By Damian Dolan
Declan Meehan admits to being slightly apprehensive as he waited to learn whether Wandsworth Gaels’ dream would falter before they’d even kicked a ball in anger.
After months of hard work, and with 25 plus lads out training for a good number of weeks, it would have been hugely disappointing for all concerned had the club not got the outcome it desired at last month’s London county board meeting.
It had already been four long weeks since Declan had addressed delegates at February’s meeting, making the utmost of the few minutes afforded him to convey the club’s vision. This he did with a passion.
He needn’t have worried. London county board delegates voted overwhelming in favour of welcoming in its newest club.
“It was a very warm welcome to get right out of the gate, said Declan, who came to London in 2003 and played for Tir Chonaill Gaels as well as representing London.
“It was just what we needed at the right time. We’ve been training away for the last two months and there’s been great enthusiasm – a lot of work has been put in by a lot of people. It’s been a real group effort.”
The outcome will have come as little surprise, though, to anyone present at February’s meeting. Declan’s passionate words were backed up by a slick brochure helping to ‘crystallise the vision’, while its choice of a charity to appear on the front of its playing shirt is a refreshing change of direction.
In addition, the club has a training pitch organised for the season in Battersea Park, and long-term plans to bring competitive matches back to the Borough of Wandsworth, which was once home to Clann na Gael Hurling Club.
In Tooting Bec Common, Wandsworth Common or Clapham Common, they certainly aren’t short of options.
All of which gave a glimpse into the level of serious planning and thought which has gone in to getting the fledgling club this far.
“It would be great for London GAA if they had another pitch in that part of town. There’s a lot of London people gravitating towards this area [Battersea],” said Declan, who is the club’s PRO.
That’s one for the future of course. For now, they’ll play all of their matches away from home.
The Tir Chonaill Gaels influence isn’t limited solely to Declan. Former Gaels’ Ronan Walsh, James O’Connell, Steven Boyle, Fergus Horan and Stephen Owens are also on board. Along with Declan, they’re the ‘older boys’ on the panel.
It was O’Connell who first suggested forming a club – an idea which came out of ‘the guts of 20 lads working on one development in Battersea’ last summer and the need for an ‘outlet’.
“My first reaction was ‘you just don’t do that’. But it was a great idea and credit to him because if he hadn’t said it, we wouldn’t have got the ball rolling,” said Declan.
Meehan himself trained with Dulwich Harps last summer, but found the logistical difficulties ‘too much of a commitment’.
“The opportunity just didn’t exist for lads in this area, and there are so many lads based in this borough who are young and into their sport. The place was crying out for a Gaelic football or hurling club,” he said.
Meehan and O’Connell both put out a ‘few feelers’. The response they receive pointed towards a ‘massive appetite’ for a club.
The wheels firmly in motion, they made contact with the London County Board. Secretary Mark Gottsche helped ‘steer’ the club through the month of December.
On 5th January 2018 Wandsworth Gaels held its first AGM in the Hawkins Forge Public house, in Wandsworth.
“When you’ve got good people involved a lot can happen very quickly, and that’s what happened. You need people who are up for it, and up for a bit of work,” said Declan.
Since then the club has ‘taken off like a rocket’, driven by a ‘hungry group of lads who are keen to organise themselves’. The average age of the committee is early 30s, while the club’s manager, Colm O’Connor from Cork, is 29.
They found a pitch and a couple of balls, and with 25 lads ‘chomping at the bit’ started training. They found sponsors and ordered their kit, even though they knew they’d have to wait until March to discover if they were to be affiliated.
“Looking back, it’s not about what you won, it’s the fact that you’re still friends with these fellas 15 years later,” said Declan.
“Most of us older lads haven’t played for a couple it years, and you soon realise what you’ve missed when you get back into that training environment. It’s been very energising for those five or six older boys.
“Then you’ve got these younger lads who are full of enthusiasm and just need a bit of structure and direction, which us older lads can provide.”
The squad is a good mix of old heads and youthful vigour, and as well as Irish and English lads, includes boys from Australia, New Zealand, Italy, South Korea and Albania.
“It’s not about winning at all costs – it’s about giving local lads a chance,” added Declan.
“It’s the right place at the right time. It [recruitment] is taking care of itself. We’ve only just started so I think our biggest problem will be trying to pick a team and keep everyone happy.”
Declan is equally positive about the club’s future, believing Wandsworth Gaels has the potential to now go on to be ‘whatever it wants to be’.
“The amount of regeneration and work in this area, and the close proximity with Clapham, it’s a very happening area. I’ve no doubt that this club will be going strong in two years time.”
It will be fascinating to track their progress.
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