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A man for all seasons

After 16 years as kitman to the London senior football team Phil Roche is calling it a day

Phil Roche’s first Connacht Championship game as kitman to the London senior football team was in 2009 for the visit of Galway – next Saturday’s clash with the Tribesmen will be his last Photo: Damian Dolan
By Damian Dolan

He’s been threatening it for a number of years now, but this time Phil Roche really means it – this will definitely be his last season as kitman to the London senior football team.

It was Exiles manager Michael Maher who twisted his arm to stay on for one final hurrah this year – and Roche even had a couple of players ring him up to persuade him.Roche relented, just as he has for the past four years!

Like The Rolling Stones he’s always been tempted back for one final farewell tour….and then another one. But not this time. “This is it now; you have to pull the pin sometime,” says the 77-year-old from Glynn in Co Wexford. “I’ve said it the last couple of years, but this is the final curtain – my mind’s made up.”

Roche’s 16 years with London have encompassed four different managers – Noel Dunning, Paul Coggins, Ciaran Deely and now Maher – while he’s laid out the kit for a considerably larger number of players. Liam Gavaghan, Lorcan Mulvey, Paul Geraghty, Mark Gottsche, Damien Dunleavy, Phillip and Killian Butler and Owen Mulligan to name but a few.

“Liam Gavaghan said ‘we’ll go together’ and Mark Gottsche said ‘give it another year’ – but they’re gone and I’m still here!” said Roche.

Gavaghan announced his inter-county retirement earlier this year, while Gottsche returned home to Galway in 2019. The past 16 years have forged a deep-rooted respect within Roche for the level of commitment shown by those who pull on that London jersey. For most, it’s their adopted county for whatever length of time they call the city home. “They take it very serious; people don’t realise that,” says Roche.

“Them boys are out at 6.30am and they train with us two nights a week, they‘re in the gym another night, and they’re getting home at 11pm.

“It’s not easy to do it over here. I really admire every one of them and what they put into it.” He adds: “Honest to God there hasn’t been a bad egg in the 16 years. If they weren’t decent lads I wouldn’t do it, but they’re great lads – everyone single one of them. “After training they’ll give me a hand picking up the cones and everything. They respect me.”

In February, GAA vice president John Murphy presented Phil with an award in recognition of his service to London GAA

It is perhaps fitting that Galway are the visitors to Ruislip for this year’s Connacht Championship quarter-final, just as they were for Roche’s first year as London kitman in 2009.

It was then county board chairperson Tommy Harrell and treasurer Mick Kenny who approached him about taking on the role at the start of that year. The London team hadn’t had a proper designated kitman prior to that. There was only one problem. Roche didn’t have a passport. He made the first few away flights on Aer Lingus using his driving licence as identification before the situation was rectified.

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“I’d retired and I had time on my hands, and when Tommy Harrell asks you to do something, you do it,” said Roche. “Noel Dunning gave me a list of what he wanted done and that was it.” He adds: “Believe it or not, my expenses now are the same as they were 16 years ago. That’s a fact!”

Roche appeared in the match day programme for the 2009 Galway game under the elaborate title of ‘equipment director’. From then on, though, it’s always been kitman.

In 1983, Phil (back row, far left) and Pat Byrne coached Fr Murphy’s U14s to a championship and league double

Wherever the adventure takes London’s footballers this year, that will be it then for Roche. It’s already delivered one very noteworthy result – a first victory over Mayo in the FBD League. No doubt an extra sweet moment for Roche, having been on the London sideline in 2011 when Coggins’ Exiles led James Horan’s Mayo by two points with four minutes to go at Ruislip, only to succumb in extra-time.

A few weeks later came London’s first championship victory for 34 years when they defeated Fermanagh in the first round of the qualifiers at Ruislip. But that was nothing compared to what followed in 2013, when Coggins’ side beat Sligo and Leitrim (in a replay) on their way to reaching a historic first-ever Connacht final.

Mayo proved a step too far in Castlebar to send London’s senior footballers to Croke Park a week later, for the first time since the turn of the twentieth century. Awaiting them there in a fourth round qualifier were Cavan.

It will surprise no one that that golden summer stands out for Roche when he reflects on his years with the team. “Going over (for the Connacht final) was a moment – we had a chartered plane!” he recalls.

“We then had a police escort to Croke Park (for the Cavan game) from the hotel, the same as if it was the All-Ireland final. Two motorbikes all the way into Croke Park.

“We walked out onto the pitch, myself, Kevin Downes and Lorcan Mulvey – and I said ‘look at the size of the pitch; it’ll take me five minutes to get water out to you Mulvey!’”

Paul Geraghty’s goal and two points each from Mulvey and Ciaran McCallion saw London go in level at the break, 1-6 to 0-9. “We had Cavan on the run that day,” Roche laments.

“When we went in at half-time and I was walking beside Mulvey and he said to me ‘we have them on the rack!’. They were arguing amongst themselves going in.”

It wasn’t to be, however, as the Breffini regrouped to run out 1-17 to 1-8 winners, and bring an end to London’s fairytale summer. “If we’d have had a week’s break before Cavan we could have been in an All-Ireland quarter-final. That’s how close they were,” says Roche.

“We’d had four games in five weeks and crossed the Irish Sea four times. We couldn’t do much training – all we could do was recovery.”

A proud Fr Murphy’s man, the only thing that comes close to rivalling that summer for Roche, is Murphy’s four senior London hurling titles in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2005.

“The noughties were a mighty time for Murphy’s winning four championships, having never won one before that,” says Roche. “To win four out of six finals was terrific, and please God we’ll be back there again.”

Roche arrived in London in 1967. He’d come over for a holiday to visit his brother who was living in Maida Vale in West London. Like many before him and since, Roche just never went back. “I was walking down the road in Paddington one day and saw this employment agency called Tara. I went in and I got a job as a chef,” he recalls.

Roche had spent the previous three and a half years working as a trainee chef in a hotel in Wicklow. “The job was at the Overseas Visitors Club in Earls Court – they were all Australians and New Zealanders,” he continues.

“It was twice the money I was getting in Ireland, so I took it. I got it on the Wednesday and started work on the Friday morning.”

It turned out that one of the ladies who worked at the agency was from Cork. She put further jobs Roche’s way and he was able to work his way up. He eventually ended up at the Barkston Gardens Hotel, which was also in Earls Court. “I went in there as a sous chef and ended up second chef,” he said.

The same year Roche arrived in London he wasted little time in joining Fr Murphy’s – a club with Wexford roots which had been founded in 1958. Murphy’s can lay claim to one of London’s two All-Star nominees – goalkeeper Mick Butler, for his display in London’s 1971 All-Ireland SHC semi-final defeat to Kilkenny.

Work prevented Roche from playing as much as he would have liked in those early years, but by his own admission he “wasn’t much of a hurler anyway”.

“Sunday was work, work, work, so I didn’t play a lot, but I was always there at training,” he says.

What he did do was play an instrumental part in establishing the club’s youth section in the early 1970s, along with Tommy Harrell. In 1975, the club won its first trophy at underage – the U14 football championship.

The 1980s brought even more success; an U14 championship and league double in 1983, as well as an U16 league the same year. A minor championship followed in ’87.

“They were all Wexford parents at that time – the Ryans, Butlers and Fortunes,” recalls Roche.

“I remember being up at Gladstone Park in the early ‘80s and ‘90s and you had Fr Murphy’s, Cuchulainns, the Kingdom, Tara and St Agnes all up there training underage.”

Roche also worked his magic with Murphy’s adult footballers, guiding them to junior title success in 1994 and an intermediate championship four years later. In February 2020 at the Clayton Hotel in Chiswick, Roche was made a life president of Fr Murphy’s Youth Hurling Club.


Honest to God there hasn’t been a bad egg in the 16 years. If they weren’t decent lads I wouldn’t do it


Off the pitch, he served the club as assistant secretary for “many years” and is now its current president. His work with Murphy’s underage led to his involvement with the London minor board, which he served as registrar and development officer for 25 years.

No sooner did he step down from that role, than Harrell and Kenny were knocking at his door with a fresh opportunity – kitman for the London senior footballers.

In February this year, Roche’s “significant contribution” to the GAA in London was recognised at the county board’s annual Dinner Dance at the Clayton Hotel in Chiswick.

The only other people similarly honoured on the night were ex-London senior football captain Liam Gavaghan, ex-London hurling manager and player Kevin McMullan and former president of the provincial council of Britain Brendie Brien.

Esteemed company indeed, but a measure of the regard in which Roche is held in London GAA circles.

The awards were presented on the night by GAA vice president John Murphy.

Last year, Roche was also Fr Murphy’s nomination for the inaugural London GAA club volunteer awards. Every club put forward one name – and Murphy’s chose Roche.

“Phil is a stalwart of the club whose commitment and dedication is second to none. Phil is a true GAA man…..nothing is too much trouble,” said Fr Murphy’s.

Will he miss the London team when it’s all over? Well, probably a whole lot more than he lets on. But it’s time to go – and he feels a sense of duty to the Murphy’s. “I’m 77 years of age and the Murphy’s keep on to me every year, ‘we want you in the club’,” he says.

“I’ll give a bit more to the Murphy’s now, although when the football finished, I was always with the Murphy’s. But I’ll give a bit more to them now as I’m president.”

A bag of footballs slung over his shoulder, water bottles in one hand and cones in the other, and the kit already impeccably laid out in the London dressing room, come rain or shine Roche has been a reassuring pr esence on the sideline for the last 16 years.

The London dressing room simply won’t be the same without him.

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