By Damian Dolan
London Masters are already in unchartered territory as they prepare for Saturday’s play-off final with Kildare in Swords (2pm) – with a place in the Plate semi-final against Cavan awaiting the victor.
Saturday will be the Exiles’ eighth match in this year’s tournament, making it their longest campaign by some distance since they re-entered the Over 40s competition two years ago.
And they could have another two games to play, if they can get past the Lilywhites.
Buoyed by their thrilling and hard-fought play-off semi-final 0-10 to 0-9 victory over Mayo – 2017 and 2016 All-Ireland Masters champions – in Dublin two weeks ago, the Exiles’ journey feels like it hasn’t quite run its course yet, and Swords on Saturday won’t be the team’s final stop.
“Physiologically it was a really big result for us – London doesn’t beat Mayo very often in football! Not matter what grade it is,” Chris Byrne, who captained the team against Mayo, told the Irish World.
“It’s going to give us confidence; Mayo haven’t been great this yar, but you can only beat what’s in front of you.
“For some lads, it will be the highlight of their career to beat Mayo. And that’s good – it’s a big thing.”
It’s a huge testament and credit to the team that they still have an interest in this year’s tournament.
Most have families and with holidays and work commitments, selection can sometimes be something of a lottery. And once again, they’ll all dig deep to fund their own travel.
“Everyone puts in a huge effort to drive it, and it’s not easy. Lads are all putting their hand in their own pocket to do it,” explained Byrne.
“Why do we do it? The love of the game. Pulling on the jersey and being part of a team – that’s what it’s about.”
Their opponents on Saturday, though, have proven pedigree. Kildare made it all the way to the Plate final last year, where they lost out to Down.
London and Kildare’s previous meetings in the Masters would suggest they’ll be little to choose between them in Swords. There’s only ever been a “kick of a ball” between the sides says Byrne.
But if it is to be London who emerge to face Cavan, then they’ll have to do something they’ve yet to accomplish so far in the Masters – beat the Lilywhites.
The Exiles needed a Mort Reidy point with the last kick of the game to escape with a 0-10 a piece draw when the sides’ met at McGovern Park in June.
That came on the back of Kildare getting the better of London in 2018 (2-6 to 0-11) and in 2017 ( 1-14 to 1-11). Both of those defeats came on Kildare soil.
Saturday’s meeting will be the first between the sides on neutral ground, and Byrne is confident the Exiles can give “a good account of ourselves”.
Not least because the likes of Mort Reidy, Damien McKenna, Niall O’Shea, Niall Quinn and full back Noel Burke, who all missed the Mayo game, are set to return.
Byrne puts the team’s progress this year down to the new additions, the likes of Paul McDermott, Maurice Hodnett and Paddy Donaghy, while Vinny Sullivan and Mort Reidy have been able to commit themselves more.
“With the Masters, if you can get your best 15 or 20 players out, week in and week out, you can be competitive. And that’s what we’ve done this year,” said Byrne, who is in his third year with the team and scored the two late points which helped London beat Roscommon in 2017 to give them their first Masters win.
Just as significant has been the appointment of Liam Brennan, Hughie Brennan and Maurice Carr as joint-managers.
When the teams met in Ruislip, Kildare had looked well placed when Aidan Leonard’s 41st minute free opened up a four-point lead for the visitors (0-10 to 0-6).
The Exiles’ bigger squad should have been an advantage in the sapping heat – London had 24 players to call upon.
But it was only in the last ten minutes that Kildare’s 18-man panel finally succumbed to the elements, and scores from Niall O’Shea, Connor McStravic, Paul McDermott made it a one-point game.
In the dying seconds, a ‘45 floated the ball into a packed Kildare goalmouth saw London screaming for a penalty, after Fergus McMahon was dragged down, but McMahon had the presence to lay the ball back to a waiting Reidy, who coolly popped it the over the bar.
London will have learnt much from that game – not least that Leonard is Kildare’s main threat and will need to be marshalled well. If the Exiles can keep him quiet, they will go a long way to progressing to the Plate semi-finals.