By Damian Dolan
It didn’t take too long for Greg McCartan to set his sights on a new goal, once Fulham Irish’s primary target of winning the London Senior Championship had been achieved. Just a brief history lesson.
On Sunday, Fulham Irish will attempt to achieve what no one before them has managed, since the London champions were first ‘welcomed’ into the Club Championship in the mid 70s.
Win the All Ireland Club SFC quarterfinal. So far, it’s proven a game too far for London’s best, although a few have come mightily close over the years, most notably Tir Chonaill Gaels in 1990 when they took Derry’s Lavey to extra-time.
After Saturday, though, the fixture will be no more, with London’s champions to instead try their luck in the Connacht Provincial championship from 2018. All of which was more than enough to light a new fire within McCartan, and his Fulham Irish charges.
“We sat down and said ‘no one’s ever won this game. What an opportunity to really go for it’,” said McCartan. “And the guys have really put a great effort in.
“It’s a huge challenge for us, but it’s one we’re looking forward to. There’s an obvious carrot there for us and we can say ‘look lads, this is the last chance for this’.”
A two-time All Ireland winner with Down, McCartan never took a backward step in his playing days, and he won’t permit his side to do likewise, even if the opposition is Corofin. But the greater the challenge the greater the rewards seems to be McCartan’s philosophy.
“We know it’s going to be a big ask and they’re going to have to have an off day and we’re going to have to have an excellent day,” he said.
“They’ve got marvellous players who are household names back in Ireland…..but our boys won’t be taking a backward step I assure you. I won’t be sending them out there just to fulfil a fixture. We’ll be going out there to try and win the game.”
Kingpins of Galway and Connacht, Corofin will pose a mighty challenge for the London champions, having also gone on to win the All Ireland as recent as 2015 when they beat Derry’s Slaughtneil in the final.
“You can get embroiled in what they’ve won and who they’ve got, but at the end of the day we’ve got to perform and they’ve got to perform,” said McCartan.
“It’s a game most of our players haven’t played in before and won’t play in again, but we’ve got players with experience who’ve been involved with Tyrone, Down and Leitrim.
“So we’re not stupid enough to think it’s going to be easy, at the same time we’re not naive that we’re going to stand back and let them walk all over us. That’s not going to happen.
“They’ll be expected to win. They’ll probably see coming over here as more of a chore than anything else, with flights and having to get time off work. You don’t know what way they’re going to take it.”
The All Ireland Club Championship couldn’t have been further from McCartan’s mind when the squad came together for the first time in February.
The aim back then was to assemble a panel capable of challenging the likes of Tir Chonaill Gaels and holders St Kiernans for the title, and win it.
And after assessing the damage inflicted upon the Fulham squad by London’s ever-revolving door (ten players had left, to be replaced by 12 coming in, including three-time All Ireland winner Owen Mulligan), McCartan was reassured that his goal was an achievable one.
“It was a whole rebuilding process for us. It’s very hard to get it up and running again so quickly, but we were acutely aware that we had some great players coming in,” he said.
“We knew watching some guys, guys you’d never heard of before, in the first two or three nights of training that these were not bad players. That gave us a lot of confidence.”
After failing to make it through to the semi-finals in 2016, Fulham were a different proposition this time around. They topped their group containing Kiernans, North London Shamrocks, who reached the semi-finals last year, and Neasden Gaels, before holding off Round Towers in the semi-finals.
Their county final showdown with Tir Chonaill Gaels was as tight as everyone had predicted, with Mulligan kicking a late free to seal a 0- 15 to 1-11 victory, and with it a second senior county title for the men from Fulham, after the club’s breakthrough year in 2011. Despite all he’s achieved, this was something special for McCartan, because of the challenges.
“It was very special; I know how much effort it takes to get to training. Most of the summer I was working in Southampton, so I was leaving the house at 5:30am and was back out of the house at 4:45pm to get to the scrubs, and sometimes it could take you 45 minutes, an hour, or more,” he said.
“It was hectic and sometimes you’d scratch your head ask yourself ‘is it worth it?’. But when Michael Murphy lifted the cup, it was certainly worth it then.”
If the challenge of facing a side like Corofin wasn’t enough, Fulham have been faced with trying to bridge the gap of eight weeks without a competitive fixture.
Just two matches against Ciaran Deely’s London and a trip to Galbally in Tyrone to take on Sigerson winners St Mary’s College Belfast. And all self funded by the players.
“We all put our hands in our pocket, for flights and accommodation, and 25 of us went back to Galbally,” said McCartan, who admits it’s been hard at times to keep interest levels going since “the high of winning London”.
However, the chance to achieve something no other club in London has in more than 30 years, brings its own motivation.
“It won’t happen again, so it’s something to look forward to for the players,” said McCartan. “It’s been a huge effort. Some of our guys travel 80 minutes to training and 80 minutes home again. We haven’t got fantastic facilities, we’re changing on the side of the pitch, we’re not getting food after games, we’re not getting treated like the guys back home.
“But Corofin know how much commitment it takes – it’s not going to be anything new for them coming over here to plays us. “But at the end of the day we can only control what we can control – our destiny is in our own hands. If we go out and lie down then anything we get we’re going to deserve.
“We’ll go out and stand up to them and give it our best shot. That’s all we can ask of our team.”
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