh and Louth will play their championship hurling in the Nicky Rackard while Monaghan are a further rung down in the Lory Meagher.
The new managers are wary about setting specific goals, however, focusing instead on making the team as competitive as it can be.
“Our aim would be to qualify for the play-off first of all, and see where that takes us,” offered Phillips. “We have a good bunch of players there and we have to create a platform to get the best out of them. We’re not setting any targets or expectations; yes, we all have our own goals, but it’s about giving the lads a platform to perform at their best individually and collectively.”
Philips and McConn were appointed as joint-managers in late October, almost three months after Derek Walsh stood down from the role.
The County Board’s selection committee interviewed several outside candidates for the role in the meantime but found nobody they deemed suitable for the position. It wasn’t until later in the process that Phillips and McConn allowed their names to go forward.
McConn explained that their initial hesitancy was due to their desire to have their management ticket fully locked down before their names could go forward.
“The reason we didn’t put our names in at the first call was because we had our eye on a coach at the time. We weren’t in a position to confirm him, and another management member, at that time and we felt it was unfair to step forward with a management panel that hadn’t been completed,” said McConn.

Leitrim’s Ralph McKeown and Matthew Walsh of Mayo. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

“The management panel didn’t come together until shortly before we actually put our names forward.
“We were always there having a look at it but it only came together at that particular time. If somebody had got the job before that, so be it.”
Phillips echoed that it had been important for him and McConn to have all the pieces in place before they made the commitment to take over the county hurlers.
“Myself and this man (McConn) have soldiered together on and off the field for 25 or 30 years. Whether we were playing, or looking after teams at underage, we don’t go at things at 100 percent; we go at 120,” he stated.
“That’s why we came into the scene a bit late. We would have hated to come in with half a structure and take it over, and next thing, things fall asunder and you lose lads, because lads will see through that.”
The management team in full includes Johnny Cunnane and Trevor Kelly as selectors and Gary Conway on stats. The coach is Mike Ryan from Loughrea, who previously coached Galway to two minor and two under-21 All-Ireland titles. Shane Morley on physio, Shane Meehan on S&C and Sean Julian on nutrition complete the backroom, while Micheál Walsh will serve as liaison to the County Board.

Tom Phillips and Dave McConn, on behalf of the Mayo senior hurling team and management, would like to offer their deepest condolences to the Higgins family of Ballyhaunis on the recent passing of Pierce Higgins. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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