By Damian Dolan
New London hurling manager Kevin McMullan has set his sights on winning promotion back to Division 2A at the first attempt, and says it’s a goal well within the team’s reach.
McMullan, who guided Robert Emmetts to senior county success last year, takes his Exiles team to Cork this weekend for a training camp in preparation for their Division 2B opener away to Kildare on 26 January.
It will be the first time London’s hurlers have competed in Div 2 B since winning the division in 2013, and McMullan says that despite a high turnover of players this year they shouldn’t fear any of their opponents.
“We’re out to win Division 2B – we want to get back up there,” McMullan told the Irish World.
“I’m not trying to sell the players a dream that’s unthinkable. The players we have and the counties they’re from – Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Antrim, Tipperary, Wexford – these are big strong hurling counties.
“So why can’t we beat Kildare? Why can’t we beat Down, Derry, Roscommon and Warwickshire?”
A “good start” against Kildare will be imperative and McMullan hopes that “putting in the effort early” – the panel started back on 26 November – will pay off.
“We should be beating these teams – we shouldn’t be fearing them. We shouldn’t be going into these games with any doubt,” he said.
“We should be thinking ‘we’re prepared and we’re going to give them a rattle’.
“We don’t want to walk off the pitch losing by two points in Kildare and thinking ‘how did that happen?’”
McMullan says a line has been drawn under 2019 – a year in which defeat to Mayo at McGovern Park sealed league relegation, and only a play-off win over Donegal prevented London from suffering a similar fate in the Christy Ring.
Since taking over the reins, enjoyment has been a big watch-word for McMullan, as has restoring belief, as he assembles a panel of lads who “want to pull on a London jersey”.
They’ll also be no room for passengers on McMullan’s panel. Every member of the squad will have a “realistic chance” of playing.
“I don’t want a lad just training with us, but in the back of my head I know he’s never going to get a game. That’s no good for us and it’s not fair on the player himself,” he said.
“A lad might be wearing number 24 today, but next week it could be number 14 or number four.”
London’s league opponents are all are familiar foes. So much so in fact that London will meet Down, Kildare and Roscommon later in the year in the Christy Ring.
The league will therefore provide McMullan with a “good bench marker” as to exactly where his team is at, before championship.
London and Kildare have locked horns three times in the last two years in both league and Christy Ring – the Lilywhites coming out on top on two occasions.
On route to the Ring final in 2018, London enjoyed a two-point over Derry in Ballinascreen before being edged out by Down at McGovern Park.
In last year’s Ring campaign, Roscommon stunned the Exiles at Ruislip to win by ten points.
While London’s trip to Pairc na hEireann in Round 5 will be the sides’ first competitive meeting since 2005, the near neighbours are no strangers to each other from challenge matches. It promises to be an intriguing clash.
But if London are to bounce straight back up, they’ll have to do so without approximately half of last year’s panel. London’s revolving door and commitment issues have taken a heavy toll.
McMullan was working with 32 players before Christmas, but is “hopeful” a few more, whom he’d like on his panel, will commit. Both lads already in town, and one or two new arrivals.
Uppermost in the list of current absentees is former Cork star Killian Burke. The Robert Emmetts player captained the Exiles last year.
“He’d be one of the lads I really would be hoping to get involved,” said McMullan.
Burke’s absence would be felt, but McMullan has been boosted by the addition this year of Fr Murphy’s Leslie Coughlan and Fulham Irish’s Luke Slyman.
“Our backs are very strong this year and it’s going to be a headache picking the half-back line for sure,” he said.
Granuaile’s Aidan Callanan, who helped London’s homegrown hurlers reach the World Games final at Croke Park, is the only London born player on the panel.
While McMullan is happy to keep the door open for a while, it won’t stay ajar indefinitely.
This weekend’s trip to Cork will provide him with a “fair idea” of his panel for the league, with the door to close on those yet to commit at the end of the month. Time waits for no man, and neither will London.
“If they haven’t committed by then they won’t be getting asked again. Anyone new coming into London will obviously get the benefit of the doubt….if they’re good enough,” said McMullan, who says he couldn’t have assembled a better management team.
St Gabriels manager Neil Rogers in on board as a selector and coach, joining fellow selector Fr Murphy’s Stephen Bardon and fitness coach Damian Holland.
“Our target will be to try and get promoted, and once the league is over we’ll knuckle down and give the Christy Ring a good rattle,” said McMullan.
London’s NHL Div 2B Fixtures
26 Jan – Kildare v London
2 Feb –London v Derry
16 Feb – Roscommon v London
23 Feb – London v Down
1 Mar – Warwickshire v London