By Damian Dolan
London Masters head to Down on Saturday knowing that victory will see them reach the knock-out stages of the over 40s competition for the first time since re-entering it in 2017.
A defeat, or even a draw, could have London eyes firmly on results elsewhere, and a play-off isn’t out of the question for Liam Brennan, Maurice Carr and Hughie Brennan’s side.
It promises to be a tense afternoon, but not just for London. It’s all to play for, as all 16 teams head into the final round of matches with something on the line.
London currently occupy one of the 12 spots needed to progress, but with two of the sides below them (Clare and Mayo) set to meet, London’s position is a precarious one.
Mayo and Antrim could also overtake the Exiles, if they fail to get a result at Castlewellan GAC.
“Down are a strong team but we’re not going there to make up the numbers – we’re going to win,” Brennan told the Irish World.
“Some people are saying a draw might be enough, but that’s not in our mantra. We have the players to do it, there’s no doubt about it.
“It’s a one-off game and whatever the permutations are, we’ll add them up afterwards.”
Gaelic Masters Rnd 6
Down v London
Saturday 27th July, 3pm
Castlewellan GAC, Down
The top four teams after Saturday will quality for the Cup, the next four sides will go into the Shield, and teams 9-12 will compete for the Plate. The bottom four counties are eliminated.
London go into Saturday’s crucial game with Brennan and his management team “happy” with the “progression” the team has made, from being well beaten by Galway through to salvaging a draw against Kildare at McGovern Park last time out.
“We certainly seem to be finishing stronger than the opposition, which is a good sign, and we are definitely playing well. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
A “rusty” London were outplayed by Galway in Round 1, but since then the Exiles have produced some excellent displays.
Their win over Clare was just their second-ever, while their loss in Westmeath belied one of the team’s best-ever performances.
Cavan was one they undoubtedly “left behind” them, however, after Denis Connolly’s goal looked like it would set-up a London victory.
On Saturday, the Exiles face a Down side which won the Plate in 2018, beating Kildare in the final, in their first year in the competition.
This year, they’ve enjoyed wins over Antrim and Cavan, and pushed Tyrone close last time out, only going down by four points to a side with aspirations of being All-Ireland champions.
The Exiles will need to do something they’ve never previously managed – win away from home.
London Masters’ David Igoe is expecting Down to “strong”, especially as they are in contention to reach the Shield.
“They’ve got a lot to play for. Every game on Saturday has something on it and that’s great for the competition,” said Igoe, who says London will welcome back Chris Byrne and captain Damien McKenna, after both missed the draw with Kildare.
“It’ll be a big task to win in Down because we probably won’t have the same numbers as you would at home. But we’ll still go there with a good enough team to give it a go,” he added.
Instrumental to London’s cause this year, says Igoe, has been some of the new additions. The team now has “more strength in depth” than ever before.
Paul McDermott (Tara), Paddy Donaghy (St Clarets), Conor McStravick (Garryowen), Conal Chivers (St Brendan’s), Denis Connolly (St Brendan’s) and Mort Reidy (St Kiernans) have all come in.
Vinny Sullivan and Martin Hession have also been able to commit more than in previous years.
“We’ve got up to 20 who are committed to playing – we’re stronger as group,” said Igoe.
“We’ve also got players who aren’t 40 until next year, but they’re already looking forward to getting involved.”
Gary Kane, who won senior London titles with Tir Chonaill Gaels, is one of those to express an interest, and is already training with the team.
Igoe added: “The players are definitely getting fitter and used to playing football again, and the trip to New York (in April) brought everyone together.”
Prior to beating Clare, London’s previous Masters victory came against Roscommon in 2017 in Greenford thanks to Chris Byrne’s two late strikes.
After a winless 2018, getting another ‘W’ was important to keep the interest in the team going, and reaching a Plate semi-final would only provide a further boost.
“It’ll be great; training will go up a notch and everyone will want to be part of something. It would be exciting,” said Igoe.
“But even if we don’t get through, lads are already looking forward to next year because we’re in a good place. We know there’s more to come, so we won’t be too downhearted.” A semi-final would be nice though.