How one London GAA club helped Pat Gilroy’s Dublin to end their 16-year wait for All Ireland glory
On 18 September 2011 at Croke Park, Dublin ended its 16-year wait for that allusive 23rd All Ireland title – an accomplishment achieved by virtue of a dramatic one-point win over Kerry.
It was to prove the catalyst for what was to come – seven All Irelands in the last nine years, including the Holy Grail of GAA, the coveted five-in-a-row.
2011 is a final synonymous with Stephen Cluxton’s injury-time winning free, Pat Gilroy’s celebration and captain Bryan Cullen lifting the Sam Maguire high into the Dublin air.
Less known is the part played by one London GAA club in the Dubs’ triumph that year, Parnells Gaelic Football Club.
A few weeks after the Dubs’ league final defeat to Cork, Gilroy took his charges to London for what would prove a seminal few days in the team’s championship preparations.
It was here that tactics were honed, and plans were hatched.
All of which culminated in the most unlikely of challenges matches, against Parnells at Ruislip on 15 May.
Perhaps it’s the fact that so few people knew about it, and there were so few on the bank to witness it, that it’s been allowed to slip from public consciousness.
If there wasn’t photographic evidence to prove that the game did actually take place, no one would probably believe it.
But it did, and this is the story of that extraordinary match, and one of the most surreal chapters in the history of Parnells, and London GAA.
Appointed Dublin manager in 2008, Gilroy watched as his side were exposed by Kerry in the quarters the following year by 17 points, and then went out to Cork in the semi-finals in 2010 by the minimum.
2011 had started promisingly, though, with Dublin reaching the Division 1 league final, only to go down 0-21 to 2-14 to Cork.
The Dubs had held an eight-point lead at one stage and looked on course for a first league title since 1993.
“They [Dublin] went on to win the All Ireland, and the bandwagon started against Parnells at Ruislip!” Parnells Selector Michael Quaid
Three weeks later the team headed to London for a pre-championship training camp at the behest of primary sponsor Vodafone. But make no mistake, this would be no team building jolly.
Dublin arrived in London on 12 May and after checking into their hotel in Ascot, headed straight for a training session at London Irish Rugby Club’s The Avenue ground in Sunbury-on-Thames.
Friday morning was spent with the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team, who were also sponsored by the telecommunications company, at their Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey.
For Gilroy, everything they did that weekend had “a purpose”.
McLaren Mercedes exemplified how every individual has a role to play in order to make for a successful team on the track.
“The attention to detail required in motor racing was quite incredible and the amount of back-up support for the driver,” said Gilroy.
They were able to take away techniques about hydration for drivers before races, and incorporate them into their own preparations.
London Irish Rugby Club offered another full-time professional working environment into which Dublin could immerse themselves.
The Friday visit to McLaren Mercedes was followed by a double training session that afternoon and evening at London Irish. On Saturday it was back to Sunbury for two more punishing sessions.
London Irish’s Premiership season had finished by this stage, leaving Dublin with “the run of the place”.
“They really just flung the doors open to us and they even fed us in-between sessions. They looked for very little in return and we were always massively grateful to them,” said Gilroy.
To round off the weekend, Gilroy wanted a challenge match. The precise details of how it came about are a bit sketchy – nine years have passed after all.
But fiest to say, Parnells’ Kilmacud Crokes duo of Niall Corkery and Ciarán Kelleher played a part, although neither would actually feature on the day, while Gilroy was already friendly with Parnells manager Dennis Diggins.
Corkery had been on Gilroy’s Dublin panel in 2010, before moving to London in November of that year to begin work as a trader in the city.
Kelleher captained Kilmacud Crokes to a Leinster Club senior title in 2005, and knew Gilroy.
Mike Quaid was Parnells selector and trainer in 2011. He recalls being approached by Diggins one evening at training.
“What would you say if we had the opportunity to play Dublin?” he asked Quaid. “The Dublin minors? The Dublin junior team?” enquired Quaid.
“No, Dublin! They’re keeping it under their hats, but they’re coming over and they’re looking for a game. What do you think?” said Diggins.
“If they’re happy to play us, we’re more than happy to play them,” was Quaid’s reply.
The wheels had been set in motion – Parnells would play Dublin on the morning of Sunday 15 May 2011 at Ruislip.
When the Parnells players found out, some of them understandably thought it was a wind-up.
“A few of them expected they’d turn up on the day, and we’d tell them Dublin couldn’t make it!” says Quaid.
“Kevin Culhane always says that he was waiting for me to say ‘there’s no match, we’re training’.”
Over the course of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dublin’s players got through “a serious bank of fitness work”. By Sunday morning, they were “absolutely exhausted”.
There was method behind it. Gilroy felt that they’d lost the league final with Cork in the last few minutes. Dublin needed to get fitter.
“A big emphasis for us was being able to perform when fatigued – maintaining structure and shape,” he said.
Gilroy and his management would “heavily load” the players on the training pitch at London Irish, and then ask them to perform a number of key aspects of their game.
It was a process, started that weekend in London, which Dublin followed throughout that summer – they developed the ability to finish games strongly.
Tactically, they’d also taken the opportunity to work on a “number of things” and Parnells offered the chance to put them in to practice in an “environment where nobody would carry stories back”.
The two sidelines outnumbered spectators.
“We wanted to have a few little surprises in the armoury come the summer!” says Gilroy.
Parnells were just as keen to keep the game “under wraps” – worried they might lose the fixture to another club, if they got wind of it.
“We didn’t tell anybody until a day or two before,” recalls Quaid, whose brother Thomas was tasked with marking Bernard Brogan.
Foremost of those things Dublin wanted to work on was Stephen Cluxton’s longer distance kick-outs – getting it over the midfield to the half forward line. They would put it into practice against Parnells.
“It worked very well on the Sunday,” recalls Gilroy.
Dublin 6-12 vs 0-1 Parnells
Sunday 15 May 2011, Ruislip
Parnells starting line-up:
Aidan McGrory (Donegal), Enda O’Connor (Kerry), Thomas Quaid (Limerick), Conor Burke (Meath), Aaron Mulholland (Down), Johnny Niblock (Derry), Kevin Culhane (Limerick), Stephen Quinn (Kildare), Eamonn Fennell (Dublin)*, Alan Murray (Derry), Dave Shallow (Galway), Derry McCarthy (Limerick), Pauric Kelly (Tyrone), Daire O’Donovan (Cork), Mikey Bowler (Kerry).
*Eamonn Fennell was loaned to Parnells by Dublin for the first half. He played for Dublin in the second half.
Dublin starting line-up:
Stephen Cluxton; Paul Brogan, Rory O’Carroll, Michael Fitzsimons; Paul Griffin, Ger Brennan, Kevin Nolan; Denis Bastic, Barry Cahill; Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Diarmuid Connolly; Alan Brogan, Bernard Brogan, Tomás Quinn.
The Dublin boss opted to start with a strong line-up, while loaning Eamonn Fennell to Parnells for the first half.
Indeed, a staggering 11 of the Dublin starting line-up against Parnells went on to start the All Ireland final with Kerry. Kevin McManamon, Eoin O’Gara and Eamonn Fennell would all feature off the bench.
It’s fair to say the Londoners had their work cut out.
Parnells had reached the senior county final in 2010, where they lost out to Neasden Gaels, but they would have to face the Dubs without their six-strong London county team contingent.
Sean McVeigh, Noel Tuohy, Evan Byrne, David O’Sullivan, Richie Dempsey and Eanna Flaherty were otherwise engaged with Paul Coggins’ London team that weekend playing a challenge match of their own, against Laois Minors, in preparation for the visit of Mayo to Ruislip on 29 May.
Before battle commenced the two sets of players came together for a group photograph on the Ruislip pitch, with the players perfectly intermingled. Again, that was not co-incidental says Quaid.
“There was another man with [Pat] Gilroy and I’ll always remember him telling them [Dublin players] to mingle, and if you look at the picture the Dublin players are all scattered,” he said.
“That was instigated by Dublin and that was for us – it wasn’t anything to do with publicity for them.”
Despite the absence of six key men, the home side could be pleased with their opening 20-minute showing, as they held their auspicious opponents to 0-1 to no score. Tomás Quinn
with Dublin’s score.
While Aidan McGrory was performing heroics in the Parnells’ goal, captain Johnny Niblock, Daire O’Donovan, Dave Shallow, Kevin Culhane and Fennell were all “showing well” noted the Irish World’s report on the game.
Bernard Brogan’s fisted goal was ruled out, before Alan Brogan doubled the visitors’ advantage via the gloves of McGrory.
Bernard Brogan scored Dublin’s third point with the pressure on the Parnells’ goal mounting, and Paul Flynn cut inside two men only to see his shot cannon back off the post.
The Parnells’ goal was leading a charmed life, but it couldn’t last.
Quinn added point number four with Alan Brogan then soloing through to fire low to the net for the opening goal.
McGrory denied Kevin McManamon with his legs, only for Alan Brogan to extend the Dublin lead further from the resulting 45.
Flynn was next to be thwarted by McGrory, but he could do nothing on the stroke of half-time when Bernard Brogan set up Flynn for goal number two.
Dublin took a 2-5 to no score lead into half-time.
“After a sluggish enough start, which we expected, the guys performed quite well in terms of what we were trying to achieve,” remembers Gilroy.
“They were terribly stiff and it was hard to get going, but when we did they played well. It was a good work out for us, because they were so tired.
“They’d been put through so much by that stage, to even play the game was an achievement in itself.”
Both sides rang the changes at the break – Gilroy made 14 – with Fennell returning to Dublin colours. His brief cameo for Parnells over.
Dublin pulled away in the second half through goals from Mark Scutte and Eoin O’Gara, while two further majors, both from Graham Cullen, sandwiched a 55th minute free from Parnells’ Johnny Niblock.
It ensured the Londoners didn’t finish the game scoreless and was greeted by cheers from both benches.
What struck Quaid, as he watched events unfold from the sideline, was Dublin’s discipline to stick rigidly to their game plan.
“Their early phase was to establish foothold. In the middle phase they built on that, and then in the final third they drove it home. It was very deliberate.
“Outside influences weren’t going to affect what they were trying to achieve. They could have playing the Parnells Under 12s – it didn’t matter.”
He also noticed how Dublin’s kick-outs and their shape changed as the game went on. In the last 20 minutes they went for the jugular.
“They just took off the shackles and they bombarded us. They ran at us from everywhere – it was just phenomenal to see,” he said.
One of the most surreal challenge matches ever seen at Ruislip ended – Dublin 6-12, Parnells 0-1.
“Everybody knew from that weekend going forward that we were all about the serious business of championship. It gave us the focus for the year,” said Gilroy.
“And because they [the players) had been pushed harder than ever before, it gave them a lot of confidence.”
Parnells were outgunned but the players “never dropped their heads” recalls Quaid.
“They worked very hard and they gave as much as they could,” he said.
After the game, the teams joined each other for some food in the clubhouse. By the time the Parnells players made it upstairs to the function room at Ruislip, Dublin were already there.
And just like the team photo, Gilroy had made sure that his players were strategically placed on each of the tables. They’d no confining themselves to one small corner – the Dublin lads would mingle.
“It was very deliberate; they wanted to say thank you for facilitating the game. It’s a small thing, but it’s about respect,” said Quaid.
“They were really genuine and really interested in the stories the lads had – they came from different backgrounds and were in London for different reasons.”
Before Dublin left, their kitman presented the late Tom Farrell of Parnells with a bag full of footballs and water bottles.
“We went around playing London championship that year with Dublin footballs!” laughs Quaid.
Later that evening Parnells’ players ended up in Shepherd’s Bush, where they ran into boys from Tir Chonaill Gaels and Neasden Gaels.
There was a crazy rumour was going round that Parnells had played Dublin earlier that day at Ruislip – surely not?
“We just said ‘yeh’ like it was a normal run of mill thing to play Dublin in a challenge game. I’m not sure if they believed us,” recalls Quaid.
Dublin returned home to ease past Laois in the Leinster quarter-final, before being pushed all the way by Kildare in the semis. The Dubs eventually prevailing by the bare minimum.
They beat Wexford in the final by 2-12 to 1-12 to regain the provincial title, having conceded five goals to Meath in the semi-finals the previous year. They haven’t relinquished the Leinster title since.
For Gilroy, the “fruition” of their hard work that long weekend in London came to the fore in their All Ireland quarter-final with Tyrone.
“Pretty much everything we worked on in London came good that day. It was our most complete performance of the year,” he said. Dublin won 0-22 to 0-15.
They followed that by grinding out a 0-8 to 0-6 win over Donegal, and then came Cluxton’s last-gasp heroics against Kerry.
The long wait was finally over, and the lads from Parnells were among the 80,000 at Croke Park to see them do it.
“We all went over for the weekend and it was a great,” says Quaid.
The following year, Gilroy took Dublin to an All Ireland semi-final, where they lost out to Mayo, before stepping down.
Parnells, though, had obviously made an impression. When Gilroy moved to London in 2012 – where he would spend four years – and his children were struggling to settle in, there was only one GAA club he was going to sign them up to, Parnells.
He subsequently watched like the rest of us as Jim Gavin took over the reins and guided the Dubs to unprecedented success. Just how important was 2011 to Dublin’s resurgence?
“The All Ireland breakthrough was important, but equally important were All Ireland club wins with St Vincent’s and Kilmacud, and winning Sigerson Cups,” says Gilroy.
“There were a lot of things that were starting to gather momentum.  was important, but it was going to happen based on what was coming through.”
He added: “The work after that with Jim [Gavin] was just phenomenal. They got better and better.
“It’s seldom you see a team improving as their heading towards their seventh All Ireland, but they are. It’s been an incredible achievement.
“And I’m sure Dessie [Farrell] will continue it on. He has a strong relationship with a lot of those players.”
As for Parnells, they went on to reach the senior county final again in 2011, only to lose out to Fulham Irish. The club is still searching for its first championship since 1991.
But then there was Dublin.
“I still talk to my brother, friends and people from my home club about it – the day we played Dublin,” says Quaid.
“They went on to win the All Ireland that year, and the bandwagon started against Parnells at Ruislip!”