By Damian Dolan
London’s 2018 national league campaign still rankles with its captain Liam Gavaghan.
Victory over Wicklow and a dramatic draw with Limerick, coupled with Leitrim’s decision not to travel to McGovern Park, had put the Exiles on the verge of surpassing their previous best season since entering the league.
In 1993-94, in London’s first-ever season in the league, they finished with six points thanks to two wins and two draws, from eight matches.
The Exiles looked on course to better that as Killian Butler’s goal helped them open up a 1-8 to 0-3 lead over Waterford, only for the visitors to produce a strong second half performance to win by two points (1-16 to 1-14).
It was a deflating end to an uplifting league campaign (London’s biggest margin of defeat was just five points to Carlow), and one which the Exiles were arguably never quite able to shake off going into the championship.
“It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,” Gavaghan told the Irish World. “We left a few games behind us – Limerick and Waterford – a few games that we probably should have gone on and won.
“Maybe going into Sligo we lost a bit of momentum. Sligo came out really quick the first ten minutes and we weren’t up to speed. We got caught on the hop a little bit.
“It’s driving me on this year to correct a few of those results, and hopefully get a few more.”
It’s a very different looking London team which will attempt to get the Exiles off to a winning start to the league on Sunday, when Limerick return to McGovern Park in NFL Div 4 (2pm).
Defeat to Louth in the All-Ireland qualifiers felt like a natural end to a three-year cycle, and so it’s proven to be. London are very much a side in transition.
Among those gone are Ciaran Dunne, Eoin Murray, Colin Dunne, Michael Murphy and Patrick Begley, and home-grown duo Tom Waters and Adrian Moyles.
The likes of Gavaghan, in his third year as captain, Mark Gottsche and Philip Butler will once again form the “core” of the team. Gavaghan is philosophical though.
“We just have to rebuild again. We had three years and now it’s on to the new chapter and we’re looking to build another team,” he said.
“Obviously a turnover of 14 lads is huge, but that’s what happens. Unfortunately it happens in London more often than other places. It’s just something you have to deal with over here.
“But the new lads have brought into it so far. They’ve brought into all of the training and hopefully they can step up, as well as the senior lads, and we can push on and build a new team.
“We’ve got a few senior figures – it’s not just me. We’ve a few big figures within the dressing room and everybody is pushing it on. Whether it’s me, Mark or Philly we’re all driving it in our own way.
“The dressing room has a good positive vibe at the minute and everyone’s pushing in the right direction. We have the same goal and that’s to get a couple of victories in the league.”
Laois and Carlow have gone – promoted to Division 3 – with Derry and Wexford coming down. As recent as 2015, Derry were competing in Division 1.
With London travelling to Derry in Round 2, and Wexford (home) and Antrim (away) to follow, it puts an extra onus on getting a result against Limerick on Sunday.
“Derry and Antrim away are two very tough away games. They’re two teams who will be looking to push on and get promotion to Division 3,” said Gavaghan.
“Of course, they’re going to be tough, but we played Laois last year in Ruislip. They had aspirations to win the league, which they did, and we battled and they only beat us by two points.
“When we play the Antrims and the Derrys we’re just going to have to step it up and relish those games. Players want to play against the top players in the Division.”
If London are in some sort of decent shape after Round 4, they’ll be able to head into their remaining games against Leitrim (away), Waterford (home) and Wicklow (away) with a degree of confidence.
And they’ll need every bit of it with Galway waiting in the wings on May 5 in the Connacht Championship.
“Galway are probably in the top four teams in Ireland at the moment – it’s going to be extremely difficult,” said Gavaghan.
“They’ll be a big buzz about it at Ruislip and a massive crowd. It’s a game to look forward to.
“I enjoy games like that. You’ve got some of the best players in Ireland and you want to test yourself against them and see where you’re at. We’ll be fully prepared for it, and it’s a game we’ll relish.”
Last year, though, emphasised just how important the league is to London.
“The league is what you base yourself on; you’re playing against teams you’re competitive against and that’s what you want,” added Gavaghan.
“Our seven games in the league are what I enjoy the most – it’s your bread and butter. You get to see where you’re at.”
This new-look London team will get its first indication of that on Sunday.