By Larry Cooney
The curtain comes down on playing activity at Ruislip this month over thirty-five years since London GAA moved to their West End Road based venue.
The move by London GAA to west London in the late seventies was seen then as a significant development in the history of Gaelic games in Britain. New Eltham in south east London had become the ‘hub’ of London GAA playing activity soon after the end of the Second World War and for more than forty years players and domestic GAA followers often made their weekly long trip to the Avery Hill Road venue.
Although that journey sometimes involved a three-hour round trip before the completion of the M25 motorway in 1986, the games were always well attended and supported. That famous venue, which still remains an important part of London GAA heritage, has remained unused since its closure in 1992.
But while this September represents the end of an era in London GAA it is comforting to know that in a matter of a few months London GAA’s Emerald Grounds in south Ruislip will soon have a county ground to match, or even in many cases exceed, any county ground in Ireland.
But before the closure of the latest chapter in London’s 118-year old history, it seems quite appropriate to reflect on some of the great memories all followers of London GAA have enjoyed in south Ruislip over the past thirty-five years.
London’s only All-Ireland football title ever won at Ruislip in 1986
The prospect of watching Gaelic games in London from a new all-seater stand also coincides with London GAA enjoying probably its highest ever profile following last summer’s unforgettable sojourn in the Connacht football championship. Sunday 26 May 2013 will therefore probably rank with many here today as probably being their greatest ever memory over the past thirty-five years of the south Ruislip venue’s existence. A thirty-six year wait a Connacht championship victory was finally ended on that fateful day and for those who were fortunate enough to be in the capacity attendance to witness London’s dramatic one-point victory over Sligo on that sunny afternoon, it was indeed an occasion and atmosphere to savour.
But twenty-seven years previously London’s junior footballers enjoyed probably an even bigger landmark victory in Ruislip when the Exiles sensationally claimed their last All-Ireland title against Cork before a very modest attendance on a bitterly cold October afternoon.
Before last summer’s amazing London Connacht championship run which led to an historic appearance in their first ever Connacht final, London GAA had to go back to Sunday 19 October 1986 for its most celebrated football victory in modern times when the Exiles surprised a fancied Cork team in the All-Ireland junior final at Ruislip. London manager and Kerry native Pat Griffin and his fellow selectors John Lacey (Laois) and particularly Waterford native Willie Duggan were responsible for masterminding that famous and historic London victory.
A doyen of the now defunct St Anne’s GFC in south-east London, Willie Duggan along with the other two members of the management team were appointed that year to select a London team drawn from the county’s intermediate clubs. Players who had not played football with senior clubs in the previous season were also eligible for selection.
After an undistinguished domestic campaign against Gloucester in the opening round and Warwickshire in the semi-final London eventually faced Lancashire in the provincial final at Ruislip on the first Sunday of July. Because that day clashed with the annual London Irish Festival in RoundwoodPark, a very small attendance watched the hosts who were far from impressive in only narrowly defeating the Northerners to qualify for the final against Cork.
The Rebels trail to a bitterly cold October afternoon in Ruislip began by winning the Munster championship against Kerry and All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone before clinching the ‘Home’ title against Meath after a replay. After a low-key build-up to the game, it was generally felt that London’s hopes would go much the same way as they had since their last title victory in 1971.
However Willie Duggan’s team had other ideas and powered by a five members of the 1985 Intermediate champions – St Anne’s including captain and quite ironically Corkman Barry Herlihy; London caused a huge upset by defeating the Munster men by 1-9 to 0-7.
Brockley-based Duggan vividly recalls the build-up to that game and also outlined why he believed that his 1986 London junior team was such an exceptionally good side. Having already lost heavily to 1985 All-Ireland semi-finalists Mayo in the first round of the Connacht senior championship, the prospect of All-Ireland honours coming to London looked very remote in early summer that year but Duggan always remained undaunted about achieving an All-Ireland junior football victory.
“St Anne’s were promoted to the senior grade that year and proved to be the surprise team of the senior grade. Apart from a narrow and unlucky defeat to Tir Chonaill Gaels they were unbeaten and team spirit and confidence was sky high. I somehow managed to generate that same spirit among the county panel after the provincial final and although we only had two serious squad training sessions in the Scrubs I knew there was serious talent in the team. I remember going up to the Willesden Junction Hotel after that last session and that was where we picked our All-Ireland winning team” said Duggan.
Duggan’s recollections of the game itself on the day after London surviving an early scare in the opening minute when Cork hit the post, were London’s first half performance when they held Cork scoreless to register a deserved 0-5 to 0-0 lead. However as Gerdie O’Sullivan scored a superbly-worked goal three minutes after the resumption, a famous London victory was about to unfold.
Soon after O’Sullivan’s strike London were awarded a penalty but instead of going for another goal, penalty-taker Mick Gallagher took Willie Duggan’s advice to kick his spot-kick over the bar. Although Cork staged a brave late rally they were only playing ‘catch-up’ football against a fine London team who were watched by a modest attendance that included Kerry manager Mick O’Dwyer and the then GAA President Peter Quinn. There were many heroic performances on a day when everything went right for London who celebrated their first and only All-Ireland football success in Ruislip and their first in fifteen years and sixth in total.
I still have vivid memories of that day in Ruislip and enjoying my half-time cup of tea in what was then the old prefabricated pavilion – lounge and dressing-rooms. It was a bitterly cold day and although London had a five point half-time lead, many were still not convinced the hosts would prevail before Gerdie O’Sullivan’s early goal in the second half followed by an incredible third quarter that left the Exiles in an unassailable position and on course for a famous and historic victory against a shell-shocked Cork team.
Sadly it was a London victory that never quite got the recognition it deserved and even the celebrations in the Irish Centre in Camden later that evening were also quite mute compared to the enormous reaction and excitement generated in Ruislip last May after the historic Sligo victory in the Connacht championship.
I also cannot recall members of this London team ever being feted for their amazing achievement since that day in 1986. But when the new stand is being officially opened in May 2015 London GAA will have an opportunity to consider inviting the members of that team to return to the ground where they became the only London football team to ever win an All-Ireland football title there.
London team and scorers: Ger Boyle, Frank Glynn, Tom Finnerty, Richie Haran, Andy Hanley, Adrian Woulfe, Sean Hussey, Tom Walshe (0-2), Mark Duggan (0-1), Gerdie O’Sullivan (1-2) , Barry Herlihy (captain), James Sheridan, Mick Gallagher (0-3), Liam Hughes (0-1), Tom Parker. Sub: Michael O’Hora for Sheridan.
Subs not used: Denis McCarthy, Charlie Farrelly, Jim Maher, Terry Dunne
For more see this week’s edition of the Irish World