It’s 46 years since London’s footballers took their first tentative steps in the Connacht SFC
By Damian Dolan
In his book, Gaelic Hearts A History of London GAA, Pat Griffin notes the 1974 London GAA Convention – held at the Spotted Dog in Willesden – as being a “lively affair”.
Amongst other matters on the agenda that evening, was the inclusion of London’s footballers in the All Ireland at provincial level for the first time since 1908.
It warrants a mere 50-word summary in the official history of Connacht GAA, but its ramifications were huge for the GAA in London.
In October 1974, an “important decision” was made by Connacht Council. Following a proposal by Roscommon’s Phonsie Tully, seconded by Sean Purcell of Galway, London were admitted into the Connacht senior football championship.
Their first-ever game would be against Mayo in Castlebar on 25 May,1975. The London board was granted £500 expenses for the trip.
1975 would be seminal in the history of London GAA. In the same year London’s footballers took their first steps in Connacht, Congress regraded the county’s hurlers to the newly formed All Ireland Senior ‘B’.
Elsewhere, Britain’s provincial champions were granted entry to the All Ireland club championships at the quarter-final stage, provided they paid their own way.
At the first London county board meeting of 1975, Michael Coyle, Packie Hughes, Martin Diggins, Chris Diggins and Pat Griffin were appointed as selectors to the London football team.
Brian Devlin, from South Derry and Round Towers, was later confirmed as team manager and trainer.
“They picked the team and then handed it over to me to look after on the pitch,” Devlin told the Irish World.
“I could voice an opinion, but it was either taken or it wasn’t. It was mostly Pat and Martin who selected the team.”
Devlin had arrived in London in 1968. Initially he continued to travel home to play and in ’70 won an Ulster title with Derry – Devlin kicking five points. They went on to lose to Kerry in the All Ireland semi-final.
After defeat to Down in the ’71 Ulster final, Devlin threw his lot in with London. He played in the Exiles’ ’73 All Ireland junior final defeat to Laois.
The following year he reached a senior county final with Round Towers, when they were beaten by the famed Kingdom team of that era.
It was the Kingdom’s second consecutive London senior title – they’d go on to make it six-in-a-row, such was their dominance in London.
For good measure, they also accumulated five senior league titles, five All Britain Club Championships and two All Ireland seven-a-side titles.
“There were quite a few very good players in London at that time, players like the Kingdom’s Jerry and John Mahoney, Billy O’Connell and Tony Flavin,” recalls Devlin.
“The Kingdom were very strong – they were strong in all areas of the pitch.”
Kerrymen all, Flavin, and Jerry and John Mahoney were also part of the London team which defeated Dublin in the 1971 All Ireland junior final at New Eltham, to make it three junior championships in a row for the Exiles.
“That London team in ’75 was back-boned by the Kingdom,” says Devlin.
Perhaps inevitably, London’s captain was a Kingdom man, Billy O’Connell. From St Senans, O’Connell had played Minor and Under 21 for Kerry before moving to London in ’72.
The following year, O’Connell was on the London junior team that lost the ’73 All Ireland junior final to Laois.
In ’74, he captained the Kingdom to a senior title in London – in the final they beat a Round Towers side containing Brian Devlin and Jody Hickey by 0-14 to 1-6.
From Ballydonoghue, Tony Flavin played Minor, Under 21 and junior for Kerry.
Jerry and John Mahoney, from Renard, had both played Minor and Under 21 for Kerry before emigrating. Jerry is still widely regarded as one of the greatest ever to pull on a London jersey.
Another of that Kingdom contingent, John Coffey from Beaufort, played National League for Kerry in 1974, scoring 2-5 on his debut against Wicklow.
Training for London’s meeting with Mayo commenced four weeks out from the game, twice a week at Wormwood Scrubs. At weekends, the players returned to their clubs for matches.
“Training was a bit hap-hazard; you had players travelling from all over London. It was difficult to get them all together,” recalls Devlin.
“But eventually we turned out a good side. With the Kingdom players you were always going to be strong.”
London’s Vincent Ryan had captained Mayo Minors to an All Ireland final in ’74. By February of the following year, however, he’d swapped Kilmeena for London and was playing for Parnell’s.
“We weren’t really a team, not like the county teams in Ireland,” recalled Ryan in a 2011 interview with the Western People.
“They were training twice or three times a week, but we only got together a few times before that game in Castlebar.
“Mayo had played in the National League semi-final that year (losing to Meath) and were well used to playing together, but some of us didn’t even know each other really.”
He added: “Like all young fellas, we were ready to take on anything and like all young fellas we had it in the back of our minds that we could win, but I knew what Mayo were like.
“They were a fine team with fine footballers and I knew we wouldn’t be able for them.”
While a “carnival atmosphere” awaited London off the pitch, the exchanges on the pitch were nothing less than “deadly serious”. The prize at stake was “too high” for any Mayo complacency.
The need for Mayo was too great to ease the “sting” of that league semi-final defeat to Meath (4-6 to 0-8) at Croke Park on 27 April.
Mayo needed a “good victory” to “ease away the aches and pains” of that Meath defeat, and “boost morale”. The words of Christy Loftus in the Mayo News.
The concern in the Mayo camp was that London presented a completely “unknown quantity” – outside of Vincent Ryan and Jim Colleary. That alone demanded that they be “taken seriously”.
Sligo-native turned London full forward, Colleary had helped Connacht beat Munster in the 1969 Railway Cup final.
It would be foolhardy, warned Loftus, to look on London as “lambs for the slaughter”.
“….they have nothing to lose and everything to play for, so Mayo will need to approach the game in the right frame of mind…..,” he wrote in his preview.
Not that London were immune from any pressure themselves. Having lobbied hard to gain entry back into the All Ireland, the Exiles now needed to justify their place. Eyes were on them.
In his book, Gaelic Hearts A History of London GAA 1896-1996, Pat Griffin notes that a London Motion to Congress in 1972 seeking entry to the All Ireland football championship for the first time since 1908 was referred to a Special Congress.
London’s three-in-a-row All Ireland junior championship success (1969-71) had reignited those ambitions. A feat only equalled in 2017 when Kerry completed their own treble.
Hertfordshire dealt those ambitions a blow by ending London’s four-in-a-row hopes in the 1972 provincial final – the men from Herts winning 2-9 to 2-7 at Sundon Park in Luton.
That ’72 London team included Coleen Kelly, John and Jerry Mahoney, Tony Flavin and Brian Devlin.
In 1973, London’s Motion was frustratingly ruled out of order by Congress, because it failed to quote Rule 80 within it.
On the pitch, London’s footballers did their part by regaining the provincial title before going down to Laois by a solitary point (0-12 to 1-8) in the All Ireland junior final. Crucially, London were without the injured Jerry Mahoney for the game at New Eltham.
By ’74, Griffin says London’s place in the 1975 senior All Ireland championship had “already been assured”, although a shock defeat to Warwickshire in the provincial final was a “blow”.
The London team that day at Glebe Farm was captained by Jerry Mahoney, and also included Billy O’Connell, Sean Harte and Michael McMenamin within its ranks.
So to 1975, and London’s Wexford-native secretary Frank Sheehan was quoted in the lead up to Mayo in the Western People as saying, “let me say immediately that I don’t think for a minute that we expect to win….”
“….but we will be hoping to put up a good show for the sake of the game over here. A bad performance could damage our game at a time when it needs a boost.”
That said, Sheehan described London’s inclusion into Connacht as “marvellous”.
But if expectations of a result on the pitch were indeed low, the enormity of the occasion off it certainly wasn’t lost on London’s travelling party.
“Did we feel a sense of history? Yes, we did indeed,” says Devlin, who turned 81 in January. “It was a momentous occasion for everyone involved.”
Brian Devlin recalls a “huge crowd” accompanying the team over to Castlebar for what the Mayo News called a “historic encounter”.
“Sean Devlin of Armagh was on the panel and about six of his family came from Armagh. Quite a few players had family and friends come to watch,” he said.
Sean went on to feature for Armagh in the 1977 All Ireland senior final against Dublin.
Brian Devlin recalls there being “quite a bit of media interest” in the game for the “novelty” of seeing London once again competing in the All Ireland senior football championship.
“It was huge,” he says.
The London team flew into Dublin Airport on the morning of Saturday 24 May, and enjoyed a meal together.
They then travelled by coach to Castlebar, where they were greeted at the Breaffy House Hotel by members of the Mayo County Board.
Vincent Ryan continued on home for a few hours, before arriving back at the team hotel later that evening. On the morning of the match, the players attended Mass together in Breaffy.
“We got a really good reception from the priest, who welcomed us and wished us all the best,” recalled Devlin.
For Devlin, the task before London’s footballers that Castlebar afternoon in 1975 was something tantamount to ‘David versus Goliath’.
While London were making their Connacht debut, Mayo supporters were demanding a first provincial title since 1969, having lost out in the finals of ’72 and ’73.
Just two Connacht titles since 1955, had left Mayo supporters “fed up to the back teeth”.
‘Pressure on Mayo to beat London’ was the headline in the Western People. Mayo “just can’t afford to lose to the Exiles” read the opening paragraph.
The message was loud and clear, a Mayo defeat would have “far-reaching repercussions”.
Mayo supporters had been too long “starved of success at senior level” through a “lack of dedication by the players or by rank poor management”. Strong words from Terry Reilly of the Western People.
Having thrown in at 3:45pm, it seemed like London might capitalise on any disharmony or lack of confidence in Mayo ranks, as they started as brightly as the sunny weather in Castlebar that day.
Indeed, the visitors had the temerity to lead Mayo’s much-changed “jig-saw puzzle side” by 0-4 to 0-1 after just six minutes. Three from Gerry Farrelly and one from John Mahoney.
Mayo’s score had come from captain Tommy O’Malley within the opening 30 seconds, while London ‘keeper John Hurley produced a good save from Mick Higgins.
It was now that the home side got into their stride. A goal from their stand-out player on the day, Sean Kilbride, in the 13th minute – after good play involving a young Eamonn Brett and O’Malley – saw the home side stamp their authority on the game.
Brett was one of five changes to the Mayo starting line up from the side which had lost to Meath.
Thereafter they never allowed the Exiles to get too close. The “wheels came off” after that for London, recalls Devlin.
Another major from Kiltane’s Murie Henry in the 26th minute, after O’Malley’s initial shot had been well saved by the “gallant” Hurley, extended the home side’s lead to 2-7 to 0-7 at the break.
London looked for a reply, and it nearly came when Gerry Farrelly’s shot “grazed the crossbar”.
At the break, the Exiles introduced Gerry Neilus and Peter Farrelly for Colleary and Wrynne, respectively. It did little to threaten Mayo’s dominance.
The visitors couldn’t stem the flow of Mayo points, and 19 minutes into the second half Ger Farragher was given a clear path to goal. He “calmly curved the ball over the head of the advancing ‘keeper” for Mayo’s third major.
London “lashed back” with “angered determination”, and Gerry Farrelly was pulled down by Mayo ‘keeper Ivan Heffernan in the square to give the visitors a penalty. Farrelly got up to convert the penalty “with ease”.
It stirred thoughts of a London fight-back, but only briefly. Moments later a fourth Mayo goal, from Richie Bell, quashed the visitors’ hopes.
Just two minutes after that, Murie Henry had the ball in the back of the London net again, only for it to be ruled out for a ‘square ball’. Henry followed up after Ted Webb’s flick had come back off the London crossbar.
Farrelly had a second penalty attempt, but this time Heffernan did brilliantly to save the Parnell’s man’s piledriver.
In the end, London’s first venture into Connacht had ended in a 4-12 to 1-12 defeat, but Devlin’s team had been far from embarrassed in front of more than 5,000 spectators.
“We were soundly beaten in the end, but we put up quite a good performance. It was nothing to be ashamed of,” reflects Devlin.
“Some of the players weren’t entirely out of their comfort zone. You could see the ability was there to progress when they played a Leitrim or Sligo. Both were within range.”
He added: “Jerry Mahoney and Billy O’Connell would have held their place on any team in Ireland – they were both exceptional.
“Individually the players were there, we just didn’t have enough game time together. If we’d had the 20 players training for six weeks as a team…..”
Mayo’s captain that day in Castlebar, Tommy O’Malley, speaking in 2013, said London were “not disgraced”.
“We felt our fitness levels would have been higher, and that proved to be right in the end. They were proven worthy of their place in the championship,” he told the Mayo News.
Vincent Ryan told the Western People in 2011: “We let in a few soft goals but that’s because we weren’t used to playing together.
“We stayed with them for a good while and played middling well, so there wasn’t much between us a half-time….but we were never going to win.”
The following year, Ryan was in the London team which lost to Roscommon, but had returned home to Kilmeena when the Exiles made the breakthrough against Leitrim in ‘77.
Tom Courell, writing in the Western People, wrote that “London lacked the overall power to make a lasting impression. It was the task of a dutiful handful to do the spadework. Though they battled bravely, their cause was lost.”
But he added: “Yet in spite of their shortcomings they were able to test the home fifteen at times. They uncovered the weaknesses which the shock pre-match placings by the Mayo mentors were supposed to correct.”
The Connaught Telegraph’s Tom Rowley described Mayo’s display as “lackadaisical and haphazard”, and questioned whether on this evidence the Green and Red would make it out of the province.
He went on to praise the “hard-working” visitors and singled out ‘keeper John Hurley, Michael McMenamin and Coleen Kelly in defence, Jerry Mahoney at centre field, and Gerry Farrelly, John Mahoney and John Coffey in attack.
Rowley waxed lyrical about the Mahoney brothers, and the “deadly accuracy” of Gerry Farrelly, who punished every error in the Mayo defence from both frees and play.
After the game, it was back to the Breaffy House Hotel for a reception laid on by the Connacht Council and Mayo County Board.
Every member of the London travelling party received a special memento of the occasion.
“It was absolutely brilliant; all the players enjoyed the treatment. Mayo and Connacht Council really pushed out the boat for us. We were treated like royalty,” says Devlin.
Mayo went on to beat Roscommon in the semi-final, before losing to Sligo in the final by a point after a replay.
Murie Henry went on to play in London for Western Gaels, but his Mayo teammate that afternoon in ‘75, Eamonn Brett, would top that.
In 1977, Brett lined out for London against Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon, as the Exiles made their mark on Connacht at the third time of asking, with several of that pioneering team of ’75 still there to savour the moment.
The Mahoney brothers both started in Castlebar. So too did Flavin and O’Connell. On the bench that day were Brendan Greenaway (South O’Hanlon), Sean Harte (Tara) and Timmy Shanahan (The Kingdom).
The men who made London GAA history in ’77 were on their way.
As for Devlin himself, ’75 also saw him play his last game for London when he came off the bench in that year’s provincial final against Lancashire on 15 June. Seven days later, London won the replay at Glebe Farm.
By ’82, Devlin was chairperson of Round Towers when the club won its last London senior championship. Seven years later he returned home to Armagh.
In 2013, though, he heard the call to return to Castlebar as London reached the Connacht final against Mayo – an occasion that certainly brought back memories.
Castlebar will always be a special place for London’s first Connacht championship manager.
Mayo 4-12 v 1-12 London
Connacht SFC Quarter-Final
25 May 1975
McHale Park, Castlebar
MAYO: Ivan Heffernan; John O’Mahoney, Seamus Reilly, C Moynihan; Ger Feeney 0-1, TJ Farragher, Mick Higgins (Westport); Eamonn Brett, Frank Burns; Tommy O’Malley 0-5, Richie Bell 1-1, Ger Farragher 1-1; Murie Henry 1-0, Sean Kilbride 1-2, Mick Higgins (Claremorris). Subs: Ted Webb 0-2 for Higgins (Claremorris), Henry Galvin for Farragher.
LONDON: John Hurley (Kildare), Vincent Ryan (Mayo), Jody Hickey 0-1 (Offaly), Michael McManamon (Meath); Coleen Kelly (Galway), Tony Flavin (Kerry), Eddy Wrynne (Leitrim); Jerry Mahoney (Kerry), Matt Carolan (Cavan); John Coffey 0-2 (Kerry), Billy O’Connell (Kerry), Gerry Farrelly 1-8 (Meath); John Mahoney 0-1 (Kerry), Jim Colleary (Sligo), Peter Cromwell (Meath). Subs: Gerry Neilin (Round Towers/Antrim) for Colleary, Peter Farrelly (Parnell’s/Meath) for Wrynne.
REFEREE: P Gorman (Sligo).