By Damian Dolan
It’s nine years since Neasden Gaels were last crowned London senior champions – and you have to go back exactly that far for the last time the club even graced the semi-final stage.
Sunday’s clash with Fulham Irish has been a long time in coming for Neasden, and its chairman Frank Kane in particular. He’s seen the good times, and the bad.
Between 2008 and 2010, Neasden were up there with the very best in the county.
The club reached three senior finals in a row, culminating in beating Parnells by 1-7 to 0-7 in the 2010 final thanks to Paul Geraghty’s goal.
Kane is one link to that day, while corner forward Peadar Friel is another, although he’s now involved with Sunday’s opponents, Fulham Irish.
Neasden went on to face Crossmaglen in the All-Ireland Club quarter-final at Ruislip – Oisin McConville et al. Neasden came up short, but not by much.
The Irish Times described Neasden’s performance that day as “plucky”, and they weren’t being patronising.
It should have been the start of an era, the beginning of a period of dominance. Instead, it proved to be the pinnacle.
Having reached the mountain’s summit, Neasden’s descent was a slow one.
Champions in 2010, they failed to make it beyond the group stage in each of the subsequent four campaigns.
In 2015, they lost a relegation play-off to North London Shamrocks – David Crawford, Conor McGoldrick, Frank McMullin and Colin Flanagan all lined out that day.
Intermediate champions the following year, they were immediately relegated from senior in 2017.
But after powering to the intermediate title again last year, inspired by Down star Connaire Harrison, they are back on the big stage – rubbing shoulders with London’s best once again.
The last five years have been eventful to say the least – but the last two, in particular, have seen the club embark on a journey to bring the glory days back. Neasden are no longer a yo-yo club.
As new trainer Adrian Hanlon, who won an All-Ireland with Donegal, proclaimed earlier in the summer, “we’re not here to take part”.
No thoughts of senior consolidation, or mere survival, Neasden are in it to win it, and make no mistake they always have been.
They backed that up with the additions of Armagh’s Jamie Clarke and Down’s Caolan Mooney. A statement if ever there was one.
As was beating TCG in Greenford by two points in the Division 1 league, having only won Div 2 last year.
But they needed a late Stephen Doran score to salvage a draw with TCG in the sides’ championship group meeting.
Twice TCG forward Brendan McGarvey found the net from long balls in – something that won’t have gone unnoticed by Fulham, or by their veteran forwards Marty Hughes and Lorcan Mulvey. Both are still a handful.
Neasden versus TCG was a cagey affair and interesting for the deployment of Harrison in midfield, where he excelled.
Where Harrison lines up against Fulham is one of many fascinating sub-plots to Sunday’s game.
Handed walkovers by North London Shamrocks and Parnells, Neasden go into the semi-finals without actually having won a game on the pitch. Something of an oddity.
Only time will tell whether Hanlon’s team are heading into Sunday slightly undercooked.
Neasden also defeated Fulham Irish on their way to reaching the Division 1 final – a firey affair that saw three red cards, including two for Hanlon and Fulham manager Owen Mulligan.
Neasden won by 1-14 to 1-11 in a game Fulham had to win by eight clear points to gate-crash the final. Minus several first-choice players, Fulham fell short.
That heated Friday evening clash at Ruislip won’t be too far from peoples’ minds on Sunday for a semi-final which won’t be for the faint-hearted.
For Fulham, it will be interesting to see if David Givney finally makes his first appearance of the championship. He pulled out in the warm up before Fulham’s Round 1 win over Towers before disappearing on holiday.
If he’s back on Sunday, Fulham have already shown a liking for playing the former Cavan forward in midfield. Givney versus Mooney is a mouth-watering prospect.
Mulligan’s charges were too good in the second half against Towers, but were then pushed all the way by St Kiernans.
Having led by 1-4 to no score after just five minutes, they needed a late Eoin Kilcommons goal to snatch victory.
In Givney’s absence, and that of Michael Murphy for that matter, Liam Staunton has been Fulham’s talisman this year.
The half forward, who came within a whisker of winning last year’s senior county final, scored 1-3 (1f) against Towers and 1-7 (5f) in the win over Kiernans.
Kingdom Kerry Gaels gave Fulham a walkover in Round 3.
Staunton is a player in real form and Neasden have been warned. He also struck 0-10 (2f) against Neasden in the side’s Division 1 meeting.
They also have experience. Fulham have plenty of survivors from their 2017 triumph in the likes of Jonathan Tavey, Conor Hyde, Hurl Dockry, Staunton, Rowan Turley and Hughes.
Another is Roger Morgan, who has twice come off the bench to good effect for Fulham – he turned the game against Towers – and Mulligan must be tempted to start him on Sunday.
Former Tyrone star Raymond Mulgrew, who won an All-Ireland Club with Mulligan at Fr Rocks Cookstown, came off the bench against Kiernans, and it will be interesting to see if he has a bigger role to play on Sunday.
So many sub plots and some tasty recent history. This promises to be one not to be missed.