All Ireland Club SFC Quarter-Final
By Damian Dolan
The players of Fulham Irish and Corofin may have enjoyed a night on the town together last month, but battle lines will be firmly redrawn on Sunday at McGovern Park (1pm).
The impromptu social outing, after Ruislip was blanketed in snow forcing the postponement of the original game, proved a hit on social media.
With a good number of the Corofin players staying over in London, a few quick messages back and forth led to the two sets of players meeting up at the Porterhouse in Covent Garden.
Any new-found friendships, though will be put to one side on Sunday, for 60 minutes at least anyway.
“We want to win, we want to beat Corofin, and vice versa,” said Fulham Irish captain Michael Murphy. “While that evening was nice, I’m sure when they went back to training their goals were set on a six-week programme to come back here and beat us.
“But there’s no harm in switching off for an evening. It was unique; you wouldn’t get it in soccer.”
While the postponement suited neither club (Murphy calls it a ‘slap in the face’), when Fulham do finally take to the pitch on Sunday it will be almost three months to the day that they beat Tir Chonaill Gaels in the county final.
An All Ireland winner with Tyrone in 2005, Murphy concedes that December was Fulham’s “best chance to have a crack at them”, but he’s also philosophical about the time gap, and the set-backs which have come with that.
While Corofin were able to train together over the festive period, Fulham Irish had to do their fitness work individually, with players scattering to all parts of Ireland, not to mention the world. Murphy himself spent two weeks in New York and Miami.
They got back together two weeks ago, and ending that first week with a challenge match against Ciaran Deely’s London. Minus, that is, three players from their county winning team.
Daniel Eastwood departed for Australia after the final, while Rowan Turley and Sean O’Sullivan headed Down Under two weeks ago. Turley started the final, while Eastwood and O’Sullivan both came off the bench.
Fulham, says Murphy, have adopted a “get on with it” approach. The prize, as he quite rightly points out, is still there.
While Corofin have a first All Ireland title since 2015 in their sights, the reward for Fulham is to become the first London champions to win this fixture. They’re guaranteed to have a unique place in London history if they can do it, with London set to enter the Connacht Provincial Championship from this year.
“But that [the time gap] doesn’t change what we have to do. It’s a game of football, it’s 60 minutes and it’s 15 versus 15,” he added.
“We can’t get caught too much in the fact that it’s the last one. We’re not here to reinvent the wheel, we’re not going to go out and do something completely different, we have to stick to what’s got us here.”
What’s got them to this juncture, for Murphy, are a couple of seminal moments. Having helped Fulham reach the county final in his debut season in 2014, only to lose out to Tir Chonaill Gaels, he returned to Tyrone the following year to play for his home club Galbally.
Back with Fulham in 2016, new manager Greg McCartan made him his captain, but the club failed to make it beyond the group stage. It was an outcome which prompted some soul searching.
“It was a wake-up call. Having won our first match and lost our second, we were expected to win our last game against Parnells, but going in with expectations against any team in London you have to be careful, and they caught us. We could have no qualms, they deserved to beat us,” said Murphy.
Likewise, Fulham’s one-point league defeat to defending county champions St Kiernans proved to be a blessing in disguise. The south Londoners’ revenge was hugely significant.
“Getting beat in that league game helped us – it motivated us to go and beat them in the first round of the championship,” he said.
The Fulham bandwagon was on the road. A number of new additions, such as Daniel Eastwood and Rowan Turley, arrived to add an “extra energy”. Momentum and belief carried Fulham all the way to the county final, where Owen Mulligan’s last-gasp free gave the club a first title since 2011.
“It was a fantastic feeling [lifting the trophy]; I meant every word that I said in my speech. That group of players standing on the pitch that day were like brothers to each other. We were so close.”
All a far cry from events in May, when Fulham were unable to field a team for a Saturday league fixture against Round Towers.
“I’d helped convince Mugsy (Owen Mulligan) to come to Fulham and he’s asking me ‘what’s going on? I didn’t know what to say. It was the first time it had happed to me,” said Murphy.
“We all sat down after training and said ‘we either pack it all in, or we give this a go’. It turned after that, but it was gradual. It didn’t turn overnight. It wasn’t plain sailing from start to finish, it took a bit of a shake-up to get us to where we are.
“That’s what made it so special. To turn it around in a few months and win a championship medal was a great feeling.”
It’s a ‘feeling’ he would have loved to have experienced with his hometown club, Galbally, for whom he made his senior debut in 2002.
But he, and Galbally, were never destined to make it further than the quarter-finals. Relegated from senior in 2010, he captained the club to the Intermediate Championship final the following year, only to lose out to Kildress.
2012 brought more frustration as Galbally lost out to Gortin in the quarter-finals after a replay, with Murphy was forced to sit out the replay having damaged knee ligaments in the drawn game.
“There were some really disappointing days when you look back, and you think ‘how did we not get there? Where did it go wrong?’. I’m thankful that I’ve got what I’ve got today, but I wouldn’t have got here today without the club at home,” he said.
Add in a London county runners up medal with Fulham Irish in 2014, and success at club leel has been hard to come by for Murphy. It’s what made captaining the south Londoners to championship victory last year all the more special.
Something very special indeed with be required on Sunday, however, if they are to keep the run going, and create a little bit of London GAA history. Murphy is under no illusions as to the size of the challenge before them.
“While they’re favourites to win the All Ireland, we’re at the very bottom of the pile, and no London team has ever won this game,” he said.
“Any GAA man worth his salt is only going to sway one way. We have to accept that and accept the challenge.
“At the same time we have to enjoy it. We’ve earned the right to be here, we’re going to do ourselves proud, and who knows where it will take us.”
To an All Ireland semi-final, maybe.