Noel Dunning and Paul Hehir look back on the day London came within the width of a crossbar of taking Roscommon’s scalp in the Connacht Championship
By Damian Dolan
Ever since 1977, London’s footballers had been chasing a second Connacht Championship victory – it had assumed Holy Grail proportions.
Sligo in 2013 and London’s sensational summer, was still a few years down the road.
Up until then, the Exiles had had to make do with regular chastening defeats, intermingled between heart-breaking near-misses.
Leitrim in ’97 saw the visitors escape by the skin of their teeth, while Sligo had just three points to spare in ’88 and again ’93.
The Rossies had little trouble on their previous visit to Ruislip – winning 4-18 to 0-10, and had reached the Connacht final in 2004.
But they couldn’t have known what 29 May 2005 had in store for them.
London were at a “low ebb” going into 2005. Even by the Exiles’ standards, 2004 had been an Annus horribilis – hammered by Galway (8-14 to 0-8) at Ruislip, with Dublin then ushering them on their way out of the championship at Parnell Park (3-24 to 0-6).
It brought a change of management.
Part of a three-man committee to find a new manager, Noel Dunning ended up finding himself in the hot-seat when their quest proved fruitless.
The 31-year-old had been a selector the previous year on the Kingdom Kerry Gaels management team which won a county title.
His selectors were Liam Brennan and Iggy Donnelly. Their coach was Paul O’Dowd, who was at Strawberry Hill and had previously played for Cavan.
From the outset, Dunning laid out “the dream”. To beat Roscommon at Ruislip on 29 May. After the events of 2004, it was a dream that was “hard to sell” to the players.
“Some of them looked at me with disbelief, others probably thought the men in white coats were outside the door waiting to take me away,” recalls Dunning.
“But I just knew that with the quality of players that were in London, we could put ourselves in a good position.”
The delay in appointing a manager had a knock-on effect for London’s league campaign, which was limited to “just three proper sessions” before their opening game against Leitrim.
Not surprisingly a London team, minus numerous key men, suffered a heavy loss in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Longford were similarly unsympathetic of London’s lack of preparation – winning 3-9 to 0–5 at Ruislip in Round 2.
But already then Irish World sports editor John Collins was reporting ‘seeds of progress’.
“Our main focus was always the championship that year – we used the league to try things out,” said Paul Hehir.
Hehir was 17 when he made his championship debut for London, against Leitrim in 1997. He returned to London colours in 2003, playing against Sligo.
Between 1998 and 2002 he played for Clare, coming off the bench in a Munster semi-final. He missed 2004 when he went to Chicago for the summer, but was back for 2005.
“We weren’t worried about the results – it was about building and working on things,” he adds.
London’s Round 3 trip to Dr Hyde Park – a dress rehearsal for 29 May – posed something of a “problem” for Dunning.
With a little over a month’s solid training under their belt, the London boss knew they were going to “take a beating”.
A plan was therefore devised to target a specific 20-minute period against Roscommon, during which London would “throw everything into it”. They settled on the ten minutes either side of half-time.
London were well-beaten, 1-23 to 0-5, but Dunning recalls the players being “visibly buoyant” as they went through their post-game warm down on the Hyde Park pitch.
“They weren’t happy, but they were in a good place because they knew that the 20 minutes had gone ok,” says Dunning.
In fact, London had drawn those 20 minutes, 0-3 a piece.
“The players got a massive boost from that. It proved that with more training and more games, we would improve and be in a good place by the end of May when Roscommon came to Ruislip.
“While we would be a far different animal by then, all Roscommon would be thinking about is the London team they beat in the league.”
While the league didn’t bring a victory, game-by-game the Exiles were improving.
In 2005, video analyses in GAA was still in its infancy. It would become an integral tool in plotting London’s progress.
“Even though we were losing games we were able to prove to the players that they were improving. Within each game, there were little wins,” says Dunning.
“As things went on, there was more ‘buy-in’ week by week, and we were getting fitter.
“We didn’t get results in the league, but what we did get was enough evidence to prove to the players that they were capable of pulling this off this ridiculous dream against Roscommon.”
London had other grounds for optimism – all was not well in the Roscommon camp.
With two rounds of the league to go, ex-Dublin manager Tommy Carr stepped down as Rossies manager. The team had won just one of its opening five matches, and that against London.
In February, Carr had dropped Roscommon star man Frankie Dolan after the St Brigid’s man failed to show up for the Round 2 game with Carlow.
Having held ‘clear the air talks’ with the players, Carr resigned after reportedly finding out about a planned players’ meeting.
Former Galway footballer Val Daly took over the reins on a temporary basis. Brought in from the cold by Daly, Dolan would miss the trip to Ruislip anyway through injury.
By contrast, things were beginning to come together for London. League over, the team travelled back to Ireland for two challenge matches.
Dunning “purposefully” picked two teams they’d already played in the league – Leitrim and Carlow.
Having “suffered terribly” against Leitrim in their opening league, Dunning saw them as the ideal opponent against which to measure the team’s progress.
The team flew into Dublin on Saturday afternoon and jumped straight on a bus to Carrick-on-Shannon. Throw in was 7pm that evening.
They returned to Dublin that night, to be up early the next morning to travel to Carlow. It was a hectic schedule.
Both games were lost narrowly, but London had played “extremely well”.
“They were of championship intensity and gave us exactly what we needed,” said Dunning.
London returned home in a good place – all they needed now was 29 May and Ruislip.
In March, London coach Paul O’Dowd had managed to get Tyrone boss Mickey Harte over to take a training session. Not surprisingly, it was well received by the players.
On the eve of the Connacht game, they again enlisted Harte’s services – to give the team the “final push we needed” recalls Dunning.
“We were very well prepared thanks to Paul O’Dowd and we’d a lot of homework done on Roscommon, but the icing on the cake was Mickey Harte,” he said.
“You could feel the whole mood lift in the room when he spoke to the players after training that (Friday) night.
“We then had to smuggle him out of Ruislip under a big duffel coat, because he didn’t want anyone knowing. And we certainly didn’t want word getting back to Roscommon.”
London were ready, and waiting for Roscommon at Ruislip was a team with plenty of inter-county experience, and in many cases, as yet unrealised potential.
Paul O’Dowd, who by now was London’s goalkeeper, had previously played for Cavan, Damien McKenna (Monaghan), James Rafter (Mayo junior), Eamonn Brenan (Laois), Senan and Paul Hehir both played for Clare.
Paddy Quinn played underage for Tyrone and subsequently for Dublin, Scott Doran (Wexford) and captain Johnny Niblock had played for Derry.
Paddy Callaghan was a mainstay of the Tir Chonaill Gaels defence while Paddy McGonigley went on to play for Donegal. Shane McInerney would captain Meath, having played for New York against Galway in 2004.
Jamie Coffey, who came on as a sub, played for Cavan having been part of London’s defeated 1995 All Ireland junior team.
“It’s only with hindsight that you realise how good that London team was. It was no big surprise that we almost pulled it off,” says Dunning.
In his Irish World preview John Collins wrote “….they are focused, they believe in themselves, they believe in their management, and they are convinced they can win”.
“I went into every game thinking we could win,” said Hehir.
“We were well prepared – Noel had us well-drilled. He brought in new tactics and dimensions…..the only thing he didn’t get right was his hairstyle!”
When it was all over, Collins was left waxing lyrical over a “magnificent” London performance, which he described as “the best that London have produced in nearly two decades…..without exception”.
High praise indeed, especially given Collins had been in goal when Leitrim needed a last-gasp penalty to force extra-time in ’97.
The only thing that was missing was the result.
The Exiles couldn’t have asked for a better start. St Brendan’s man Barry Solan – Mr Reliable as Hehir calls him – firing them into a 0-4 to no score lead after ten minutes. All from frees.
Roscommon had halved that lead by the time another Brendan’s man, Shane McInerney, flicked to the net a Solan free in the 17th minute. London were in “Disneyland”.
“I remember my brother and Eamonn Brennan just destroyed Seamus O’Neill. All the talk before the game was about Seamus, but the two of them just dominated the Roscommon midfield,” says Hehir.
He recalls his brother, Brennan and Paddy Quinn “just ran all day”.
“All we had to do was stop them playing out from the back, while we had a serious defence.”
London led 1-6 to 0-7 at half-time – Roscommon clawing back some of the deficit.
Immediately after the restart Solan found himself one-on-one with Rossies ‘keeper Shane Curran, only for Curran to pull off “a great block with his feet”.
“If that had that gone in, I think we would have gone on to win,” said Dunning.
Instead, the first two points of the half went to Roscommon. Jamie Coffey came on for his first London appearance since the 1995 All Ireland junior final, and announced his return with a point with his first touch.
But London were now in unchartered territory – they hadn’t been in a winning position in any of their league games, and “didn’t know how to close the game out”.
“That’s what beat us; we were in a position we thought we might be in, but perhaps never fully appreciated that we would be in,” said Dunning.
By the 55th minute, though, Roscommon were level through Gary Cox, and points from Michael Finneran and Seamus O’Neill – emerging from the “giant shadow” cast over hm by Senan Hehir – edged the visitors into a two-point lead.
Just seconds after O’Neill’s effort, the galloping Johnny Niblock got on the end of James Rafter’s pin-point crossfield ball to fist against the Roscommon crossbar, with Curran well beaten.
The ball rebounded to a Roscommon defender. “London’s hearts were crushed”.
“That’s how fine the margin was on the day….that’s how close we were,” says Dunning.
Niblock hitting the crossbar is one of Hehir’s two abiding memories from the day – the other being a late chance that fell to him, having been sent through on goal by an “unbelievable” crossfield ball from Scott Doran, who sadly passed away in 2018 aged just 44.
“Scott was a class player with a wand of a left foot on him,” recalls Dunning.
But Hehir was hampered that day by a shoulder injury he’d picked up playing in a club game for Tara two weeks earlier.
“I couldn’t kick it as Seamus O’Neill was coming across me, so I had to fist it but my shoulder wasn’t up to it, and it went wide or dropped into the ‘keeper’s hands. I just didn’t have the power in the shoulder.
“I always remember Noel coming up to me afterwards saying ‘why did you play that club game?’.”
Four minutes into added time, Solan tapped over to leave the bare minimum between the sides, but there was no time for Curran to kick the ball out, as the final whistle sounded.
By such slender margins – London’s quest for the Holy Grail was over for another year.
Despite playing on for several more years, Hehir never got that elusive Connacht Championship win.
Dunning went onto manage London for another six years. Two years later the team got to within four points of Leitrim, but it’s Roscommon in 2005 that remains “the one that got away”.