Feeneys relishing the big occasion as Mitchels proudly fly the flag for Mayo

Brothers Richie and Alan have been prominent in Castlebar’s fairy-tale march to the All-Ireland club football final

Richie Feeney celebrates scoring his sides first goal in the victory over Galway’s Corofin in the Connacht semi-final. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Richie Feeney celebrates scoring his sides first goal in the victory over Galway’s Corofin in the Connacht semi-final. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 11:53

“He will be on the sideline just like Dad was 20 years ago,” Richie Feeney says of his younger brother, Darragh, who will serve as water boy for Castlebar Mitchels in Monday’s All-Ireland club football final against St Vincent’s.

The re-emergence of Castlebar as a prominent force in club football had already started when the Feeney family lost husband and father Ger, a club stalwart and former Mayo footballer, in a drowning tragedy some three years ago.

But claiming the Mayo title last autumn for the first time in 20 years was the most eloquent tribute the current team could pay to his memory. Manager Pat Holmes was a defender on the 1993 team which won club and provincial honours and on which Ger Feeney served as selector. Richie Feeney was ten years old then, his brother Alan just eight. Now, both men are crucial to the Castlebar cause, fiery presences with play-anywhere spirit and they have been leading figures in Castlebar’s out-of-the-blue appearance in the St Patrick’s Day parade at Croke Park.

After the acute disappointment of a second successive All-Ireland final defeat for Mayo in September, Castlebar’s run has been a tonic and underlined the strength in depth of football within the county. Their story has been fabulous but also begs the question: how can a team capable of challenging for All-Ireland honours have struggled for so long within their own county?

Real commitment
“We always had the talent...we won three or four U-21 titles at county level but there was never a real commitment by the group before,” Feeney said on a dark Monday evening in the Mitchels’ clubhouse.

“We sat down and went through the last few years and why we hadn’t won and we worked a few things out. And we haven’t looked back since then to be honest. Support was never a great thing we had...It became the norm. And at the back of your mind was the realisation that success breeds support and that was one of the goals...to get the club buzzing. So thankfully people have come in their droves and it has really helped us along.”

So far, there has been a fated hue to the Castlebar story. After beating Breaffy on a wild afternoon in Castlebar, they met Corofin a fortnight later and nobody really gave them a chance.

They fell into an early 1-3 to 0-0 deficit and the bookie’s dismissal seemed justified. But they won. The day of their Connacht final against St Brigid’s it was gale-force winds and rain in Roscommon. Ireland played the All-Blacks on the same afternoon but the provincial final matched the rugby game for unexpected thrills, provoking the memorable line from the radio booths in Dr Hyde Park: “And Ireland are winning against the All Blacks in rugby. I don’t care. I’d rather be here.”

The match was nuts: extra-time, players sent off and St Brigid’s revered goalkeeper Shane Curran actually carted off with a busted hamstring (he later announced it was his last game). “It was a topsy-turvy game. I’d say St Brigid’s wonder how they lost it sometimes. It had everything, a mad game. But it was a super feeling coming off the pitch that day.”

Then came the semi-final against Dr Crokes Yet again Castlebar delivered. On a national scale, that game revolved around the dreadfully unlucky injury suffered by Colm Cooper, one of the great attacking players of the modern era.

“He went off the field but we were half-expecting him to come back on so there were a couple of moments when you were wondering what was going on but still trying to focus. It wasn’t until after the game that I really began to process it, I didn’t see him. I don’t really know him, I played against him once or twice but that is it.”

Now, they face St Vincent’s, perhaps the most nationally famous name in club football. Yet again, they will be outsiders. But that is fine. For Richie Feeney and his brother Alan, this journey has been personal.

Their father Ger was a prodigious talent in a bleak time for Mayo football, earning his senior championship at just 19 against Sligo in 1972 and then playing for the county through ten luckless years. He was part of a Mayo All-Ireland-winning minor team in 1971 and played on the U-21 side that won the All-Ireland in 1974.

Even in the knock-out years of the championship, Feeney senior was called up for two All-Star teams as a replacement and won the ‘Player of the Tour’ award in 1975. He was a substitute in 1981 when Mayo won their first Connacht title since 1969, coming on as a replacement to kick a late free which won the match against a fancied Galway side.

“So he never got to win one as a starter but he treasured it because he was beginning to wonder if it would ever come,” Richie says.

Split loyalty
Ger Feeney was from Ballintubber and continued to play with the club even after he moved to Castlebar but his children all went along to play with the Mitchels growing up.

“There was never any split loyalty for us,” Feeney recalls. “The funny thing is I am living in Ballintubber now...I did up my grandmother’s house and am living there. Our cousins are involved in Ballintubber and there has always been a great rivalry there.”

In the autumn of 2010, Ballintubber and Castlebar made it through to the Mayo senior final. It was to have been an unbelievable occasion for the extended Feeney clan. Richie Feeney was Castlebar captain. His cousin John was captain of Ballintubber. Either way, a Feeney would lift the Moclair Cup.

Less than a fortnight before the final, Ger Feeney set off with his friend Donal McEllin for a trip from Westport to Inishbofin on McEllin’s motor cruiser. They spent Saturday evening on Inishbofin but got into difficulty while returning by dinghy from the harbour to the cruiser.

The bodies of both men were discovered on Sunday morning. Alan Feeney was in New York. Richie Feeney was training with Castlebar. Tom Cunniffe, a nephew of Donal McEllin, was also at training. When the club chairman began walking across the pitch towards Richie, he sensed that something was wrong but his immediate thought was for his brother in New York.

Life jackets
McEllin and Feeney had made many such trips and were experienced. There had been no cause for concern. Both had been wearing life jackets. Feeney had also been wearing a Mitchels’ club jacket. The news stilled the county and made the final between both towns seem an irrelevance.

“Donal was mad into Mitchels. He really put everything into the club. And dad had been on a high after the semi-final. I think we had a league game due before we had the county final and the week after we buried dad, Peter Ford rang us and asked us what we would like to do: they would cancel the game or go ahead if we would prefer to play. And Alan and myself just decided that we needed to get out on the pitch again. Dad was always there, bringing us to training, buying us our first boots. You remember that kind of thing. He would make it to college games or Mayo U-21s and was a big, constant influence on us.”

Castlebar lost the 2010 final and lost again the following year. James Horan’s brilliant turn with Ballintubber, guiding them from the intermediate to the senior championship, led to him being offered the Mayo senior post. He brought the Feeney brothers into his panel.

Richie had, as he puts it, been “in and out” of panels for years but Horan backed the brothers and they made their debut against London in 2011.

Richie Feeney was 28, almost a decade older than his father had been when he started playing for Mayo. Just two months later, they won their first Connacht medals. Richie has since become an integral part of the Mayo team that has pushed desperately hard for a senior All-Ireland under Horan.

The decision not to bring him in from the bench during last year’s All-Ireland final against Dublin was controversial. Afterwards, there were rumours of a row between Feeney and management, which the player later dismissed.

“It was tough. You do put a lot into it and not getting on on the day is extremely disappointing. But it is more about losing the thing. You don’t care who comes on or who scores...there were six or seven other lads on the panel who didn’t get games in the championship. Everyone can’t play.”

But Feeney had the consolation of returning to a highly motivated club squad. He had kept tabs on the team all summer and knew from speaking with Pat Holmes that the players were ready to take the extra step. Mitchels weren’t exactly on fire against Breaffy but winning that final liberated them to just go and express themselves. They haven’t stopped.

Friends and relatives
So now he finds himself back in Croke Park. His mother Kathleen and sister Claire will be in the crowd and friends and relatives from Ballintubber will be there too. The support from across Mayo has been phenomenal. On the day when Mitchels travelled to play Dr Crokes in Portlaoise, they stopped in the Hodson Bay hotel and bumped into some of the St Brigid’s players who went out of their way to wish them luck. “And you could tell that they would be delighted for us if we could go on. That meant a lot.”

This would have been the day of days for Ger Feeney and he will, of course, be on their minds. The idea of his boys playing in a club final in Croke Park would have been perfect.

“It does make it special, yeah. Dad never saw us playing for Mayo because we were late enough making our debuts. But in Croke Park, you do get the feeling he is looking out for us.”

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