By Damian Dolan
Good things come to those who wait, and Ciaran Houlihan is proof of that. Eight years after he was first called into the London senior set up, by then manager Paul Coggins, the Harlesden Harps man finally made his competitive inter-county debut in the Exiles’ stunning eight-point win over Wexford.
If that wasn’t enough, he duly came off the bench to score London’s crucial second goal with his very first touch. Now, that’s the way to announce yourself on the inter-county stage.
Killian Butler – chasing a second goal of the afternoon – claimed it, but there was no way Houlihan was going to give it up. The half forward arriving late and rising highest to fist the ball into a gaping Wexford net.
It was a moment that had been a very, very long time in coming for Houlihan, now 30.
A member of the last London team to win a provincial junior title in 2009, a combination of long-term injuries, being overlooked and travelling saw the next ten years slip by.
“When I was named to start against Gweedore in the challenge match last month I said to Liam Gavaghan ‘it’s only taken ten years’. He said ‘better late than never’,” Houlihan told the Irish World.
“I’m really happy to be involved, even though it’s taken a long time. I don’t think Ciaran Deely realised how old I was. He might change his mind when he finds out.”
Houlihan added: “There was a little bit of a dispute over the goal. I was pretty sure I got the fist on it, but Killian being Killian he was trying to claim it.
“But we looked on the video and I’ve definitely risen above Killian and got my hand to it.
“He made the GAA Team of the Week and another goal for him would have looked better, but I’m still not giving it to him!”
It gave London their first victory since they beat Wicklow just over a year ago, but you’d scarcely have known it from the muted celebrations at the final whistle.
For Houlihan, the win was tempered by a feeling amongst the team that it was overdue.
“We were very disappointed against Limerick and Derry, against whom the margin was seven points. But we kicked the ball away 27 times – it was ridiculous,” said Houlihan, who also found the net in London’s narrow defeat to All-Ireland Club SFC finalists Gweedore.
“While it was nice to beat Wexford, we feel we should have another ‘W’. We’re disappointed to only have one win.”
London trailed by a point at the break against the Model County (0-6 to 0-5), with the visitors having had first use of the wind.
It was the Exiles who got stronger and stronger as the game went on, with Killian Butler’s goal quickly followed by Houlihan’s fisted effort, to ensure a first win of the campaign.
“We knew the wind would be worth points and to go in one-point down – we knew we would come strong in the second half,” said Houlihan.
“There was a quiet confidence in the changing room that we would come out and do what we did, and we tore them apart.
“Ciaran [Deely] is all about us controlling possession and working players in to the game…..and then hitting on the counter. We did that in opening ten minutes of the second half.”
Houlihan was just a ‘pup’ when he was part of the last London junior team to win a provincial title – Kevin Kelly’s heroes of 2009.
Forced to sit out the final having dislocated his shoulder in the semi-final, Houlihan returned for the All-Ireland junior semi-final with Roscommon at Dr Hyde Park. Roscommon won 0-14 to 0-5.
Four years later, of course, Coggins’ London senior team would enjoy a famous day on the same ground, beating Leitrim in their Connacht SFC semi-final replay.
“I always enjoyed playing junior. It was nice to win it in 2009 and to get to travel over to Ireland to play in an All-Ireland semi-final was a good experience, especially as a youngster,” he said.
“If you’re not getting an opportunity with the seniors, then the juniors is a good thing. But clubs need to take it more seriously and release players. A lot don’t like their players playing junior because of injuries.
“But it’s a chance to be spotted and maybe selected for the seniors.”
After being called up by Coggins in 2011, a hip injury ruled him out for the next two years. He would need three operations.
After returning to play junior in 2013, he was drafted back into the senior set-up by Coggins the following year, only to be dropped off the panel. Houlihan concedes his attitude wasn’t “great” at the time.
“Coggins never really fancied me,” jokes Houlihan, who was then struck down with another long-term injury.
He helped Harlesden reach an intermediate championship final in 2016, only to lose out to Neasden Gaels, before heading to Australia.
It was while he was playing for Wolfe Tones in Melbourne that a fire was lit within Houlihan to give inter-county one last go.
“Wolfe Tones were full of lads who’d played county back in Ireland and I was holding my own. I thought ‘maybe my legs aren’t gone and if I give it another go I might be in with a shout’,” said Houlihan.
When he came back to London in January 2018 he messaged Exiles captain Liam Gavaghan and offered his services to “help make up numbers” at training. He even played in an ‘A’ versus ‘B’ game in Watford.
But then disaster. While the London senior team headed to a training camp, Houlihan stayed behind to get some game time with Harlesden. In his first game back for the club he damaged ankle ligaments.
Inter-county hopes dashed for another year, he returned later in the summer to help the Harps to league success – beating Tir Chonaill Gaels in the League Division 3 final.
Injury setbacks behind him, Houlihan joined up with Deely’s panel in November and he’s enjoying been part of the ‘homegrown revolution’ within the set-up.
When London reached the Connacht final in 2013, Philip Butler was the only homegrown player in the team. London started with six homegrown players against Wexford, with Houlihan and Liam Gallagher both making an appearance off the bench.
“It’s great to be part of it, especially with Liam as captain. It’s good to have Michael (Maher) involved – that encourages the London-born players as well, and (strength and conditioning coach) Ross Bennett,” said Houlihan, whose parents come from Kildare.
“To have 10 or 12 lads down at training who are all from London is encouraging.”
Houlihan and London now head to Belfast on Sunday looking to carry the momentum of that win over Wexford, which propelled them up to fifth in the Division 4 table.
Houlihan wants more wins, but is understandably wary of an Antrim side who are still searching for a first victory.
The devil is in the detail, though, as two of their three loses were by the bare minimum at the hands of table toppers Derry and Leitrim. The other was a four-point defeat to Wexford.
The Exiles have never previously beaten Antrim in six attempts. Relegated from Division 3 in 2017, the Saffrons had four points to spare over the Exiles at McGovern Park last year.
But then again, London had never previously beaten Wexford before the events of last week.
“They’re a good team Antrim, but we’re looking forward to it and we’ll be targeting it for more points,” said Houlihan.
“We’re hoping to win all of our remaining games and be in with a shout, and the way the league has gone, everyone’s beating everyone.
“We’re a confident bunch of lads. Killian and Liam are both very confident and they’re two of the best players in the league.”
And that confidence isn’t built upon quicksand. Gavaghan is in the top ten points scorers in the National League while London are one of only two teams still yet to concede a goal after the opening three rounds. The other is Division 3 pacesetters Longford.
The team is growing with every game and the Exiles can also look forward to the return of corner forward Fearghal McMahon – arguably London’s best player in 2018 – who pulled a hamstring against Limerick.
“We’ve got confidence in our forwards, we’re confident in our system and we haven’t conceded a goal,” added Houlihan.
Roll on Sunday and Antrim.