GAA: A Port man’s journey to a Connacht final

GAA Port mans journey Connacht final
26 May 2013; Barry Mitchell, London, celebrates following his side’s victory. Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, London v Sligo, Emerald Park, Ruislip, London, England. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

He was the man behind the most iconic image of London’s summer in the sun, as they won their first Connacht qualifier in Ruislip for 62 years, before going on to reach the provincial final.

Now Barry Mitchell has released a memoir on new Facebook page, ‘The Sporting Port’, to document the highs of that summer of nearly four years ago. The new Facebook page deals with sporting news and results from Portarlington, for those still residing in the Laois (bordered with Offaly) town, and those exiled wanting to keep up with the sporting news from home.

It was 21st July 2013 and the sun was splitting the stones at MacHale Park. It was the Connaught Final versus Mayo. Goosebumps was an understatement, but that wasn’t where it began. It couldn’t have been any farther away.

It was Greenford, West London, not too far from Heathrow Airport. It was early November and there wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen. The closest thing to describe it would be the Stradbally demesne at Electric Picnic after three days of heavy rain.

There wasn’t an ‘O Neill’s’ in sight, but that was where the work began. Honesty, hard work and commitment were the three main ingredients, all of which Paul Coggins the London manager had in abundance. He oozed passion for the game. This set the tone for every training session. It was like nothing I had seen before.

GAA Port mans journey Connacht final
26 May 2013; London players, from left, Lorcan Mulvey, Tony Gaughan and Mark Gottche celebrate their side’s victory. Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, London v Sligo, Emerald Park, Ruislip, London, England. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Every run felt like there was an Olympic medal at the end of it. Lads would be pulling you back, trying everything to finish ahead of you in every run or sprint. In each training session there was an intensity that I could only compare to a club championship game. In some sessions you would be looking up at stars after a tough challenge, with the same player who just knocked you down picking you straight back up with a smile and a word of encouragement, that’s what drove us on. We were a team.

We had Cavan man Kevin Downes as our coach and he would drag every last ounce of energy out of us before the long journey home to where we lived, in and around London. We also had massive experience in the team, which was a huge plus. Lorcan Mulvey (Cavan), Damien Dunleavy (Galway) and Paul Geraghty (Galway) were just some of the ex-inter county footballers in the squad and their contribution whether in training or matches was invaluable.

Honesty and hard work

We also had Paddy Carr and Jack O Connor in the background, inspiring us with sheer drive and honesty, and stories that would raise the hair on the back of your neck each time they told them. Even to this day it’s hard to forget the time spent with these men.

We were required to train five to six nights a week. Some of the lads had two-hour journeys home after training but they never complained. We were told we knew where the door was if we wished to leave, if we weren’t happy, but we all knew that this team could do something special and no one ever headed for the door.

For me it was much easier. I was living with the two Magee brothers. Both had played county football with Down. Cathal and Gary Magee had kept me on the straight and narrow to be honest. I was in my early twenties so the Magee brothers were a necessity you might say. To see their commitment to the cause made things a lot easier.

We would be always pushing each other to better ourselves, whether it be in training or matches, it didn’t matter. The football finally began and our first couple of league games didn’t go as planned. We were still building, we were told. Close defeats to Carlow and Tipperary were followed by our first win, away to Waterford. No one noticed really outside Ruislip but that victory boosted our morale and the confidence in the camp was growing.

Two more defeats followed, but a one point loss to Limerick and a two point loss to Leitrim left us with the knowledge that we were within one score of these teams and we were going to improve come the summer.

GAA Port mans journey Connacht final
23 June 2013; The, London team before the start of the game. Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Leitrim v London, Sean McDermott Park, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

There was still a lot of work to be done but we at least knew we had the beating of those sides and that was encouraging, especially with the first round of the All-Ireland on the horizon.

The intensity in training grew; it was like nothing I’d ever seen, with every man fighting for his place for the opening championship game against Sligo. The last training session before the match arrived, and the team was announced.

“Did all the honesty and hard work pay off?” I asked myself. Thankfully it did and I was in at half forward.

May 26th and Ruislip the venue. Not the prettiest place for an inter-county team to travel to. In the past London teams had always put up a fight for 35 minutes and then died off in the second half.

‘This felt different’ I was told by the more seasoned players. It seemed a long way off those dirty mucky nights in Greenford.

Were there nerves? Of course there were, but it wasn’t long until they were settled.

Lorcan Mulvey buried an early goal. Sligo were shook. We continued to nip away at the scoreboard and created a substantial margin. Then Sligo came at us with everything. Point by point the margin decreased but the clock was our friend (although it didn’t feel like it), until it granted Sligo one last chance to win it.

In close encounters in any sport luck rarely favours the underdog, especially London playing Gaelic Football in the All-Ireland series, but somehow we got lucky, that one time. Sligo hit the crossbar the game was over and for the first time in 36 years London had won in Connaught in the All-Ireland Championship.

The music started and the Guinness flowed. For everyone on the outside this was the pinnacle for London football, but for us it was just the beginning. The following day we had a recovery session in the pool for the full panel and not one single player was missing. Some people thought we’d be missing for the month, or two even, but we knew better, we knew what we had and we weren’t finished just yet with the Championship.

Leitrim were up next in Carrickon-Shannon and we knew we should have beaten them in the league earlier in the season, losing out by two points, one score we told ourselves. We knew there’d been trouble in the Leitrim camp too and our tails were up, we were confident. It ended in a draw and with that came the controversy of where the replay was to be played. For us we didn’t care. We knew we could beat them, especially after the first day.

Eventually the decision came through and a familiar Dr Hyde Park was the venue. In 2008 it was the ground where Coláiste Iosagáin would get the better of Rice College Mayo, to win the All-Ireland Schools Final for Portarlington.

The game began at a blistering pace and we went in at half time 14 points to the good, but we needed that margin.

Congratulations

Fifteen Leitrim men and gale force wind bore down on us for the entire second half. They steadily began to nip away at our lead, point by point they clawed to within a score. The seconds on the clock seemed to lengthen.

We gave it everything and refused to give in, one last giant effort. We heard the whistle and London were heading for a Connaught final.

I can’t say as a Laois man, I ever dreamt of playing in a Connaught Senior Football Final, but my god the feeling was incredible.

London was my county now; we’d worked in offices, building sites, and schools, on the roads, in restaurants or bars. We lived here; some of the lads had families here. We were just some of the thousands of Irish people who called London home and we were as proud as if we’d reached a provincial final with our own counties back home.

We did it for them too, the Irish over here that is. It can be hard being away from home. It can be lonely, and times can be tough without family and friends. The simple things like your own mother’s hot dinners or a quiet word from my Dad.

I still miss all that of course, but as an Irishman football let’s you connect with home in a way nothing else can.

You can have all the Denny sausages, Kerrygold Butter, cheese and onion Tayto or Barry’s Tea sent over you like but nothing gets the better of home-sickness than training and playing a sport in a city of over 12 million people that’s alien to the vast majority.

Only ‘We’ knew what it was, it was ‘Our’ thing and everyone back home in Ireland stood up and noticed.. We had tweets of congratulations from Dara O’ Briain and the now Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to name a couple.

News coverage from BBC and Sky Sports, the English were proud of us (those who followed the news that is), we’d created a bandwagon and they all wanted to be on it, even if it was only for a short time. It was great, surreal to say the least.

The Connaught Final beckoned. Our opponents; Mayo. I‘d watched this Mayo team develop into one of the greatest prospects for a Connaught team to win the Sam Maguire since Galway won it nearly two decades ago.

Some of the Mayo player’s names were familiar to me. Memories of the All Ireland Schools Final in 2008 were flooding through my mind again. The players on that school team had been regarded as Mayo’s up and coming greats.

Jason Doherty and Kevin Kane were two that played that day, and there was another, Lee Keegan. I’d marked him in 2008 in that school final and our paths would cross again.

The hunger to repeat 2008’s success was there for me but as soon as we heard 24,000 roaring Mayo fans we knew this was going to be an uphill battle. Two early mistakes from us led to two goals and as the noise inside MacHale Park grew louder the realisation would sink in.

Mayo’s skill set, fitness and hunger were like nothing we’d seen before. Keegan was a different animal to 2008. He had become one of the finest footballers in the country and his status would be cemented in 2016 by winning footballer of the year.

They were just way too sharp, too quick and too good.

Our journey was almost over, but not before a nice visit to Croke Park to take on Cavan. A six-day turn-a-round meant we would find it hard to put it up to the Bréifne men. For the first half we stuck with them but the tough battle against Mayo 6 days previous began to show. Our tired legs would give in and Cavan ran out easy victors.

Our fairytale season had finally come to an end, but not my love affair with the big city. I get home to Portarlington as much as I can but I’m still here living in London earning the Queen’s Shilling and loving every minute of it. You can take the man out of Port……..!

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