The 1995 day Ruislip played host to an All Ireland senior hurling championship quarter-final, with 70 minutes separating London’s hurlers from a crack at defending Liam MacCarthy champions Offaly
“We blew it, we blew it,” former London hurler Tom Galway says bluntly. The intervening 25 years have clearly done little to soften the Wexford man’s appraisal of the events which took place at Ruislip on 23 July, 1995.
On a historic occasion – the first and only time an All Ireland senior hurling quarter-final has been staged outside of Ireland – 70 minutes was all that separated Tommy Harrell’s London from a Croke Park semi-final date with Liam MacCarthy holders Offaly.
Picture that; London walking out at Croker alongside the defending champions in an All Ireland semi-final.
But the Exiles couldn’t grasp the opportunity, losing by seven points to Down, and an enticing prospect was allowed to disappear.
“It was a pity..…it would be my one regret. We had chances enough,” says Galway ruefully.
That from a man who in 1996 chose to remain in London, and in doing so missed out on a place on the Wexford panel that went on to lift the Liam MacCarthy that year.
Tom Galway knows a thing or two about regret, it’s fair to say.
For prestige, few Ruislip days can rival 1995, since the ground first opened its gates to GAA in 1979.
But the hosting of Down that July afternoon 25 years ago remains a unique and historic, but perhaps slightly overlooked, footnote in the history of London GAA.
London’s journey to reach such a point had been long. After being demoted from the All Ireland Senior Championship in 1975, London’s hurlers were cast into the Senior ‘B’.
The decision to ‘relegate’ London came on the back of a comprehensive 16-point defeat to Galway at Athlone in 1974 – revenge for the Exiles’ famous victory the previous year in Ballinasloe.
A forerunner to the Christy Ring and Joe McDonagh, the Senior ‘B’ ran from 1975 to 2004.
London suffered ten successive ‘B’ final defeats, at the hands of Westmeath (twice), Kerry (twice), Laois (twice), Antrim (three) and Kildare, before finally getting over the line against Meath in 1985.
The reward for the ‘B’ winner was an All Ireland quarter-final. Antrim did for London hopes in 1985 and 1987, just as Galway did in 1988 and 1990.
All four of those quarter-finals, however, took place in Ireland, just like London’s senior quarter and semi-finals between 1969 and 1974.
But in 1995, Ruislip would stage the tie, as Tommy Harrell’s Senior ‘B’ champions, armed with a 22-year-old Andy Comerford in their ranks, took on Down.
There have been larger attended games at Ruislip over the years, the visits of Mayo or Galway in the Connacht Championship, or those of the Sam Maguire or Liam MacCarthy champions to strut their stuff in exhibition games, but there have been few ‘bigger games’ than 23 July, 1995.
Narrowly beaten in the last four All Ireland Senior ‘B’ finals, London’s hurlers began 1995 with one goal in mind, to get back to the final.
In May 1993, London’s footballers were accepted into the National League for the first time. By April of the following year, the county’s hurlers were set to join them.
Harrell’s side would have a Division Three league campaign, comprising eight matches, to prepare them for a tilt at the championship.
Although a one-point defeat to Roscommon at Ruislip cost them the chance of a play-off with Westmeath for promotion, overall it was a successful first league venture for London’s hurlers.
The Exiles were dealt a blow in April, though, with the news that star man Timmy Maloney was to return home to Tipperary.
Named London Hurler of the Year by the London Supporters Club in 1995, Maloney captained Tipp at Minor and skippered Cashel Kingcormacks in an All Ireland Club final in 1992. In London, he won two senior titles with Sean Treacys.
After London’s final league game – a facile win over Monaghan – the Irish World summed up the conundrum for Exiles boss Tommy Harrell.
“To date, there is little evidence that there is a replacement there that can fill the awesome shoes of Maloney,” said the Irish World.
To compound matters, Clareman Martin Baker also departed following Monaghan, leaving two big holes in London’s forward line for Harrell to fill.
To the All Ireland Senior ‘B’ then after a winter campaign of “much promise if little riches”.
London began their assault with a semi-final clash with New York at Croke Park – a curtain-raiser to the Leinster championship semi-finals.
The league had given Harrell’s men exactly what they wanted, a “cutting edge”. Wicklow waited on the horizon, if the Exiles could first get past New York.
London, though, had been left to stew on that home defeat to Roscommon, which cost them the chance of promotion to Division Two.
Harrell added five new faces to his panel for the championship – Willie Lohan (St Gabriel’s), Freddie Moran (Brothers Pearse), Donal Murphy (St Gabriel’s), Tommy Corbett (Brian Boru) and Tom Galway (Fr Murphy’s).
Moran and Murphy had previously pulled on a London jersey.
The previous year, Corbett captained the Clare Under 21 team while Galway had played Under 21 for Wexford.
London had defeated New York at the same stage of the 1994 Senior ‘B’ at Ruislip, by 1-18 to 2-9.
New York had three ex-senior county players in their team in Ian Conroy, John Madden (both Tipperary) and Ray Sampson (Limerick).
Croker could be the difference this time. As the Irish World said in its preview “there is a big difference between playing before a couple of one hundred people in Ruislip, and 40,000 in Croke Park”.
A fact not lost on Harrell, who said: “This is going to be the biggest day in some of my player’s lives, so I won’t have to worry about motivating them at all.”
Play to their potential and London should have enough to make it to the final, seemed to be the feeling.
But the Irish World also cut a cautious tone. For London, this was a trip into the unknown, and such journeys are “normally fraught with danger”.
“There are 11 counties left in the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup,” began the Irish World’s match report of the New York game, “and London is still one of them”.
London’s “nerve-tingling” two-point win over New York (4-12 to 5-7) on 25 June was the cause for such proclamation.
London and New York would be the appetiser for the Leinster semi-finals – Offaly versus Wexford, and Kilkenny against Dublin.
“It was just great to play in Croke Park,” recalls Tom Galway. “It was being developed at the time. The Cusack Stand was finished, but the Hogan Stand hadn’t been knocked [down].
He added: “It was probably the hottest day of that summer – you were sweating just togging out, let alone playing.”
Tom had played there before, with Wexford Minors. He was also a freetaker, and it was he that Harrell entrusted with taking over the baton from the departed Timmy Maloney.
“I said, ‘right ok!’,” recalls Galway, who was totally unphased by the prospect.
“I was a cocky arrogant little sh*t! That wouldn’t phase me – all I can do is put the ball down and put it over the bar,” he says. “I thrived on pressure.
“Whether you play for London, New York or Kilkenny, what kid doesn’t want to be taking frees in Croke Park. That’s what all the practice is for.”
He adds: “And Tommy would have backed me to the hilt. He’d have given me the confidence – ‘you know you can do it, so just do it’.”
Tom Galway remembers confiding in a teammate that it would be “nice and handy” if London could get an early goal, and if his first free attempt could be dead straight in front of the posts.
The hurling gods were clearly listening. London started in “whirlwind fashion”, bursting into a 2-5 to 0-1 lead – with Tom Galway and Michael Cunningham scoring the goals.
When it comes to inter-county debuts, Tom Galway’s is in a league of its own – a goal with his very first touch at Croke Park.
His first free? Well, that was 30 yards out, bang in front of the posts, just as he’d requested.
“We couldn’t have started any better. We flew into it and you thought we were going to win by 20 points,” he says.
If that wasn’t enough, Tom Galway had only made his debut for Fr Murphy’s the previous week.
“I was working in the bank and I didn’t even bring a hurley over to London with me – I wasn’t going to play anymore. I was fed up of it,” he said.
“But Tommy (Harrell) could be very persuasive! He then hauled me from the Murphy’s to play with London.”
But New York were a well-prepared side – they’d reportedly spent ten weeks training for this one game – and it began to show.
Cheered on by the Croke Park crowd, who’d adopted them in preference to London, four goals rocked Harrell’s men back, and “emphasised the frailties of the London defence”.
Cunningham’s second goal was much needed and saw London take a 3-8 to 4-2 lead into half-time.
London’s defence improved “dramatically” in the second half, “thanks in no small measure to the gigantic contribution of Andy Comerford”. The centre back “hardly put a foot wrong all afternoon”, wrote the Irish World.
Corbett’s goal nine minutes from the end should have sealed victory, only for New York to answer with their fifth major. The London lead was soon cut to one-point.
“We pulled away early in the second half, but then they came back again,” said Galway.
In the end, London needed a good late save from their goalkeeper, John Farrell, to hold out for a sweet victory.
The Irish World’s reporter had taken particular umbrage at the Croke Park crowd’s favouritism towards their opponents.
“Obviously, London were seen in the role of the old ‘Union Jack waving enemy’ rather than as the Gaels they are, who are doing more to keep Ireland’s ancient sport alive in a foreign environment….” wrote the Irish World.
“The lack of support that they received says more about the collective intelligence of the 17,000 odd that quarter filled Croker on Sunday than any cheer ever could.”
Tom Galway remembers it as just “banter” from the crowd, but says London used it to spur them on.
“We were known as Maggie’s Boys. That would concentrate the mind if you were taking a free – you definitely wouldn’t miss,” he said.
“I’ll never forget Tommy Harrell saying ‘most people out there don’t want to see you win, so stuff it up them’.”
Galway adds: “Tommy was a great man-manager – he knew how to get the best out of every fella. Whether that was a kick up the backside, or an arm around your shoulder. He was very good at it.”
Victory over New York put London on course for an All Ireland Senior ‘B’ final showdown with Wicklow in Portlaoise two weeks later.
Played at O’Moore Park on 2 July, the tie served as a curtain-raiser to Meath and Wicklow in the Leinster Championship semi-final.
“Wicklow had a hell of a following on the day, so it was fairly partisan,” remembers Tom Galway.
London’s players were well aware of the “prize” that awaited if they could get past Wicklow – a historic home All Ireland quarter-final.
“Tommy named a lot of players who’d played for London over the years, and said this was our opportunity,” recalls Galway.
“It would be a very big thing for London to host a game like that.”
With first use of the wind, a Wicklow side containing former Kilkenny All Ireland winner John Henderson, led 0-6 to 0-2 at half-time. Tom Galway with both of London’s scores.
Mick Cunningham pointed within 90 seconds of the restart to set the tone. Donal Murphy goaled in the 41st minute, and Freddie Moran added another just two minutes later.
London won by 2-7 to 0-9 to claim a first Senior ‘B’ title since 1990, but it was a close-run thing says Tom Galway.
With a few minutes to go, the Exiles were holding on to a slender lead. Galway recalls taking the ball into the corner, before hitting it across goal.
He was immediately berated by Harrell, who was racing down the sideline yelling ‘for f**k’s sake, the next ball you get you shoot it’,” laughs Galway. “He was screaming ‘one more score will win it’.”
Soon after, London got a free about 40 yards out.
“I shouted to one of the lads ‘leave it there, I’ll score it’. As I was jogging past John Henderson (now aged 37) he said ‘I don’t think you’ll be able’,” Galway recalls.
“I’d say I never hit one better in my life – it was still rising going over the black spot.
“Mick Cunningham said to Henderson ‘I don’t think you should have said that – he’s an arrogant sh*t. If you tell him he can’t do it, he’ll definitely do it’.”
The Exiles added one more score to close the game out.
Speaking to the Irish World recently, Andy Comerford had no hesitation when asked if that ‘B’ All-Ireland with the Exiles meant as much to him as his three Liam MacCarthy’s with Kilkenny, including one as captain in 2002.
“Without a doubt,” he replied immediately. “There’s not too many lads after winning an All-Ireland ‘A’ and an All-Ireland ‘B’ down through the years.”
To London then the Senior ‘B’ title, but perhaps more significantly the prestige of now hosting a Liam McCarthy quarter-final.
Pat Griffin in his preview of the Down game for the Irish World, wrote: “It is more than ironic that is it one hundred years to the day that the Irish political guru of London organised the first hurling match in the capital under GAA rules that the first All Ireland senior championship game should be played here.”
Griffin applauded the decision of Croke Park to stage the game at Ruislip, to “the benefit of hurling here in general”.
Tom Galway said: “I was so new to London it maybe didn’t have the same reference to me, but for the likes of Tommy Harrell and club officers in London, who’d been keeping it going through thick and thin, it meant an awful lot that an All Ireland quarter-final would be played in Ruislip.”
With Down and Antrim unable to be separated in Ulster, ‘Harrell’s Heroes’, as the team was dubbed, got an extra week’s preparation.
Down, having come back from almost certain defeat in the drawn game, came out on top in the replay by 1-19 to 2-10 at Casement Park on 16 July.
Down had annexed three Ulster titles in recent years and fared well in the league. Three years earlier, they’d lost to Cork by nine points in an All Ireland semi-final.
They were also battle-hardened after trading blows with Antrim.
They were backboned by the likes of goalkeeper Noel Keith – a veteran of the county team for 17 years – Kevin and Gerard Coulter, another stalwart in Paddy Banniff, Noel Sands, Hugh Gilmore and Dermot Woods.
The task before the Exiles was a “mammoth one”, but coming hot on the heels of London’s junior footballers lowering the colours of Kerry at Ruislip, London’s Gaels were optimistic.
And with reason. London’s James O’Donoghue and Damien Power were both part of the Desmonds side which “produced one of the biggest shock defeats in the history of the competition” when they knocked Antrim’s Cushendall out of the club championship at Ruislip in December 1992.
Down travelled “wary of the new-found spirit of the domiciled Gaels”. London had “nothing to lose by giving it a lash” and everything to gain.
Griffin called upon them to be “bold and brave”, and to open their shoulders and “hurl like they did when learning the game in the historic fields of Erin”.
This London team possessed “hearts like tigers” with a spirit to match any found in the hurling heartlands of Cork, Tipperary or Kilkenny. Rousing stuff.
But games of hurling aren’t won with superlatives.
How much would the replay take out of Down? Would travelling to Ruislip affect them? Either way, ‘Harrell’s Heroes’ would be ready.
Although Tom Galway wasn’t part of London’s inaugural league campaign, he could sense it had forged a strong “team bond” amongst the group.
Goalkeeper John Farrell (Tipperary) had represented London for many years, while captain Dan McKenna was a “master hurler” who could still “inspire any team with his racking clearances”.
Tony Lohan (Tipperary) and Noel Hanley (Limerick) completed the full back line.
Andy Comerford had made the centre back position his own following an injury to Liam Long, “a change he is relishing by the majesty of his performance against Wicklow”, wrote the Irish World.
The future Kilkenny captain was flanked by JJ Shiel (Galway) and Declan O’Hanlon – the latter the son of an All Ireland winner with Wexford.
Midfielders Willie Lohan (Tipperary) – brother of Tony – and Damien Power (Clare) were “work horses with occasional touches of class”.
Harrell’s selection headaches were in the forwards.
Claremen James O’Donoghue and Tom Corbett were “all at sea against Wicklow”, but both had pedigree. Indeed, O’Donoghue was described as “unquestionably the finest hurler in the Ruislip era”.
At least Harrell had no doubts over the form of corner forwards Tom Galway and Dubliner Donal Murphy – both had excelled against the Garden County.
“If London had played Wexford that year, I would have fancied us to beat them,” Tom Galway says.
“Andy Comerford was colossal at centre back and nearly every one of that panel had played either Minor, Under 21 or Senior with Tipperary, Wexford, Galway, Clare or Kilkenny.
“The two Lohan brothers, Tony and Willie from Tipperary, were very good. They were first cousins of Brian and Frank Lohan who won All Irelands with Clare.
“Declan O’Hanlon was also very good, while Tommy Corbett had played Minor with Clare a couple of years before.
“Full forward Mick Cunningham was the cutest man I ever played beside. Mick never travelled too far in matches – he mightn’t run 100 yards in a whole game – but he had some head on him.”
He adds: “There were a lot of really good players on that team, and it was a full of characters. It was good Craic.
“I used to room with a fella called Mick O’Meara – he was an absolute gas man. A joker.”
Named among the substitutes against Down was Offaly man Liam Wyer. The Brothers Pearse player sadly passed away in January 2018.
“He was a gentleman – a really nice fella,” said Galway. Tommy Harrell passed away in December of the same year.
For London, though, it was not to be. There would be no parading around Croke Park under the new Cusack Stand on All Ireland semi-final day – their dreams “rudely shattered” by Down.
The weather played its part, drenching Ruislip and the 2,000 crowd in scorching sunshine befitting the occasion – “the temperature soared into the mid 90s” the Down Recorder noted.
But London’s hurlers couldn’t deliver a performance, and a result, to match it.
There was no real cause for alarm by the end of the opening quarter, despite the visitors holding a 0-4 to 0-2 lead. London harrying and hassling their opponents at every opportunity.
But London’s defence was soon having to work overtime to contain their opponents, with the Exiles’ midfield and forward line unable to provide any relief from the growing pressure.
With London trailing by 0-7 to 0-2, Tom Corbett raised a big cheer from the home support with a fine point from 55 metres out, but then proceeded to shoot wide from closer in.
From the puck out, Barry Coulter’s strike was turned over his own bar by London ‘keeper John Farrell.
Michael Cunningham showed his class to reply and London trailed 0-8 to 0-4 with 12 minutes of the half to go. However, the game was won and lost in those remaining first half minutes.
While Down racked up the points, Cunningham, Corbett and Galway all shot wide, to add to Cunningham spurning two goal opportunities.
One of those saw Noel Keith pull off a brilliant save, and then Cunningham opted to kick when he might have passed to the unmarked Tom Galway.
The visitors took a 0-12 to 0-4 lead into half-time. The game, like London’s Croke Park dream, was slowly slipping away.
Harrell used half-time to make several positional changes as he searched desperately for a winning formula.
Captain Dan McKenna raised “a mighty roar from the home followers” as he pointed from all of 80 metres, to open the second half scoring.
Tom Galway followed that with two more points (one free) and the home side were suddenly back in the game, with the gap reduced to just five. But London couldn’t capitalise any further.
Down steadied the ship and as the minutes ticked by a bit of panic crept into London’s game.
Hopes of a comeback disappeared through a combination of “bad marksmanship, careless passing and a lack of real fire”.
Tom Galway got a stick to Damien Power’s long drive, which caused mayhem in the Down rear-guard, only to see the ball go the wrong side of the post.
Down were content to respond to every score London managed, with a minor of their own, to keep the home side firmly at arm’s length.
London desperately needed a goal if they were to seriously eat into Down’s lead, but none was forthcoming.
“I should have scored two goals,” reflects Galway. “One I stuck into the side netting that should have been in the back of the net, and I also had a rasper saved by the ‘keeper that on another day would have flown in.
“How he saved it, 25 years later I still have no idea.”
Down saw the game out, 0-16 to 0-9, to book a semi-final with Offaly.
Andy Comerford was “again outstanding” while he got able support from Dan McKenna, Tony and Willie Lohan, and Noel Hanley. Declan O’Hanlon, Michael Cunningham and Tom Galway also emerged with credit.
“We were well beaten in the end, but we had chances. But nine points isn’t enough to win any game,” said Galway.
“It was over in the last ten minutes – we couldn’t pull it out of the fire, and they knew they’d won.”
He adds: “If we’d played Down again they wouldn’t beat us by seven – it wasn’t a fair reflection of the entire game.”
The Irish World observed: “London lost the game, but the honours gained in the past year remain intact.”
London’s long year was finally over – a year defined by several history making moments.
Down went on to give the champions a game in the semi-final, but Offaly ultimately proved too strong (2-19 to 2-8).
“It would have been some boost for London GAA if we’d got to Croke Park for an All Ireland semi-final,” reflects Tom Galway.
“Not that we’d have beaten Offaly, but I wouldn’t have minded a shot at it!”