London forward Killian Butler believes it’s time he finally made his mark on the Connacht Championship
By Damian Dolan
Killian Butler has a point to prove when it comes to the Connacht Championship. The stage hasn’t proven the luckiest for the Tir Chonaill Gaels corner forward, and the competition certainly hasn’t seen the best of him.
A peripheral figure in 2016 against Mayo, he had to make way for Owen Mulligan for the visit of Leitrim in 2017. Last year, he finally got his first start, only to be hauled ashore at half-time, as the Exiles were blown away by Sligo.
Galway on Sunday is his chance to finally make his mark.
“I haven’t performed at all in that environment,” Butler told the Irish World. “It’s tough because I keep getting banter from Phil that I haven’t done anything in Connacht.”
Older brother Philip can, of course, lay claim to having played in a Connacht final in 2013.
“That’s what I want; I want to emulate what they did and it is achievable,” added Butler, who started at Tir Chonaill Gaels at U8 and has played every age-group upwards since then.
He represented London at U14, U16 and Minor, but going on to play senior inter-county football was “never to the forefront” of his mind. 2013 changed all of that.
Following an emotional rollercoaster win over Sligo at Ruislip, Paul Coggins’ side set up a dream final meeting with Mayo with a no less heart-stopping semi-final replay victory against Leitrim at Dr Hyde Park.
Amidst the pandemonium on the pitch, a 16-year-old Killian Butler managed to sneak his way into the team’s celebratory photo.
“I had no real aspirations to play for London – I didn’t know anything about it until Phil got involved. But that win against Sligo makes you want days like that at Ruislip,” said Butler, who turns 23 in July and is four years Philip’s junior.
“It was a roll-on effect after that and I remember going to Ireland every second week that summer to watch them play. It was unreal.”
First brought into the London panel by Ciaran Deely in 2016 for the league opener against Louth, he was promptly dropped for the remainder of the campaign.
Butler went away and concentrated on playing for his club. Clearly impressed by something he subsequently saw, Deely brought him back into the fold before the Connacht quarter-final with Mayo.
Butler didn’t feature, but his debut would come against Offaly in the qualifiers.
Similar to his older brother Philip, his London debut came before his senior championship debut for Tir Chonail Gaels.
That was as a second half substitute in a 0-17 to 1-7 defeat to Offaly at O’Connor Park, Tullamore, in Round 1 of the 2016 qualifiers.
He returned to TCG and played the entire junior championship group stage, before taking part in the World Games.
He remembers TCG chairperson Tom Mohan putting an arm over his shoulder, as they watched the final at Croke Park, and saying ‘I think that’s enough junior football for you’.
The following Saturday, Butler started the club’s opening senior championship fixture, and went on to play in the final against St Kiernan’s.
His first start for London came in the 2017 national league – against Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon. London got “hockeyed” that day recalls Butler, but he kept his place for the Exiles’ final fixture with Waterford.
But just as he thought he was making progress, he suffered a knock back.
Down to start against Leitrim in the Connacht Championship – the first game at the new McGovern Park – Butler had to make way for three-time All-Ireland winner Mulligan. It was a decision which prompted some soul-searching.
“I thought, am I in this squad or am I still on the fringes?,” he said.
He got the nod to start the Round 1 qualifier against Carlow and although he didn’t score felt he “played alright”. Come the 2018 league campaign, Butler felt “comfortable” in the London set-up.
“I would be angry if I was left out, and if you’re in that mindset then I think you’re definitely there,” added Butler, whose family is from Cork.
He cemented his place in 2018, despite missing the first five league games with a hamstring injury.
He returned with a vengeance to goal with his first touch off the bench against Laois, and then notched 1-3 against Waterford.
It was enough to earn him a starting place against Sligo. London lost by 1-21 to 1-11, with Butler subbed at half-time.
He’s brutally honest about his performance against the Yeats men, as London were caught in the blocks by a Sligo team which belied its poor league form with a sparkling display.
“I wasn’t on top form that day – I was quite poor. I made a lot of mistakes. As a forward you have to be scoring, because as soon as they get the ball they’re going to punish you. We learnt a lot of lessons that day,” reflects Butler.
“They hit the ground running and we took our time to get started. By the time we got motoring they were already ahead and it was a tough one to get back.
“We can’t do that against Galway – we’ve got to stop them from clicking and start early ourselves.”
It was a hamstring injury which also hindered his impact for London in this year’s league.
Having scored 1-2 to help the Exiles to a first-ever win over Wexford – his “best performance” in a London shirt – Butler sustained the injury in a challenge game with TCG.
It ruled him out of London’s round 4 and 5 trips to Antrim and Leitrim, but he still finished the campaign with 1-10.
“One thing I really wanted to do this year was to make sure I was there for all of the games, so it was disappointing,” he said.
Now an established member of the London team, Butler is a world away from the player that first came on to the inter-county scene in 2016.
His movement is one area he says he’s worked particularly hard on, with the help of Ciaran Deely and Ross Bennett, while his ability to shoot off both feet is an aspect of his game he’s developed over the last few years.
“I’d back myself to shoot from anywhere from around the ‘D’ with both foot, and it makes goalscoring opportunities so much easier. You can just drop it onto your left foot and shoot,” he said.
And he often does, shoot that is. Butler’s stand-and-deliver style has given a much-needed directness to London’s attack this year.
He added: “I always felt I could progress – I just didn’t have any aspirations to.
“I understand the game more now. When you’re 17 or 18 you just want to go out and play, but at this level you need to be thinking constantly, and that’s something I’m doing a lot more.”
Man of the match against Roscommon champions Clann na nGael in the Connacht Club Championship, Butler has made huge strides. Even if he was a little surprised to receive the award following TCG’s 1-15 to 1-10 defeat at Dr Hyde Park.
“Donie Shine scored nine points, so I don’t know what they were thinking. They must have got me mixed up with someone else,” he says.
The reports and reaction to the game suggest, however, that whoever picked it got it spot on.
While he may have been lacking in aspirations in the past, when it come to Gaelic football now, Butler knows precisely what he wants.
“I want to be the best player in London, but until Liam Gavaghan retires I don’t know about that!,” he says.
“I want to be going into games knowing that I could win the game for London. But it’s about performing; I can do things in training, but you need to do it in games against teams like Galway.
“I want to win a Connacht final, and I think we can. The players are there within London.”
And as for Tir Chonaill Gaels, the sky’s the limit says Butler with Paul Coggins back at the helm.
Not lacking in confidence, Butler says London will give Galway their due “respect” on Sunday as reigning Connacht champions and All-Ireland semi-finalists, but he says that London can ill-afford to be overawed.
Butler for one is relishing the prospect.
“You want to test yourself against the best, and see if you’re at that level,” he said.
“I’ll go into it fully confident that I’ll be able to beat the man that’s marking me – I won’t be going into it worried. That’s the aim otherwise you wouldn’t be playing the game.
“They’re travelling over and it’s going to be a difficult day for them – they’re coming into a different environment. You take all of the positives you can from that.
“We’ve been working on our shape and how we set up – if we get everything right hopefully on the day we can get a result. You never know.”