Allianz NHL Division 2A
By Damian Dolan
As a player, Fergus McMahon was accustomed to winning. He captained London to Nicky Rackard glory in 2005 and was back at Croker two years later to lead Robert Emmetts to All Ireland success. Historic moments both.
At club level, he won senior titles with Tir Chonaill Gaels and Robert Emmetts, not to mention a Junior Championship with his native Ballivor, and the list goes on. Silverware and McMahon have been close compatriots.
Management, though, has so far proven a tougher nut to crack. Going into his fourth year as London hurling boss, the Meath man is conscious of a lack of something tangible in the London trophy cabinet since the county won Division 2B in 2013.
He’s very eager to bring that barren run to an end this year.
“Four years and no trophies is not a record I’m very proud of,” said McMahon. “As a player, I was very lucky that we had good groups players and we got the breaks and won things, but management is very different.
“It can be very frustrating at times, but at other times you see certain things that happen in a game and you get great satisfaction from it.”
London kick-off their Division 2A campaign against Kerry on 28 January, but arguably it’s the Christy Ring Cup, a competition the Exiles won in 2012, which offers McMahon and his charges the better chance of success.
The Exiles endured a frustrating 2017, and only escaped relegation to Division 2B by virtue of points difference from Armagh, who made the drop instead.
Of their 2A opponents, only Kildare hurl in the Christy Ring. Kerry, Meath, Carlow and Westmeath will slug it out this year in the newly formed Joe McDonagh Cup. It’s not hard to therefore see why McMahon is expecting any hugely challenging league campaign.
“It’s a very tough division. Ourselves and Kildare will be fighting for points, but they’ll be good games for us. We’ll learn a lot and we’ll find out who’s up for it, and who’s not,” he said.
“Kerry won’t be an easy game – it’s a going to be a tough opener. We’ve been looking at their results in the Munster League, and hurling in Kerry has been up the last couple of years.”
A tough ask indeed, but as preparation for the Christy Ring it should set the Exiles up well, with their championship opponents (Down Derry and Armagh) all hurling in Division 2B.
The top two in the Division will advance to the semi-finals, which is all part of the structural changes introduced by the GAA.
More significantly for London last year’s Christy Ring winner’s Carlow and runners up Antrim have both been promoted to the Joe McDonagh Cup, where they’ll join Meath who won the Christy Ring in 2016.
For McMahon, it’s a change which has blown the competition wide open, with Kildare, Roscommon, Wicklow and Mayo making up the other group.
“It’s the tougher of the two groups, but we have plenty of time between now and May to get our boys ready, and we will be ready for it,” he said.
“Training has been going well so far, the numbers have been good and lads’ heads are good.
“There’s no stand out team now that you’d be afraid of playing. Likewise, teams would look at London and they wouldn’t have the same fear that they would if it was Carlow or Meath.”
McMahon’s appetite for the challenge is abundantly clear. Having failed to get beyond the quarter-finals of the Christy Ring in his three previous years in charge (Down accounted for them in 2017 and 2015, and Kildare in 2016), he has a steely determination about him this time around.
No stone will be left unturned one gets the sense, either by McMahon or his lieutenants, Mick Gordon and Mick Dwyer, who are both are back on board. This year they’re really “going for it”.
The creation of the Joe McDonagh Cup prompted McMahon and Co to reassess, with a couple of the “big fish” having been moved on and up.
“We were debating at the end of the year whether three years was enough and whether we should let some else step in, but there are some good hurlers in this town and they should be winning things,” said McMahon.
One new face on the management side is Eoin Kelly of St Gabriels. The former London goalkeeper, a relation of former Offaly great John Troy who won two All Irelands, is coaching as well doing strength and conditioning work.
However, McMahon won’t be able to call this year on two of his most experienced players – Enda Cooney, who made the Christy Ring All Star team last year, and Neil Rogers. Both unable to commit fully due to personal reasons.
Cooney, in particular, is a “big loss” but the London boss is encouraged by some of the new arrivals into town, as well as having 34 players currently out at training.
One confirmed new addition is former London hurler Henry Vaughan, who has transferred back to Kilburn Gaels. Vaughan was part of the Exiles’ winning Christy Ring side of 2015. Another former London hurler, Darren Moore of Sean Treacys, is also back on the panel.
“We still feel there’s hurling in Henry and that he can offer something in a jersey, as opposed to in a tracksuit on the sideline, and he’s training hard,” said McMahon.
“Darren’s big strong hurler and he’s a great addition. He obviously hasn’t played inter-county in a few years, but we’ve a couple of months to get him right.”
Cause for optimism also comes from the Exiles having all of their games at home, at McGovern Park in Ruislip. An advantage McMahon is keen to make the most of right from the outset.
“It’s great; know there’s no rushing to the airport to catch a flight. Lads can come in from work on a Friday evening and put their feet up, do some foam-work and stretching, and get the mind right for the weekend.
“Hopefully Ruislip will be our fortress and we’ll be a very hard team to beat there.”