Maher’s ‘Band of Brothers’ have unfinished business
London’s senior footballers will be going all out for a championship win in 2023, says Exiles manager Michael Maher
By Damian Dolan
London senior football manager Michael Maher has made a championship victory the team’s “absolute priority” in 2023 – and the additions of ex-Kerry star Kevin McCarthy and former Derry captain Enda Lynn could go a long way to achieving that.
Kilcummin-native McCarthy helped St Kiernan’s to London senior title success this year, in his first season with the club.
St Oliver Plunkett’s Greenlough clubman Lynn starred for Maher’s side Round Towers and was unlucky not to reach a final in his debut season in London. Towers lost out narrowly to Fulham Irish in the semi-finals.
“It’s great news for us,” Maher told the Irish World.
“In Kevin McCarthy and Enda Lynn, and the likes of Chris Farley, James Gallagher and Liam Gavaghan, we’ll have players there who can do damage.”
London’s last championship win came in 2013, when Paul Coggins’ side beat Sligo and Leitrim on their way to reaching a first-ever Connacht final.
Other exciting new additions to Maher’s panel include Fulham Irish forward Niall O’Leary (Kilmacud Crokes, Dublin) and ex-Donegal senior footballer Daniel Clarke.
O’Leary reached an U20 All-Ireland final with Dublin in 2019.
Clarke, who’ll link up with North London Shamrocks next year, helped Naomh Colmcille reach an All-Ireland JFC semi-final in 2017.
Off the field, Maher has added ex-Donegal All-Ireland winner Michael Boyle to his management team.
Boyle, who manages North London Shamrocks, replaces Joe Coulter who has stepped down. Fulham Irish’s Lorcan Mulvey remains on board.
Boyle was on Donegal’s Sam Maguire winning panel in 2012 as back-up goalkeeper. The Termon clubman also won three Ulster titles and a National League.
As a coach Boyle helped steer Gweedore to a senior Donegal title and to a first-ever Ulster championship in 2018.
“He’s done a tremendous job with Shamrocks – got them really well organised and hard to beat,” says Maher.
“He’s a great coach, well respected and well liked, and he’ll add a lot to the backroom team.”
The Exiles came agonisingly close to delivering a championship victory this year against Leitrim and Sligo, only to fall just short both times.
“If there was one goal we’re setting in the changing room for next year it’s to win a championship game – this group of players deserves to win one,” added Maher.
Maher, who recently agreed a two-year extension as London boss, says it would be a travesty if the likes of long-serving captain Liam Gavaghan ended their London career without a championship victory.
“That has to be changed this year; there’s been too much effort, too many training sessions, too many close calls for lads like that, who have trojaned year-after-year, to not get a championship win.
“It’s an absolute priority.”
Maher’s side will have a minimum of four opportunities next year to get what would be the county’s fifth senior championship victory in total.
The Exiles, who returned to training last week (24 November), host Sligo in next year’s Connacht quarter-final at McGovern Park, Ruislip, with a possible semi-final to follow against New York or Leitrim.
If they fail to progress in Connacht, the new-look Tailteann Cup will then offer a minimum of three further chances to register a ‘W’.
And as last year’s National League campaign proved, winning is not an alien feeling for this team.
Three league wins from their opening three Division 4 games, against Carlow, Waterford and Leitrim, saw London record their highest ever number of league victories in a campaign.
This London team knows how to win matches.
“The players coming back are doing so in the confidence that if we prepare properly, and if we commit and improve again, this group can win more games,” said Maher.
London also came within a point of Cavan and five points of Tipperary – the two sides promoted to Division 3.
The London boss is determined to show that last season wasn’t a one-off – the Exiles are no one-season wonderers.
For Maher, it’s about respect. The Round Towers man wants to change the perception of London being a “gimme” victory for opposing team, and he’s no interest in faint praise either.
“I want us to have the same respect paid to us as every one of the other 32 counties,” said Maher, who this year guided Round Towers’ men’s team to a senior semi-final and the club’s ladies to London and British IFC title success.
“We laid great foundations last year. I think we proved that winning games is possible, and winning games against ‘bigger’ counties is not beyond us.
“We brought Cavan to the brink in Ruislip. We took Wexford to the wire and gave Tipperary a right good game.
“The one game we underperformed in was Sligo, but we put that right come championship.”
That 18-point defeat to the Yeatsmen in the league in March ensured the Londoners had a point to prove when they returned to Markievicz Park two months later in the Tailteann Cup.
London “underperformed” in the sides’ league meeting. Their Tailteann Cup performance was a “true account” of this Exiles team.
Sligo needed a last-gasp Alan Reilly score to force extra-time, and London eventually went down by 3-15 to 2-16.
Maher says he “can’t wait” to lock horns with them again next year in the championship, and the Yeats County will have to come to Ruislip before that in the league.
“We’ve definitely got unfinished business with Sligo,” said Maher, whose first game in charge of London in January 2020 was a five-goal hammering at Sligo’s hands at Ruislip.
“We put them to the pin of their collar (in the Tailteann Cup). We had the game won until the seventh minute of added time when they got level.
“I’m sure Sligo will be paying us the utmost respect as well, which will mean they’ll bring their A game to Ruislip.”
It’s fair to say London owe the Yeatsmen one, or even two.
The Exiles will no doubt also keenly await the visit of Leitrim to McGovern Park in the league.
On Easter Sunday, Andy Moran’s side snuck out of Ruislip with a Connacht Championship victory by the skin of their teeth.
Leitrim led by 2-12 to 0-10 only for goals from Sean Hickey and Fearghal McMahon, and a James Hynes score, to bring the home side to within a point as we entered six minutes of additional time.
But the Exiles couldn’t find a leveller, or even a winning goal, and Ryan O Rourke’s breakout goal broke London hearts.
Those two close calls should be all the motivation London need going into 2023, but if they require any further incentive then the Connacht Championship draw provided it, as one of Sligo, Leitrim, New York or London will be in the final.
Mayo, Galway and Roscommon are all in the other half of the draw.
Maher acknowledges that it’s a “wonderful opportunity”.
“It’ll put all four counties in a really strong position in terms of commitment, recruitment and buy-in. They see that pathway to a Connacht final,” he said.
Gone from Division 4 are Cavan and Tipperary, to be replaced by Laois and Wicklow.
The Garden County, who have a new manager in Armagh and Crossmaglen great Oisin McConville, won promotion to Division 3 in 2020.
Laois were playing Division 2 as recent as 2021 after winning back-to-back promotions. But consecutive relegations see them back in Division 4 for the first time since 2018.
“Laois will be favourites, but every team ends up in Division 4 for a reason,” said Maher.
“It’s a tough division – they’ll be no easy game – but I think it’s going to be really open.
“A lot of teams are going to see this as a real opportunity to make the top two and go up a division.”
Seven games in nine weeks will also demand some good luck when it comes to injuries.
But London can go into the league with the confidence of last year under their belts, and while there are some exciting new additions, it’s predominantly a very settled panel.
Goalkeeper Noel Maher (Round Towers) and forward Fearghal McMahon (TCG) are the only confirmed departees, although that number could rise.
London’s revolving door, though, would appear to have taken a surprisingly low toll for once.
The list of new faces may be headed by Enda Lynn, Kevin McCarthy, Niall O’Leary and Daniel Clarke, but they’re not the only ones.
Cormac Scott (Naomh Eanna, Antrim), Ryan Tohill (Greenlough, Derry), London born Aidan McLoughlin and goalkeeper Kevin Mullan (St Oliver Plunkett’s Greenlough, Derry) have also committed from Round Towers.
The Fulham Irish contingent is bolstered by Michael Clarke (Saval, Down) and Fiontan Eastwood (Naomh Eanna, Antrim).
Eastwood was man of the match in the drawn senior county final with St Kiernan’s, while Clarke has played for the London before when he was a Dulwich Harps player.
Also on board are KKG’s Paul Galvin (Austin Stacks, Kerry), Ryan McSherry (Whitecross, Armagh), who starred for Harlesden Harps in their intermediate title win in 2020, and St Kiernan’s midfielder Oran Kerr (Magherafelt, Derry).
Maher also hopes to have Conor Campbell re-join the panel at some stage. The St Brendan’s goalkeeper is on his way back from rupturing his Achilles in February.
With Gavin McEvoy focusing solely on his duties as goalkeeping coach, Maher’s options between the posts are supplemented by St Kiernan’s London-born player Caoloan Doyle.
An outfield player for Kiernan’s junior team, Doyle is a goalkeeper for Broadfield United FC in Step 5.
Maher say he’s “delighted” with the players he’s been able to add to his panel.
Maher says there was never a moment’s hesitation in agreeing to sign up for another two years as manager – 2022 was after all his first ‘full’ season in the job.
Appointed in late 2019, he had five games in charge during the 2020 National League before Covid intervened.
So, the journey is only really just beginning for Maher and this group of London players – a “band of brothers” who’ve shown themselves willing to “put bodies on the line for each other”.
“I’m thrilled to be with a group of players who are wonderful to work with. And outside of being great footballers, they’re great people,” he says.
“They really got together last year, and you saw it in our performances – we never laid down in any game. And that is purely down to character and camaraderie.”
Maher reflects on 2022 with a mix of pride and frustration. It was a campaign which delivered much, but was tantalisingly close to delivering so much more.
The defeats to Leitrim and Sligo still irk.
“We should have beaten Leitrim. We had our chances to get level and if we’d got level we’d have taken them,” he says.
“Sligo was frustrating because we were never behind in the game in normal time.
“The performance levels were very good [in the championship), but we just didn’t get over the line. I think we’ll take a lot of learnings from that.”
One of those learnings will be the need to start games quicker and get scores on the board early to put the team in a winning position.
The biggest positive for Maher is that the Exiles go into 2023 with a panel which now knows what to expect.
“They know the demands, they know what you need to do to win games, they know what loses games,” he said.
“And with the sprinkling of new additions it leads to a really, really promising season for the county.
“We are going to go to the well this year and do absolutely everything to match and better what we did last year.”
Michael Boyle isn’t the only new face off the pitch – Maher has added Dominic Mulligan to work alongside James O’Dowd on the strength and conditioning front.
Mulligan has worked with the Offaly footballers and Dublin-based Mayo players.
“We were in good shape last year, but the lads are going to be in even better shape next year,” says Maher.
And they’ll need to be. The new Tailteann Cup group stage format means at least four championship games for the Exiles.
For Maher, it’s a “wonderful opportunity”.
“Whatever way you look at it, we’ll finish this season in an even stronger position than we finished last year,” he said.
2022 was good, but 2023 could be even better for London’s footballers.