In April 2007 London’s ladies Gaelic footballers embarked on a journey that would take them from Croke Park heartache to All Ireland final joy
Twelve months after shedding tears on the Croke Park pitch, London ladies captain Sinead Daly climbed the steps to collect the All Ireland junior trophy. It was all smiles now – the only tears, were ones of joy.
For the first time since 1993, London were All Ireland champions.
It was a sweet moment; a year earlier London had watched Kilkenny lift the trophy after losing by a goal in the final.
It was a painful experience, but one that would drive the players and its management team on to All Ireland glory in 2008.
A success not easily come by – four All Ireland semi-final defeats in the last four years for London’s ladies is testimony to that.
For this collection of players, and its manager Johnny Wilson, the fruits of that September 2008 day were the culmination of a journey which had begun 18 months earlier.
A graduate of St Mary’s College in Twickenham, Wilson was coaching GAA in primary schools across London when he was approached by new London ladies chairperson Larry O’Leary about managing the county team.
Wilson had already agreed to become Tara manager that year, but he agreed to “give it a lash”. Once on board, no stone would be left unturned by Wilson in pursuit of that goal.
A meeting was called of the London team for Ruislip on 5 April 2007 – Holy Thursday. Just seven members of the panel were in attendance.
Wilson and O’Leary immediately laid out their vision to win an All Ireland.
The re-introduction of an intermediate All Ireland grade had opened things up at junior level. For London, it was a “big opportunity”.
“We’re here for one reason and one reason only – to win an All Ireland,” Wilson told the players present.
“I think some of the players would have thought I was mad,” he later told the Irish World during that year’s run to the final.
But when training began that month the turn-out was good. Wilson’s ambitious note had clearly struck a chord.
The team, though, would have to make do without a National League campaign to gel the players together and ease them into the championship.
The British Championship would offer a solitary facile win over Lancashire, by 6-18 to 0-4, before Warwickshire handed them a walkover in the sides’ group game, and then again in the final.
London were British champions without having hardly kicked a ball. Hardly ideal preparation for the team’s All Ireland opener against Derry at Ruislip on 14 July.
Two weeks later the team would travel to Antrim. The top two teams would progress to the semi-finals.
Preparations began in earnest in July with two challenge matches against 2006 All Ireland junior champions Sligo, and firstly Longford, who were also going to be playing intermediate in 2007.
The Sligo game, played in Bunanadden, was particularly positive for the Exiles – Daly was inspirational, while the team’s Australian captain, Bree White, covered “every blade of grass”.
At the break, London led by 1-4 to 0-6. Susan Byrne scoring the London goal and Shauna Keogh chipping in with two points, but Sligo kicked on to win by 0-14 to 1-7.
Wilson’s meticulous attention to detail saw him and O’Leary travel ‘home’ to watch the Ulster junior final between Derry and Antrim – London’s All Ireland group opponents.
It would prove an invaluable trip. Things were building nicely.
“It helped us gage where we were at, what the standard in Ireland was like and what we needed to do to surpass it,” Wilson told the Irish World in 2007.
The reconnaissance expedition would play a “big part” in their subsequent win over Antrim.
First, though, to Ruislip and the visit of the Ulster champions, Derry, and the most important game in London ladies history “for a long time”.
Derry was London’s first real competitive game of the year, and for many of the players the first time they’d pulled on a London jersey.
With just four minutes of normal time remaining, the Exiles trailed by two points – only for Naomi Lee to score twice and snatch a share of the spoils for the home side.
Out for almost a year with injury, Lee had returned to the side for the challenge match against Sligo.
It left Wilson heralding his team’s “heart”. He added: “We didn’t give up; we showed that we’ve got spirit and that we are in it together as a unit.”
It was a London team which included the likes of Hannah Noonan, Laura McDonagh, Anne Woulfe, Karen Togher, Sharon Lynch and Shauna Keogh.
The permutation for Wilson’s London was now simple – win in Antrim and start preparing for an All Ireland semi-final.
On then to St Paul’s GAA club in Belfast – and a night to remember as Wilson’s charges recovered from conceding three goals in the opening ten minutes to beat Antrim by 3-16 to 4-3 and reach the All Ireland semi-finals.
“Nights like this rarely happen in London inter-county football” wrote O’Leary in the Irish World.
Keogh’s goal and points from Togher, Noonan, Woulfe, Keogh and McDonagh saw London up by 1-9 to 3-2.
A fourth Antrim goal at the start of the second half looked like it had swung the momentum back in the home side’s favour, but goals from Keogh and Woulfe suggested otherwise.
In the end, it was comfortable. But just as against Derry, London had stared defeat square in the eye, before refusing to go quietly into the night.
London went into the game like lambs, Wilson would later observe, but emerged like lions.
“We realised that tactics were only a small part of what wins games,” he said.
This London team had learnt that it possessed “heart, determination, enthusiasm and work rate” in abundance.
Lawless Park, Swords, was the setting for the team’s semi-final with Carlow, with the Exiles looking to reach a first All Ireland final since 1993.
By now, St Kiernan’s and London county footballer Adrian Moyles was also on board, working on the player’s fitness, speed and agility.
Former London players Marie Scanlon and Jackie McCowan – an All Ireland winner in 1993 – were also heavily involved.
But London were dealt a devastating blow in the lead up to the game with the loss of forward Anne Woulfe to a serious knee injury sustained while playing for her club Kingdom Kerry Gaels in a 9-a-side tournament. London would now do it for her.
A tight, nervy first half in Swords saw the Barrowsiders take a 0-4 to 0-2 lead into the break. Wilson rang the changes introducing Lynch and McDonagh. Within a few minutes Lynch found the back of the Carlow net.
McGillicuddy added a second major as London eased into a 2-6 to 0-5 lead.
But Carlow fought back and with just 20 seconds remaining were awarded a penalty which was despatched past London ‘keeper Sharon Murphy to force extra-time.
London’s heart would be tested once more. Yet again, they found a response and two goals from McDonagh – one in either half of extra-time – were enough to see the Exiles over the line, by 4-8 to 3-9, and ensure London were heading back to Croke Park for the first time in 14 years.
London returned to their hotel “exhausted”, but knowing they had an All Ireland final date with Kilkenny on 23 September.
Exiles captain Bree White, from Ballarat in Melbourne, had been among the 82,000 at Croker in 2006 as Kerry claimed a thirty-fourth All Ireland title.
Just over a year later, she would return to lead out London in an All Ireland final, just two years after taking up the sport.
In the build-up to the final, memories of 1993 and London’s 4-8 to 0-3 triumph over a highly rated Donegal side – having lost in four previous finals – were thick in the air.
Sadly, there was to be no fairytale ending to the journey (at least not in 2007). The London tears flowed, but not in celebration.
London had a disastrous start; after ten minutes they trailed by 2-2 to no score.
But the Exiles once again fought back with Sharon Lynch firing to the top corner to see the Exiles go into the break trailing by 2-2 to 1-3.
When Shauna Keogh added a second major, and then followed it with a point, the comeback was complete. London led by two.
But inspired by captain Caitriona Grace, and containing Angela Kenneally and Helen Murphy – who would both later play for London – Kilkenny drew level.
With extra-time beckoning, London ‘keeper Sharon Lynch could only parry a shot, and the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line by the umpire. A cruel blow. Kilkenny held on to win by 3-5 to 2-5.
While she never got to say it in Croke Park, at 4am the following morning White regaled her teammates with her captain’s speech, compete with Gaelic segments. She had it word perfect.
Wilson hailed his players as “heroic till the end” and vowed that they would emerge “stronger for this experience”. How right those words would prove to be.
Wilson and his London players would need time to lick their wounds. Did the fire burn brightly enough within to have another crack?
A team meeting took place before Christmas, at which the players and back room team decided that they were indeed “ready to go again”.
“….you’ve got to be brave,” said Wilson. Players and management alike shared the belief that they could go “one step further”.
To draw a line under it, all 2007 London training gear, bags and equipment was banned by Wilson. London needed to move on – 2007 was a “monkey on their backs”.
Wilson would later say it was one of the best decisions he made.
But if they were going to do this, they were going to do it right, and that meant evening up the playing field. London needed to re-enter the National League, after a seven-year absence going back to 2001.
Duly accepted back in, the only stipulation was that all of London’s matches would be away from home.
After a couple of training sessions before Christmas, Wilson’s ‘London lions’ reassembled on 8 January 2008.
As for the league, the target was to reach the semi-finals and then go from there.
Limerick and Derry would be the teams to beat in Division 3B, which also included Kilkenny, Wicklow and Antrim. London would need to finish in the top two to progress to the semi-finals.
As the fates would have it, London’s opening game was away to Kilkenny. This was a chance for revenge, and to lay down a marker.
London, though, were no longer an unknown quantity.
“Other teams will have expectations of us, and we will have expectations of ourselves, but it’s just another bridge for us to cross,” said Wilson.
London’s revolving door meant the loss of Susan Byrne amongst others, with Daly taking over the captain’s armband.
Daly’s pre-match and half-time team talks were legendary and not broadcastable before the 9pm watershed. Or at least not without a great deal of bleeping out.
Into the panel came the likes of Limerick’s Linda Lodge (Tara) and Clare’s Niamh Keane (Fr Murphy’s).
Off the field, however, there were concerns over how London were going to pay to travel to their opening game. When Danny Keeney, a former chairperson of Tir Chonaill Gaels, got wind of this, he said “just send me the bill”.
The margin of victory in Thomastown may only have been one-point – but it was the result and not the scoreline that was important.
Lodge was handed her debut, while Anne Marie Mohan, Geraldine Leonard, Claire Towey and Rosie Cusack all made the step up to starting positions.
Kilkenny led by 1-4 to 0-3 at the break, but Shauna Keogh’s goal brought the Exiles back into the game. Points from Keogh and Sharon Lynch gave London a lead they defended with all their might.
“We’ve won nothing yet,” Wilson reminded everyone, but even the manager couldn’t hide being “over the moon”.
The ghost of Croke Park four months earlier had been laid to rest – well, at least in part.
Wilson also revealed the team’s motto – ‘if you panic, you’re beat’. London didn’t panic when five points down at one stage in Thomastown.
“There is definitely a never-say-die attitude about this team,” added the Exiles boss, who then took his team to Dublin to face a Wicklow side which had also enjoyed an opening round win, against Antrim.
Ballymun Kickhams ground in Dublin, was the setting as London made it two wins from two, with a 1-6 to 1-2 victory.
Anna McGillicuddy’s goal helped London open up a 1-2 to no score lead. But the Garden County fought back – raising a green flag of their own – before winning a penalty, only for Cusack to pull off a brilliant save.
The journey back to London was livened up by some of the team bumping into Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane at the airport.
Limerick, who would go on to reach the Division 3 final, would inflict London’s first loss of the campaign – a 0-11 to 1-6 defeat at Whitehall Colmcilles in Dublin.
But the Treaty needed a last-gasp block, to deny Sharon Lynch, to do it, as well as two late points.
London’s goal came from Keogh after good play involving Lodge and Lynch, and the scores were tied at the break (1-2 to 0-5). It was only with three minutes to go that the Treaty decisively edged into the lead.
Lodge, captaining London against her native county, nearly won it at the death, forcing the Limerick ‘keeper into a full length dive.
A first defeat for the Exiles, but they’d given the intermediate championship side a real run for their money.
A 2-10 to 0-3 win over Antrim at St Gall’s set up a winner-takes-all clash with Derry to determine who would join Limerick in the semi-finals from Division 3B.
Just three points had separated London and Antrim at the break – the Exiles winning 0-5 to 0-2 – but Wilson’s side blitzed the Saffrons in the second half.
It was far from as one-sided as the final scoreline suggested. Lodge, London’s make shift goalkeeper for the day in place of the injured Cusack, was man of the match.
Geraldine Leonard’s early second half goal, with her first touch after coming on, ignited London. The Exiles’ second major was a fine team goal finished off by Keogh.
At the other end, Londoner Anne Murphy and Daly, from Skreen in Co Meath, marshalled a defence that gave nothing away.
So on to Derry in Ballinascree, with a semi-final place up for grabs.
The Exiles, still without the injured Rosie Cusack, took to the field minus Linda Lodge, Claire Towey and Karen Togher. They were dealt a further blow with the loss of Tighe.
Although starting brightly, a Derry goal just before half-time swung the game in their favour. They built on their 1-3 to 0-5 half-time lead, to add two further goals in the second half and run out 3-4 to 0-7 winners.
London’s National League adventure was over, but the competition had served its purpose, giving them five competitive games to blood new players and gel as a team.
Attention soon turned to defending the British Championship. Challenge matches against a University All Stars team in Birmingham and Tipperary at Ruislip would prepare them for the challenge of Lancashire on 21 June.
All Ireland intermediate semi-finalists in 2007, Tipp provided the ideal test for the Exiles.
And although London eventually went down by 1-8 to 1-2, there was only a point in it at the break and plenty of positives for Wilson to take.
London’s goal came from Lodge, while Fr Murphy’s Niamh Keane had an outstanding game.
Lancashire proved no opposition as London stormed to a 5-21 to 0-1 victory. Sue Harding, Linda Lodge, Hannah Noonan, Claire Towey and Sharon Lee with the goals.
The next stop for London was the All Ireland and a 3 August rematch with Derry, who’d already got their campaign up and running with a 1-7 to 0-7 victory over Louth.
Past meetings with Derry were “yesterday’s news” said manager Johnny Wilson in the build-up, but they were hard to ignore. London and Derry had history.
Victory for Derry over the Exiles in Maghera would send them into the semi-finals, and that’s exactly what they got, winning 3-10 to 1-10.
An early Derry goal failed to rock the visitors, who replied with a major of their own from Lodge. London led 1-4 to 1-1 and were looking good.
The London lead stood at 1-8 to 1-6 at the break, but having drawn level Derry’s second goal – from a rebound after a fine initial save by Rosie Cusack – put the home side in the driving seat. A third goal late on settled matters.
Hannah Noonan called the defeat a “real eye-opener”. After beating Kilkenny in the league, had an element of complacency or over-confidence had crept in?
That set up a do-or-die meeting with Louth on 10 August at Ruislip – the victor would progress alongside Derry to the semi-finals.
It would be a tense encounter; two early Shauna Keogh frees got London’s noses in front.
Keogh, a documentary and film producer, had only flown back into London two days before the game from Los Angeles, where she’d been filming Calum Best for MTV.
Hannah Noonan and the excellent Claire Towey helped extend the lead to five points, before Linda Lodge’s goal put London firmly in the driving seat.
London led 2-4 to 0-5 at half-time, and a burst of three unanswered points upon the restart – from Towey (2) and Keogh – ensured it was the Exiles who were heading to the semi-finals.
The final whistle brought relief and joy in equal measure.
Between London and a return to Croke Park stood Wicklow. Before what could have been the team’s last training session of the year, Wilson spelt it out to the girls. “Win or you’re out”. It was as simple as that.
The venue for the sides’ 30 August All Ireland semi-final clash was St. Peregrines in Dublin,
“We haven’t played to our best yet,” said captain Sinead Daly, adding that the London girls were “dying to get back to Croke Park”.
London had already beaten Wicklow in the league (by 1-6 to 1-4), albeit in no small measure to Rosie Cusack’s penalty save.
From Brisbane, Australia, Cusack had arrived in London in 2005. Part of the panel in 2007, she established herself as first-choice ‘keeper in 2008.
Having tried her hand at camogie with Tara, she found herself between the posts for Holloway Gaels.
Wilson spotted her playing in a 9-a-side tournament, in what was just her second game, and told her he wanted her in his panel.
Wilson was wary of reading too much into the league win over the Garden. Word was that the Leinster champions’ team had changed considerably since that meeting, and that they’d been banging in the goals for fun.
However, London’s defence would prove more than up to the task, conceding just five points as the Exiles ran out 2-10 to 0-5 winners.
Inspired by a player of the match display from midfielder Natalie O’Connor, the Exiles went into the break leading by 0-7 to 0-3.
And Wilson’s side couldn’t have wished for a better start to the second half as centre back Monica Jordan finished to the net.
Claire Towey delivered the killer blow in the 41st minute with London’s second goal.
London were heading back to Croke Park on 28 September, where they would face old nemesis Derry, who’d seen off Antrim in the other semi-final.
“Familiarity is a good thing” Johnny Wilson said before London’s championship group stage meeting with Derry – it would prove to be a very good thing indeed for the Exiles.
The final would be the sides’ fourth meeting in a little over 12 months – and while London had salvaged a draw in 2007, Derry had won both games in 2008.
“Silly mistakes” had cost London in the sides’ championship meeting said captain Sinead Daly. They could ill-afford a repeat.
With four weeks separating the semi-final and the final, London had to make do with challenge matches against Tir Chonaill Gaels’ minor team.
Wilson would be only 80 per cent happy with the team’s preparations going into final.
But London were also a “much more polished team” than the one that had lost their two previous meetings with Derry, and Wilson promised that they’d “give them a rattle”.
For those who’d suffered the pain of defeat to Kilkenny 12 months earlier, this time London would be 100 per cent focused on the game, and the game only. They wouldn’t be distracted from their task by the occasion.
London were solely intent to “get on with the game” vowed the team’s 18-year-old Watford-born forward Hannah Noonan, whose Irish heritage went back generations and who was introduced to Gaelic football when he was ten years old.
For Noonan, there was no greater motivation needed than the thought of being part of a team to lose back-to-back All Ireland finals. That couldn’t be allowed to happen.
London were buoyed by the return of Keogh, but rather than employing her in her usual attacking role, Wilson tasked her with marshalling Derry’s influential centre back, who had travelled back from Dubai for the game.
It all came together on the day for Wilson’s warriors.
Saving their best performance of the year for Croke Park they stunned the Oak Leafers, inspired by the player of the match Hannah Noonan, whose “lung-bursting” display “illuminated Croke Park”.
Derry needed only 28 seconds to open the scoring, but a Shauna Keogh free levelled things up.
The Exiles’ midfield partnership of Natalie O’Connor and Anne Marie Mohan then began to get on top, supported by centre back Monica Jordan, while Noonan’s menacing runs were already becoming a feature.
Two goals in as many minutes would turn this final in London’s favour – the first a “peach of an overhead finish” from Deirdre O’Riordan. A minute later, Linda Lodge grabbed the first of her hat-trick.
Lodge blasted London’s third goal in the 17th minute and the Exiles took a 3-3 to 0-5 lead into half-time.
London were rightly wary of a second half Derry comeback and they were indebted to a brave save from their Australian goalkeeper Rosie Cusack five minutes after the resumption.
A minute later, Shauna Keogh capitalised on a poor Derry kick-out to feed Lodge to complete her hat-trick. The Exiles’ lead was now 4-3 to 0-6.
Derry cut the deficit to just four points when they raised their one and only green flag. Game on again.
However, straight from the kick-out Noonan produced the perfect response.
O’Connor set Mohan off on a run down the right under the Hogan Stand, with the ball then passing through the hands of Riordan, Lodge and Keogh, before Noonan applied the finish for London’s fifth goal.
It put London seven points clear. They’d go on to see the game out 5-5 to 1-11.
“I’m as happy today as I was disappointed this time last year. It’s been a hard journey, but a rewarding one,” said Wilson.
Captain Sinead Daly said: “You dream about days like this, but it takes so much effort. Every single member of this squad has certainly made the effort and is a credit to the London ladies board.”
The team hit the town to celebrate their win. When chairperson Larry O’Leary decided to call it a night and head back to the team’s hotel (Bewley Hotel near Dublin Airport), he made sure he took the cup with him for safe keeping.
He was abruptly awoken at 9am by a frantic Sinead Daly banging on his room door. ‘Larry, have you seen the cup?’.
Thanks to Anna McGillicuddy, who was political and press officer at the Irish Embassy in London, the players were presented with their medals at the Embassy.
The memory of Kilkenny had been well and truly buried, and London’s journey, which had begun 18 months earlier, finally had the fairytale ending it so richly deserved.