By Damian Dolan
It’s five years since London’s hurlers last lifted silverware and for manager Fergus McMahon that’s simply too long.
When Eamonn Phelan’s charges picked up the Christy Ring in 2012, London hurling was in the midst of a success-laden few years, which began with McMahon himself captaining the county’s hurlers to victory in the inaugural Nicky Rackard Cup in 2005.
Another Rackard followed in 2011, and there was league success in 2009 (Div 3B) and 2013 (Div 2B), but nothing since.
That was, of course, part due to the Exiles trying their luck in the Leinster Championship for a couple of years, but since stepping back down, the Christy Ring has proven a tough nut to crack.
The Exiles have failed to get beyond the quarter-final stage in each of their last three championship campaigns, losing out to Down in 2017 and 2015, and to Kildare in 2016.
In the league, the Exiles have been embroiled in a battle for the last two years just to preserve their hard-earned Division 2A status.
It’s all added up to a lean few years for London hurling in the trophy department.
“Five years is a long time considering some of the good hurlers who’ve come to town,” McMahon told the Irish World. “Is success overdue? Yes, I think so.
“We need to step back up again – it’s time. Hopefully we can push on this year and try and get it back again. We’re hoping to reach the knock-out stages, at least.
“But it is so hard because every year you’re putting a new squad together, and trying to implement your standards, with regards to what way you think the squad should go.
“Sometimes they [the players] buy into it and sometimes they don’t. You just have to find a happy medium. This year we have.”
This year there’s reason for quiet optimism, as the Exiles prepare to begin their assault on the Christy Ring in Ballinascreen on Saturday against Derry.
Buoyed by their final round league win over Kildare, and with last year’s winner’s, Carlow, and runner’s up, Antrim, exiting stage left to form part of the new Joe McDonagh Cup, the destination of this year’s Christy Ring Cup suddenly appears wide open.
Drawn in Group 2, London need little introduction to Down, who reached this year’s Division 2B final only to lose out to Mayo. Their other group opponents, Armagh and Derry, found themselves in a Division 2B relegation play-off. Derry won comprehensively to send Armagh down.
Group 1 is made up of Kildare, Mayo, Roscommon, who hurl in Division 3A, and Wicklow, who finished mid-table in Division 2B.
“There’s a freshness there with the new structure and lads are buying into it. They’re saying ‘we have a chance’,” added McMahon, who shares that opinion, but tempers it with a note of caution.
“Derry is an unknown for us, but Slaughtneil reached an All Ireland club semi-final and have some fine hurlers. They didn’t have a great league, but they’re a championship team.
“Down have knocked us out of the Christy Ring in the last two years. We went to Armagh last year with a good team [in the league], but ended up scrapping a draw.
“We’ll find it very hard to get out of the group. The boys have no illusions – every game is going to be difficult.”
McMahon concedes 2017 was “disappointing”. Two late strikes saw Wicklow snatch victory by the minimum in Joule Park in Aughrim in Round 1 – a result which left the team “sickened and shocked”. It was a game the Exiles should have won.
McMahon recalled: “We hurled very well in the first half, but didn’t take our chances. We left them in the game too long. We thought we’d finished it out, but last puck of the game they got the winning point.”
Confidence was rebuilt and a “bit of momentum” restored with a comprehensive victory over Roscommon, but Down then returned to haunt the Exiles in the quarter-finals.
The Exiles found themselves on the wrong end of 2-19 to 0-19 scoreline at Birmingham’s Pairc na hEireann, with the new McGovern Park in Ruislip not quite ready.
“I don’t know if all of the travelling, with all of our league matches being away from home, had taken its toll because when we got up to Birmingham, Down turned up and we didn’t,” says McMahon.
This year’s league campaign proved a testing one. Heavy defeats to Kerry (by 20 points), Meath (10) and Carlow (17) had some dismissing London altogether, but McMahon, his management team and the players knew they had to play the long game.
Pushing Westmeath far closer than few had anticipated was vindication of that. The Exiles were improving. Kildare had always been the target, and the team delivered to retain their all-important Division 2A status.
Colin Nelson’s goal helped the Exiles into a 1-13 to 0-7 lead and the Lilywhites never looked like closing the gap. Richie Murphy, a reliable source of points throughout the league, chipped in with 11 points.
“We knew going into the league, it was going to be tough. All we wanted to do was improve in every game, and I think we did that,” said McMahon.
“We were improving all the time and having Kildare in the last game worked out well for us. Had we played them early on we might not have been ready for them – they probably would have turned us over.
“We made it clear to the players from the start that it wasn’t about results, it was about performing. At the end of every game we’d have a chat on the pitch and the players themselves were saying ‘we are improving’ and ‘we will get better’. We fed off that.
“Between the strength and conditioning sessions we’ve been doing with Martina and the hurling training we’ve then shoved on. We’re in a good place now for the Christy Ring.”
With a 34-man panel for the championship, McMahon is “happy” with the players at his disposal.
It’s a side backboned by captain Brian Regan (Kilburn Gaels) and vice-captain Kevin Reid (Brothers Pearse), both of whom McMahon calls “fantastic leaders”.
A welcome addition to the panel mid-way through the league was former Cork hurler Killian Burke, who McMahon says has been a “breath of fresh air” on the squad.
“He’s professional in everything he does and I think lads are looking at him and feeding off him and trying to do what he does,” said McMahon.
“He has played at the highest level, and we’re trying to get to that level. He’s definitely been a good influence. He’s a great hurler and he’s got a great attitude.”
No stone has been left unturned in preparation for this year’s championship and in addition to a recent training camp in Dublin, McMahon took his panel to Birmingham last weekend for another camp and a challenge match with Tony Joyce’s Warwickshire, and far away from the distractions of Connacht Championship Bank Holiday weekend in London.
“It’s a massive weekend, I was involved in it myself. So we decided to get out [of London] and get some work done. Get the guys away and focus,” said McMahon.
“They’re [the footballers] doing well and we wish them all the best, but our goal is the Christy Ring.”
Warwickshire and Lancashire have been making great strides and grabbing the headlines. It’s time now for London to step out of the shadows and bring a return to the glory days. Five years is simply too long.