Ten years on, we revisit to the day Paul Coggins’ London came within minutes of recording one of the biggest upsets in GAA history
By Damian Dolan
Two points up with just four minutes of normal time to go – that’s how close Paul Coggins’ London came to pulling off one of the greatest shocks in the history of the GAA.
Anyone who was at Ruislip that 29 May afternoon in 2011 will never forget it.
The old ground was packed to rafters – the green and red in splendid prominence – on a gloriously sunny Bank Holiday weekend.
Every vantage point was taken; that included the dugout roofs, which were crammed with youngsters.
Many had come expecting to see new Mayo manager James Horan usher in a new dawn for the Westerners. In the end, they very nearly bore witness to an upset for the ages.
When the Mayo team bus pulled out of Ruislip later that day, they knew they’d gotten out of jail – 0-19 to 2-10 victors after extra-time.
Horan, his players and their supporters breathed a huge sigh of relief, for they’d “flirted outrageously with humiliation”.
London cursed what might have been, as Kevin McLoughlin came off the bench to spare the blushes of a “grey with shock” James Horan. What had just happened?
“We had that game,” said then London captain Sean McVeigh, reflecting recently on the event of that afternoon to Saffron.ie.
“It was a proud moment sticking with Mayo for so long – they went on to reach the All Ireland semi-final that year – but also disappointing.
“We had Mayo beaten till the last ten minutes…..a few of their players stood up in extra-time and they kicked a few points and beat us by three.”
Reflecting on the game in 2019 to RTÉ Sport, London manager Paul Coggins agreed it was a game the Exiles “should have won.”
James Horan’s appointment as successor to John O’Mahony in the Mayo hotseat came after O’Mahony’s four-year stint ended with an All Ireland qualifier defeat to Longford at Pearse Park.
Although described as “the obvious choice”, the Ballaghaderreen-native still had to hold off competition from former Dublin manager Tommy Lyons and Anthony McGarry to land the job.
As Ballintubber manager, Horan had guided the club back to senior and then to a senior title, and all within three years.
A two-time All Star winner (1996 and 1999), he was also no stranger to Ruislip, having being on the bench when Mayo beat the Exiles 1-11 to 1-5 in 1996.
London too had a new man at the helm in Paul Coggins. He’d managed Tir Chonaill Gaels to four senior titles, and tasted his own share of Connacht heartache with the Exiles as a player.
The Roscommon-native was in the London team beaten by Leitrim after extra-time in ’97, after a dubious late penalty.
Taking over the London reins from Noel Dunning, who’d seen his side come within the width of a Ruislip crossbar of dumping out Roscommon in 2005, Coggins immediately made good on his promise to look to “the future” by injecting a wealth of young London-born talent.
Uppermost among them was current London captain Liam Gavaghan (TCG). The others included Clive Mills (TCG), Oisin Paterson (TCG) and Tom Waters (St Kiernan’s). They joined Adrian Moyles and Brendan Mulrooney.
Coggins’ management team included his former London teammate, Tony Murphy and the late Kevin Kelly.
Fergal Cunningham, fresh from leading Neasden Gaels to senior county success and giving Crossmaglen Rangers a rattle in the All Ireland Club, was also named, but commitments would later dictate otherwise for him.
From the outset, game-on-game improvement during the course of London’s NFL Division 4 campaign was the target for Coggins.
First up in the league were Kilkenny at Ruislip. Despite Coggins’ protests to the contrary it was a favourable opener – a chance to get a ‘W’ on the board early doors.
Despite the absence of a competitive match, the team’s preparations had been “good”, and they duly notched up a comfortable 0-16 to 0-2 win.
Moindearg’s Eoin O’Neill – from Renvyle in Co Galway – scored 0-7 (4f), while there was a senior debut for Gavaghan. London’s inspirational Antrim-native skipper Sean McVeigh put in a man of the match display.
Others to feature in Coggins’ first London line-up included goalkeeper Evan Byrne, David McGreevy – the mastermind behind East Belfast GAC – Stevie Boyle, Aidan Savage, Brendan Friel and Ciaran McCallion, while Padraig McGolderick, Conor Conneely and Killian Phair all came off the bench.
For one round at least, it put the Exiles proudly at the top of the Division 4 table.
“We did reasonably well,” said Coggins afterwards, keen to balance praise with the knowledge that a far sterner test awaited against the reigning Connacht champions Roscommon.
He was right to temper expectations, as the Rossies eased to a 1-14 to 0-7 win at Ruislip.
“They were bigger in some areas, so we know where we need to get stronger,” said Coggins, who handed a London debut to Neasden Gaels’ Mayo-native Tony Gaughan.
Mick O’Dwyer’s Wicklow were up next at Aughrim Park – a 2-22 to 1-4 victory would take Micko’s charges to the top of Division 4.
The Exiles had started brightly, though, with Eoin O’Neill deservedly despatching a penalty.
But that only acted as a wake-up call for Wicklow who’d opened up a 1-7 to 1-1 lead by the break. The home side continued to set the pace in the second half.
Dulwich Harps’ Mayo native, Sean Kelly, finished with an impressive 0-3 from play for the Exiles.
Refusing to be too downhearted, Coggins called for patience following the 21-point defeat to Wicklow, urging London supporters to focus on the “bigger picture”. This London team was still only taking shape.
Even so, Leitrim’s Round 4 trip to Ruislip offered a “chance to put it right”.
The London weather decreed otherwise. Heavy rain left the Ruislip pitch unplayable, and meant a wasted trip to the capital for Leitrim for the second time in four years.
London offered Oxhey Park in Watford as an alternative venue, but this was turned down by Leitrim due to the pitch not meeting full dimensions.
London’s hurlers had played two national league games there the previous year, and the ground had also staged an All Ireland Club IHC quarter-final between Robert Emmetts and Tommie Larkins.
A new date was fixed for the game (17 April at Ruislip) but Leitrim would not return, denying the Exiles a crucial league outing in the run up to Mayo.
London returned to action against Longford at Greenford, before which Coggins augmented his backroom team with the additions of TCG’s Kevin Downes and Aidan Thompson (Heston Gaels).
On the pitch, Glenn Ryan’s side emerged with a 1-15 to 0-8 victory to leapfrog Wicklow at the top of the table. Another defeat, but the Exiles drew consolation from a strong finish.
They’d trailed 0-7 to 0-4 at the break, and were kept scoreless for 25 minutes in the second half. But they rallied to outscore Longford in the last ten minutes with Sean McVeigh, Richard Dempsey and Eoin O’Neill (2) all firing over.
Coggins hailed those last ten minutes as “the best we’ve played since we started”, and praised his players for the character shown in the wake of the trouncing given them by Wicklow.
The signs of improvement were there for the London manager, but Clare tested that character further as they dished out another 21-point hammering (5-10 to 0-4) at Cusack Park.
The margin had been just 2-3 to 0-3 at half-time, but London struggled to offer an attacking threat in the second half.
With all four of London’s scores coming via Eoin O’Neill frees, it was hard at this juncture to foresee the performance that was to come against Mayo.
“One of the few remaining items of interest pertained to the size of the crowd. About 40 people paid the €10 admittance charge, with approximately ten,” noted one local report on the match.
On to Dr Cullen Park and Carlow, where the Exiles trailed 0-10 to 0-2 as half-time approached, before Liam Gavaghan “caught a great ball and turned sharply to shoot a superb goal”.
It wasn’t to be the catalyst for a second half comeback, but Coggins’ men restored some much-needed pride with this performance.
A Fermanagh team in turmoil at Brewster Park offered a possible chance to pick up a second win – a player exodus had left the Erne Men with just three of the previous year’s championship team.
But despite off field issues John O’Neill’s side led by four at the break and went on to win by 0-14 to 0-8.
But the Erne manager’s post-match comment that they’d found London hard to break down was a noteworthy one, and no doubt a pleasing one from the Exiles’ perspective after those heavy defeats.
Eoin O’Neill scored 0-5 (3f) for London, but Coggins was left to curse his side’s lack of luck in front of goal.
For Coggins, a few goal chances went a begging – just two goals from their six games.
Six days before their re-scheduled league meeting, Leitrim informed the London county board of its decision not to travel, as there was nothing at stake on the game. London would no doubt argue that every match is precious.
The Exiles would have to make do with six league games before facing James Horan’s Mayo.
A game against another county team would have been “helpful” to London’s preparations, said Coggins.
London’s players were instead despatched back to their clubs for Tipperary and Murphy Cup action.
Eoin O’Neill’s 1-3 in a draw with St Kiernan’s will have pleased the London boss, but it came at a cost as the forward picked up a hip injury that would sideline him for a few weeks.
London’s most consistent forward during the league was suddenly a doubt for Mayo.
Having been part of John Maughan’s ’96 Mayo panel which emerged with a six-point victory in Ruislip, Horan struck a cautious note in the build-up.
“These games can be dangerous,” he told the Irish World. “You need to take them very seriously…..it’s important that we start the game well.”
That last part would come back to haunt Horan and Mayo somewhat.
The Westerners’ understanding of Coggins’ team was limited to two dvd’s from their league campaign, and the knowledge that the Exiles had a few Mayo-natives in their ranks.
Mayo’s Division 1 campaign yielded just two wins from seven games, but that statistic in isolation hardly told the full story.
One of those victories was a 1-13 to 0-14 win over reigning All-Ireland champions Cork – the other came against Galway.
But they could also point to narrow defeats at the hands of Monaghan (by two points), Armagh (three points) and Kerry (four points).
They also drew with Down and put three goals past eventual All Ireland champions Dublin, when finding the back of the Dubs’ net that year was nigh on impossible.
Had it not been for Horan’s need to survey the talent at his disposal – he used 35 players and handed out 13 debuts during the league – Mayo might easily have been pushing for a place in the final.
Proving he wasn’t afraid to make the “tough decisions”, he cut Aidan Kilcoyne, Mark Ronaldson, Barry Moran, Brian Benson and former county captain Trevor Mortimor from his panel. Mortimor would return with great effect, however.
Mayo warmed up for London with a 12-point win over Antrim in a challenge match, before one final run out against Offaly on 14 May. A game they lost (2-12 to 0-15) and one watched by London’s spies. After that, it was destination Ruislip.
“London have everything to gain, and we have everything to lose,” said Mayo star Andy Moran, who played in the 1-18 to 0-8 win over London in 2006.
With that experience in mind, Horan emphasised the need for Mayo to “lay down a marker” in the opening ten minutes.
London’s own search for challenge matches took them across the water, ironically on the exact same weekend that Pat Gilroy brought his Dublin charges to London for a training weekend.
Stephen Cluxton, the Brogans brothers et al trained at London Irish Rugby Club’s Sunbury training ground before taking on London club side Parnell’s (minus their London players) at Ruislip.
London’s Mayo contingent consisted of Neasden Gaels’ John Scanlon (Kiltane), Dulwich Harps’ Sean Kelly (Crossmolina), Neasden’s Tony Gaughan (Kiltane) and Parnell’s Noel Tuohy (Ballaghaderreen).
Tuohy had won a senior Mayo title alongside Andy Moran and James Kilcullen in 2008 – ending Ballaghaderreen’s 36-year wait.
“We’re London boys now,” said Tuohy. Life-long friendships to be put to one side, but just until the final whistle.
While describing the task before London as undeniably “massive”, London must come off the field with “no regrets”.
“If we can get the boys singing off the same hymn sheet, who knows what might happen,” he added. How right he so nearly proved to be.
It was a sentiment echoed by the team’s captain, Sean McVeigh. Straight out of the lead-by-example mould of skippers, McVeigh wasn’t built for making up the numbers.
“We’re going out to win the game,” said McVeigh. “The focus has been on what we have to do to win the game, as opposed to what we have to do to stop Mayo.”
The curtain-raiser to the big game saw a comfortable victory for Mayo’s Under 15s against a London Under 16 side.
The home team’s line up was notable for the inclusion of future London and TCG senior stars Killian Butler and Aidan McGarvey, and a future Republic of Ireland Under 21 soccer international in Shaun Donnellan.
Then to the main business – the build-up was finally over. No hiding places now, especially with 4,000 (officially) packed inside Ruislip.
London’s line up included a couple of quality debutants; Michael Maloney and Shane Doolin of Kerry’s Dr Crokes, and Galway-native Mark Gottsche.
Another boost was the return of towering Galwayman Paul Geraghty. The Neasden Gaels midfielder hadn’t featured in the league due to work commitments and injury, but he would make his presence felt against Mayo.
With first use of the wind, the home side quickly opened up a two-point lead – Eoin O’Neill (free) and Sean McVeigh on target.
Unbeknown to London, Mayo’s journey from Castlebar had seen them take two flights and endure two long bus journeys, before eventually arriving in Watford the day before the game.
The post-match warm-down would also need to be cut short as the team had to dash to get to the airport on time.
“Everything about that weekend was chaotic,” recalled Alan Dillon in a later interview.
It was Dillon who opened visitors account in the tenth minute, but the expected early Mayo storm never materialised.
If London were to stay with their prestigious opponents, they would need the rub of the green.
It looked like Lady Luck had deserted them when Cork referee Michael Collins pointed to the penalty spot for a foot-block against London’s Ciaran McCallion, as Jason Doherty shaped to shoot.
Well, it had been good while it lasted. Normal service was about to be resumed.
The heavens decreed otherwise, though, as Aidan Campbell’s spot-kick came back off Evan Byrne’s right hand post, and rebounded to safety across the face of goal. Perhaps this would be London’s day after all.
London seized on their good fortune. Playing like men possessed, Mark Gottsche extended the London lead.
Straight from the kick-out Gottsche and Paul Geraghty, playing further up the pitch, combined to send Scanlon in on goal.
Scanlon’s shot was blocked by Robert Hennelly, only for the following up Geraghty to blast home the rebound.
An odd disbelieving silence descended over Ruislip, only to be punctured a moment or two later by cheers.
Confidence poured through London veins, but it was Mayo captain Alan Dillon who struck the next two scores to settle his side.
Mayo finished the half the stronger, but it was Geraghty’s goal which divided the teams at the break (1-4 to 0-4).
For the second half, Coggins switched Geraghty back to his more familiar role in the middle of the park, and the Neasden man immediately introduced himself to Messers James Kilcullen and Jason Gibbons by plucking two Evan Byrne kick-outs from the air.
McLoughlin opened the second half scoring ten minutes in. These felt like critical moments. London needed to respond, and they did so through Barry Comer after nice inter-play between Derek Hagan and Geraghty. It was a huge score.
While the London camp had been busy telling anyone who’d listen that they believed they had an upset within them, all of a sudden everyone inside Ruislip was beginning to believe it too.
It was now end-to-end stuff. An Andy Moran free brought Mayo back to within two, and Moran then set up Dillon to close the gap further, only for London to again respond through Comer.
“I’ve never gone that far up a football pitch in my life!” Comer would later observe.
The tension was beginning to build around Ruislip. Hagan, Comer and John Collins combined brilliantly for the latter to point, and once again Geraghty’s goal divided the teams.
But within a flash Mayo were level. Three points in as many minutes from Moran (2) and Kilcullen, and the stage seemed set for Mayo to finally put an end to this nonsense.
Ten minutes still remained with the Exiles struggling to break out of their own half, but work their way down field against the wind they duly did and Geraghty nonchalantly flicked the ball over the bar with the outside of his right boot.
Seconds later substitute Killan Phair did likewise and Ruislip was on the verge of pandemonium.
Four minutes to go and London led Mayo by two points, and it might have been more.
When Mayo could find only one way of halting a surging Sean McVeigh run, London had the chance to leave Horan’s men needing a goal, but John Collin’s free dropped short.
“I remember with just a few minutes to go my eyes met the eyes of our coach Kevin Downes on the sideline. We were two points up and both of our eyes just looked up to heaven!” recalled Coggins in a 2019 interview.
“It was out of control,” his opposite number, James Horan, reflected in 2016. “I think the crowd around as well, the noise or the din you could pick it up.
“The players weren’t sure what was happening either and we were just hanging on, hoping.”
Amidst it all, though. Horan somehow managed to pull a rabbit from the hat. He threw Trevor Mortimor into the fray and he pointed to leave Mayo trailing by one.
And then in the final minute, salvation for Horan and Mayo as McLoughlin fired over to level, and force extra-time.
It was the first time Ruislip had seen extra-time in Connacht since Leitrim in ’97.
Buoyed by their great escape, Mayo rattled up four unanswered points in the opening six minutes, with three of those coming from Moran.
Mayo had finally turned out the light on London it seemed, only for St Kiernan’s Cathal O’Sullivan to switch them back on, as he rose on the stroke of half-time to flick Sean Kelly’s free past Hennelly and into the net.
For the final time the teams squared up. Alan Freeman fired over a great point and Hennelly strode forward to add a ‘65.
Future London captain Liam Gavaghan, just 19, was Coggins’ last sub, and Phair’s free left the home side needing a goal to win it. But fittingly perhaps it was Moran who had the last word.
“We’re a very happy team leaving here with a victory,” Mayo’s talisman forward said afterwards. “All credit to London, they had 20 man of the matches.”
Reflecting on the game years later, James Horan admitted Mayo were “as lucky as hell” to get out of Ruislip that day.
“Certainly as a manager, I was lucky to survive it,” he said. Alan Dillon called it his “scariest day playing for Mayo”.
London midfielder Mark Gottsche, said: “If someone told us we’d be that close [to Mayo] at the end, people would have said no!”
Speaking in 2011, London vice-captain Barry Comer, said: “I really thought it was our day.”
“We just couldn’t finish it out – we weren’t used to winning. If we’d kicked on when we were ahead we could have easily won that game.
“We just panicked a bit in the last five minutes when we should have just settled and kept hold of the ball.”
London boss Paul Coggins said: “You couldn’t have asked any more of the lads out there – they gave everything they had.
“Even though I’m disappointed, I’m also extremely proud and I hope the Gaels of London are too.”
Mayo went on to win a Connacht title before losing out to Kerry in an All Ireland semi-final.
For London, there was victory over Fermanagh in the first round of the qualifiers – a first championship win in 34 years – and joyous scenes on the Ruislip pitch.
Occasionally sport transcends itself to something greater than it is. This was one such occasion. For London, another glorious Connacht failure, but what a failure it was.