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London’s darkness before the dawn

London - 1995
London – 1995

There’s a moment from my time playing football with London that has stuck with me for many years and it demonstrates the huge leap the county team have taken over the past three years or so.

Back in 1997 I was walking along Jones’ Road after an All-Ireland Final when a former club mate jumped on my back and started screaming: “It’s JC, London’s Number One!”

Straight away I had to tell my inebriated mate to tone it down a bit. I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was the bloke who played in goals for London.

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Now, that is a terrible assessment of an activity to which I dedicated well over a decade of my life, but it was also a very honest assessment.

As much as I loved playing for London, and as committed as I was, I never felt the pride that should be associated with something in which I invested so much time. That said, though, a quick look at the results over that period would provide all the evidence required to understand why I would feel such a way.

Given the developments over the past few years with the county football team, and especially those of the past two months, hopefully this will never be a feeling the current London players experience.

Of course it was never meant to be like that. Back when we first entered the National League in 1993, London had a pretty settled and well-established group of players.

In fact, in an interview with one of the Sunday papers, manager PJ McGinley stressed just how settled that squad was, stating how 12 of the 24 players in the panel owned their own houses in London. If there is any gesture that suggests an intention to stick around, then it is buying your own home.

However, away from the training field in Greenford, far from the torturous Paddy Carr run around Horsenden Hill or the gym we were using at Ealing Hospital, something was happening that was rocking the foundations of this settled team.

Across the Irish Sea, Ireland was developing a robust economy and the message being sent out around the world was that there was plenty of work and opportunity there for anyone who wanted it. Most lads didn’t need to be asked twice.

And the impact of that development was crushing on the London county team. Between the Championship games of 1993 (against Sligo) and 1994 (against Galway), London had managed to hold on to nine of their starting 15.

By the time Roscommon came to town in 1995 only four of the 1994 team remained — myself, Paschal Cullen, Tommy Maguire and Eamonn Prenter; and so a pattern was established.

This though wasn’t the end of the damage being inflicted on London football. Sadly, it was merely the beginning of the end.

In front of me I have a list of 22 football clubs that disappeared from the GAA landscape in the decade that followed.

Their disappearance was indicative of what was happening to football across the capital; names such as Acton Gaels, Geraldines, Shannon Rovers, Sam Maguires, St Agnes’s, O’Connell Boys, Western Exiles and South & O’Hanlons, the list goes on.

Times were so good in Ireland that only those who wanted to seek pastures new were leaving, while anyone who was really serious about their football stayed there.

And London suffered more than most other satellite states of the Association, as we played in the very public arena of the National League and Championship and people everywhere had an opinion on our team.

The scale of our demise could be monitored each week courtesy of the results round-up on a Sunday evening.

For many years, as football went backwards in London, the calls went up, both here and in Ireland, for the Exiles to be removed from the League and the Championship. To many we were nothing more than an expensive embarrassment.

Of course there was some merit in the argument as the tables and results didn’t paint a pretty picture.

Yet, there was one important point that was being overlooked, and that was that Ireland wasn’t always going to be booming (despite what Bertie kept telling everyone), and when the boom turned to bust, then London would be back.

I always argued that we had a duty to make sure there was still a senior county football team here for when that day arrived. Granted we were the one’s suffering at the time, but I always felt that our suffering would be rewarded.

And now, thanks to the commitment of the scores of lads who have represented London during the years of the Celtic Tiger, the county is still in the position to offer inter-county football to a hugely different breed of player that is coming into town these days.

As already mentioned, since the mid-1990s, only those who wanted to come to London came, while those totally focused on their football stayed in Ireland.

Nowadays, the fellas arriving over are excellent players, many with inter-county experience, but who also have to leave Ireland as they search for work.

The benefit of having such good players is that, in theory at least, it should be easier to make a good team.

One of the other great pluses for London at present is that they have someone like Paul Coggins in charge.

Coggs has been with London since Day One of the National League adventure in ’93. Back then he was an obliging and talented young forward playing with a modest Intermediate club, the Desmonds.

However, after joining Tir Chonaill Gaels in 1996, Coggins became used to playing his football in an environment that was geared towards winning.

Coggins has absorbed everything that has gone on around him in his time playing under the likes of Tommy McDermott, PJ McGinley, Maurice Carr, John McParland and Chris Lloyd.

He has also gone off and educated himself in the world of football management, by talking to the right people, asking the right questions and most importantly, listening to their answers.

The end result is a capable manager ready to manage the capable group of players that he now has at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens over the remaining games for the London senior team in 2013, it’s unlikely any of them will be embarrassed to be publicly identified as playing for London in the way that I was.

Entering the league next year, many people will quietly fancy London for promotion out of Division Four, the first time a promotion would have been achieved by the London footballers.

That’s not jumping the gun, it is just the way people will think.

On top of that, their game against Roscommon next year in the Championship will come loaded with expectation. This will be a new phenomenon for the county, but it is one that should be — and no doubt will be — embraced.

But the impact of all of this will also go further.

Whichever team wins the London senior football championship this year will be facing the Ulster club champions with a far greater belief that they can break the hoodoo that this competition holds over this county.

Regardless of who wins in London, players who lined up against Sligo and Leitrim will feature in that All-Ireland quarter-final, and with them they will bring the knowledge that they can win big games.

It is no coincidence that after the London hurlers won their first Nicky Rackard Cup in 2005 in Croke Park, Robert Emmetts were back at the same venue 18 months later to lift the All-Ireland Intermediate Club Championship; many players appeared in both victories.

For years as I trawled through the various GAA internet discussion boards, all I ever read was negative comments towards the London football team. To the uniformed and occasional downright ignorant, the L in London stood for Loserville.

Thanks to the efforts of the London team in the past three years, that consensus is changing.

London is now a city of football opportunity, perfect for players who wish to carry on playing at inter-county level competitively away from home.

As a possible destination, London is unique. While the likes of Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco or New York can offer many great life experiences, none of them give the opportunity to continue to operate as an inter-county footballer.

Provided the GAA in London manage this opportunity in a constructive and sensible manner, this could well be the start of something incredibly special for the GAA in the city, something like what we had hoped it would be when we entered the league back in 1993.

It’s been a long time coming… but then, many of us always knew it would be.


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One comment on “London’s darkness before the dawn”

  1. Niall Erskine

    Excellent column yet again John.


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