Monday 18 December 2017

In the name of the father lights way for Feeney

Castlebar Mitchels star aiming to continue proud family legacy with Connacht success

Richie Feeney in action for Mayo during their victory over Roscommon in this year’s Connacht SFC semi-fina
Richie Feeney in action for Mayo during their victory over Roscommon in this year’s Connacht SFC semi-fina
Helping to carry the coffin of his late father, Ger
Ger Feeney
James Horan

Christy O'Connor

RICHIE FEENEY can vividly recall the last time Castlebar Mitchels were in a Connacht final. He was 10. His father Ger was a selector, which heightened his awareness.

Clann na nGael had won seven of the previous 11 Connacht club titles, but Castlebar finally took them down after a replay.

Feeney can picture the collage of colour and the explosion of emotion it triggered. In his mind's eye, he can still see the happiness in his father's eyes. The delirium in the club's soul. Castlebar were Connacht champions for the first time.

Nemo Rangers thumped them in the All-Ireland final the following March, but it would still have been almost inconceivable for Castlebar to contemplate that a potential slide was imminent and that a slope could possibly carry them as easily as it did.

Yet when they lost their footing so close to the summit, they tumbled all the way to the bottom and landed in a heap.

Twenty years went by in a blink. They lost the following year's county final to Hollymount and didn't appear in a final again for 16 years. Castlebar lost successive finals in 2010 and 2011.

They bombed in last year's championship. Serial defeat was even harder to reconcile given their dominance at underage level. Something had to give. It eventually did.

"There was just a complete change of attitude and approach this year," says Feeney. "Everyone upped their game. Everyone realised they needed to give that bit extra.

"It was just a collective decision. The wait couldn't go on any longer. We all realised that we needed to buck up or we might miss this chance."

Victory against Breaffy last month finally ended the longest drought Castlebar had experienced since the early part of the last century. The chains were cast off. The Connacht club championship felt like liberation.

"You could see in the Corofin game that there was a massive weight lifted off our shoulders," says Feeney. "We just went out and played football. If we keep working hard, we know we can beat anyone."

Fourteen minutes into that Connacht semi-final, the Mitchels were listing on the swells and dips. Corofin had whipped up a frenzied tide. They were five points ahead. Cruising. Comfortable.

CANNONBALLS

Then Castlebar discharged two cannonballs into Corofin's hull within the space of four minutes. Feeney bagged the first goal. Niall Lydon slammed in the second. The flow had completely turned. Corofin were slowly going under.

Feeney was the best player on the pitch with a typical performance – busy, industrious, productive.

Any competitive footballer will play to his limit in a testing environment, but watching Feeney against Corofin, it was easy to wonder if he was playing for more than just the win. It was almost as if he was trying to prove something to himself, and somebody else.

Feeney has been a kind of cause celebre within Mayo since the All-Ireland final. Along with the early substitution of Alan Freeman, Feeney's non-appearance is one of gaping questions of Mayo manage James Horan's sideline decisions from that game.

There are more angles than a compass to the whole Feeney debate and where he could, and should, have fitted in. He was an obvious choice for corner-back when Tom Cunniffe went off at half-time. Yet Horan and his selectors chose to bring Keith Higgins back in to defence, even though he had been excellent in the half-forward line.

Cathal Carolan was an obvious forward replacement because he had been playing really well in training. Yet, given the trend of the game, it was difficult to see how Feeney could not have made more of an impact than other players who were introduced.

He should have been deployed at centre-forward ahead of Enda Varley. Feeney could also have featured at midfield ahead of Barry Moran because the game Dublin were playing – especially with Stephen Cluxton's kick-out strategy – was never going to suit Moran.

Feeney is a complete utility player, but the team's biggest difficulty was their transition from defence to attack. They needed more of a code-breaker, someone who could change the game with precise kick-passing.

There are few players in the Mayo squad more adept in that role than Feeney. His omission was even harder to figure, given his track record as an impact sub in big games dating back to last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.

That was another reason why his non-appearance in this year's final triggered a raft of rumours in the county afterwards. "It was being said that I drove to the All-Ireland final on my own," says Feeney. "There was talk of a big bust-up in the camp. All of those rumours were completely untrue."

Feeney was disappointed he never got a chance against Dublin, but there was no point expending any more emotional energy when he didn't.

"When you don't get a run, you are obviously disappointed," he says. "Maybe you feel yourself that you could have done something to make a difference. The manager just tried other things on the day.

"That is just the way it is and there is nothing you can do about it. You have to respect the manager's decision."

If anything, the disappointment has only strengthened Feeney's resolve. This Mayo team's reflex response to adversity has always been to go again and try to improve. To come back better and stronger.

"I don't think the defeat is going to have that much of an effect on us," says Feeney. "This group of players are just so driven that we are not going to give up until we get there. I don't see any reason why we can't win next year's All-Ireland.

"We lost two county finals with the club before we eventually won it. It could take one or two more All-Ireland finals with Mayo before we win one. But we will get there."

Although he is now 30, Feeney first joined this Mayo team at its inception under James Horan.

When he made his debut against London in 2011, he was the fifth eldest player to make his debut for the county.

When Feeney won his first Connacht medal two months later, alongside his brother Alan, it was the most emotional footballing day of his life.

"My father won just one Connacht title during a hard time for Mayo football," he says. "He really treasured that medal. So it was very special for both of us to win one so soon after his death."

Ger Feeney was widely renowned for his footballing ability. He won a minor All-Ireland title in 1971 and an U-21 medal in 1974. He played over 70 times for the senior team in a career that stretched for more than a decade. He was twice selected as an All Star replacement, earning the Player of the Tour award in 1975.

A year later, he captained his native Ballintubber to the Mayo intermediate title. When he moved to Castlebar years later, he signed up with the Mitchels.

One of the happiest times of his life was when Ballintubber and Castlebar qualified for the 2010 county final. His two sons were Castlebar captain and vice-captain, while his nephew John was Ballintubber captain.

Just a week before that final was due to be played, the bodies of Feeney and his great friend Donal McEllin were recovered from Inishbofin harbour.

The two men had travelled by motor cruiser from outside Westport and arrived in Inishbofin, just off the north Galway coast. They had planned to travel on to Galway and berth at the city harbour.

They left the island on a dinghy some time after midnight to travel back to their motor cruiser, but the men got into difficulty at some stage during the return journey.

A fisherman made the grim discovery of one of the bodies at a beach in the inner harbour after 11.0.

Castlebar were training and, by that stage, Richie, and McEllin's nephew, Tom Cunniffe were on the pitch, still unaware of the tragedy. Alan was with the Mayo squad in New York for the FBD league final.

"I had no bad feeling that morning," says Richie. "I didn't hear any rumours or anything, but when I looked back afterwards, it was obvious that people knew before me.

"When I turned up for training, there were a few senior club members there looking at me suspiciously. We were on the pitch when I saw the club chairman approach me.

"With Alan in New York, that was the first thing that came into my head. I was wondering if something had happened to him.

"The last person I expected to hear bad news about was dad."

Feeney and McEllin regularly made trips to Inishbofin and surrounding islands such as Clare and Inisturk on McEllin's 41-foot motor cruiser, 'Quo Vadis.'

A qualified pilot, swimming and scuba diving were McEllin's other passions, but football and the Mitchels defined his existence. That enthusiasm cemented his relationship with Feeney.

When Feeney's body was discovered, he was wearing a Mitchels jacket. He had worn the same jacket after the county semi-final the previous week.

"I remember meeting dad coming off the field after that semi-final," says Feeney. "Everything was going great. We were all on a high.

"Dad loved watching us play, he loved going to the games and he loved having the craic afterwards. It was devastating for us, but it really affected the club as well, especially with Donie. The club lost two great members. There was a dark cloud hanging over the place for a long time afterwards."

INSPIRATION

Feeney now lives in the house where his father grew up in Ballintubber. He also farms some land there. His father and his uncle Christy are buried side by side just over the road in Ballintubber Abbey.

It's a trek Feeney regularly makes before big games. "You would go up there and look to them for advice before games," says Feeney.

"To try and get some inspiration. Maybe get a feel for what they might say to you."

Scanning the Mayo archives, the monochrome photographs and sepia-tinted images from a forest of old newspapers, there is a picture of the late Ger Feeney in one of his happiest moments. He is surrounded by his Ballintubber team-mates as he accepts the County Intermediate League Cup in 1980 after they had beaten Crossmolina.

Richie Feeney is only marginally older now than his father was then and the resemblance is obvious.

The colour of the jersey is all that has really changed in the meantime. The Feeney passion and drive for football endures.

Twenty years on from when they celebrated the Mitchels greatest day alongside him, his sons are chasing that glory again on Sunday. Twenty years on, Ger Feeney's immense legacy shines more brightly than ever.

Irish Independent

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