By Fiona O’Brien
London’s inter-county footballers kick off their season this weekend as they travel to Lemybrien to take on Waterford in the National League. Despite some very close-calls and solid performances from Ciaran Deely’s side, the Deise were the only scalp that London claimed in last year’s campaign, and newly named captain Liam Gavaghan is keen to build on that this year.
“We are under no illusions as to our position of underdogs.
“We don’t have the luxury that Irish teams have of warm-up games in January, but we want a positive start to push on with,” said the home-grown Tir Chonaill Gaels clubman.
In Deely’s first season over the London senior side last year, his team finished bottom of Division 4 with two points from their seven games. But the final league table standings do not take into consideration that in half of their losses they were within a score of their opponents, and Gavaghan believes his side are capable of turning those performances into victories this time around.
“The league table didn’t really do us justice last year. Apart from the loss to Wexford we were competitive in every game last year, and just a kick of the ball away from victory at times. This year if we play as we should we will be more clinical in front of goal, and hopefully turn those results into victories.
“We don’t see the league as a warm-up to championship, we want a strong campaign right from the beginning so we can build momentum.
“We really only got going in the latter stages last year. We had a strong finish with some great performances at the back end of the league.”
The 25-year-old, who celebrated his birthday on Monday, believes that seeing as it is the second year of Deely’s management means that the team may be more settled coming into the league.
“We still have the same core panel as last year so we are not starting from scratch. Everyone is really positive and have bought into Ciaran’s regime which has made things more settled.
“We have a few new lads who have come in so it’s just a case of getting them up to speed and integrating them into the team but we have a really dedicated bunch.
“We just need to take every game as they come. We’ve had a good preseason with some really competitive in-house games. It’s a tough challenge this year as every game is played away from home, but we look to take advantage of that. The squad enjoys it as it provides a great chance for team bonding, and gaining match experience away from London in a more concentrated environment.
“All roads lead to the Connacht Championship opener in May and all of this league experience helps.”
Waterford competed in the McGrath Cup against the powerhouses of Munster rivals Kerry, Tipperary and Clare, as well as fellow Division 4 opponents Limerick.
“Even though we beat Waterford last year we don’t see them as our easiest competition this year. They are a strong team, and you don’t know how different their set-up could be in the first competitive game of last year. Every team, us included, changes each season.
“We would keep an eye out of interest on the results from the McGrath Cup but you can’t really take much from those January results. Some teams treat them as friendlies, and you don’t know how much the starting teams will reflect when it comes to competitive games.”
The Greenford native, whose parents come from Sligo and Mayo, says that landing the position of captain for his county was a dream come true.
“I was over the moon when I got the news. I am very honoured to lead London, and so proud that it happens in the year that we open the new Ruislip grounds in the Connacht tie against Leitrim. I grew up going to matches out in Ruislip and it has always been my ambition to make it on the senior team, so to captain the side now is brilliant.”
And Gavaghan, who captained his club team last season, does not feel that there is a negative effect from the increased responsibility at taking over from Dave McGreevy. “I am just looking forward to the upcoming year. There are already big leaders and characters in the changing room so that translates onto the pitch.
“I try not to get bogged down by overthinking about it. I just want to go out and play my own game and keep it simple.”
Gavaghan made his debut for London when he started against Kilkenny in the league campaign in 2011, during Paul Coggins first year in charge of the team. He describes it as ‘another proud moment’, along with the subsequent championship debut against Mayo in the Connacht championship when he came off the bench in the famous match where the Exiles drew with their opponents to force the game to extra-time before they lost 0-19 to 2-10.
“It was a really exciting year, six years ago. It was the first time that it seemed like London could compete in the province. “And we built from there, and I’ll always remember the support I got from Paul and his backroom team.”
Gavaghan, who started his GAA career with St Clarets at the age of nine before moving to the Gaels’ so he could compete at U14 level, only ever wanted to play Gaelic Games.
“Going to Cardinal Wiseman school a lot of my friends were English and only interested in playing soccer. But football has always been my number one sport. I wanted to excel in it and from the age of 15 or 16 put all my focus into it so I could make the London senior team, and luckily it has paid off.”
Under Deely, and his predecessor Coggins, London have seen a huge increase in homegrown players making the team. While Deely has brought in developing young players, Gavaghan is among experienced players who came in under Coggins while cementing his place in the new team, but doesn’t see himself as a role model.
“It’s great to have more homegrown players as it provides a bit more stability, as you can almost guarantee that those players will be there year-on-year compared to the Irish lads moving about for work.
“Myself and Philip Butler and Adrian Moyles have been here for a while, and if we can help or give advice to the younger lads that is great but everyone is really supportive as a unit.”
And his manager says there are a ‘number of reasons’ behind his selection. “Long-term we were always aiming to get a London-born player to represent his county, and Liam is potentially the best player in London if not amongst the top two or three.
“His attitude is consistently brilliant. He came to our first training session back in mid- November and hasn’t missed one since and he is constantly looking to improve his own game as much as he can, so we are delighted to give him that responsibility.”
Deely is also positive that his side can push on from last year. “I really enjoy the league,” says the Wexford native. “But it is very difficult in London at preseason to say we want to win ‘X’ amount of games when you are competing against the facilities and funding and stability of Irish teams.
“It is a huge celebration when London wins a game, but this year we want to have greater consistency to ensure that when we are in the closing five or ten minutes we are in with a shout of winning our match.
“To develop long-term, London need to have a consistent league campaign as it is the measure of your standing in Ireland, it is tangible. Once we can start inching ourselves up to midtable standings then you can see that there is progression. If you have a bad result you can turn it around five or six days later, while the championship is a bit more of a lottery and harder to gage that progress.”
He also states that not much can be taken from Waterford being on the wrong end of the identical result last year. “It’s made it a bit difficult this year in terms of the order of games. London traditionally end the league campaign well, when the team is fitter and players have been embedded a bit more. If they manage to pick up a draw or a win it comes in their later match. This year we start with Waterford, before facing Carlow and Wicklow, but then we end the league with tough games against Westmeath and Limerick, who were relegated from Division 3 last year, and Wexford who we lost heavily to.”
And although Deely says that London come into the league ‘completely cold’ without the cup preparation their opponents have, he has benefitted from the experience gained last year.
“It is a huge advantage that this is my second year. The majority of last year’s squad have stayed on which doesn’t usually happen. We’ve done a lot of work, but we are untried and untested competitively as a team with a few new additions.
“London go on hope rather than expectation in the league, but with our main players still around we have had more time to fine tune additional plans and adjust our game plan, whereas last year we were starting from scratch.”