Eammon Brett and Sean Harte recall London’s historic 1977 Connacht Championship victory over Leitrim – a win that took 36 years to repeat
By Damian Dolan
For 36 years it was the day every footballer who pulled on a London jersey aspired to emulate.
Until Paul Coggins’ side defeated Sligo on a glorious Ruislip afternoon in 2013, the boys of ’77 were the benchmark against which every London team was measured.
There had been, of course, Junior All Irelands, including a three-in-a-row (1969-71), but entrance into the Connacht senior football championship in 1975, and that famous win over Leitrim two years later, put London’s Exiled footballers firmly on the GAA map.
Tara’s Sean Harte – a native of Leitrim – and St Brendan’s Eamonn Brett both played their part that day in Carrick-on-Shannon.
1976 had seen the curtain reluctantly come down on the Wembley Games, after 18 years. A crowd of 12,500 on 17 October persuaded the London county board to reluctantly pull the plug.
The final Wembley showpiece saw Cork’s hurlers beat Wexford 0-10 to 0-7, and Dublin’s footballers defeat Kerry 1-12 to 1-10.
In the curtain-raiser, Allied Irish Bank beat the Exiles by 1-12 to 1-10 – a game notable for the London debut of Brett.
The Charlestown-native had been a rising star in Mayo before fate decreed otherwise.
Brett was on the Mayo team that reached the 1974 All Ireland Minor final, only to lose out to Cork at Croke Park.
His senior debut wasn’t too far around the corner. It came in November of the same year at corner back in the National League against a Galway side fresh from losing the All Ireland final to Dublin.
Brett’s senior championship debut came the following year, in ’75, against London ironically in the Connacht quarter-final – a game that signalled London’s historic return to the All Ireland stage for the first time since 1908.
With a 19-year-old Brett at midfield, Mayo beat London by 4-12 to 1-12.
But little did Brett realise that Castlebar afternoon that two years later he’d be part of a history making Exiles team.
“London were okay; the Mayo team at that time was strong and should have had enough to get over London,” recalls Brett.
“Coming to Castlebar was a difficult match for London, to expect them to come out on top.”
In the London team that day was Vincent Ryan. Brett and Ryan had togged out alongside each other in the All Ireland Minor final defeat to Cork. A further twist to the plot.
Ryan had arrived in London that February and joined Parnell’s, before linking up with London.
Brett didn’t feature in Mayo’s subsequent Connacht semi-final win over Roscommon, but was recalled for the final with Sligo at Markievicz Park, which ended in a draw.
He lasted barely three minutes, though, before being forced off with a chipped bone in his shoulder and a punctured lung, and missed the replay which Sligo won by a point.
In 1976 he played senior again, as well as captaining Mayo’s Under 21s in an All Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
Later that year, after finishing his studies at Galway RTC, Brett moved to London where he hooked up with St Brendan’s.
An intermediate club at the time, Brett had a few connections at Brendan’s. One of those, Brian Hegarty, was a former Mayo Minor who also hailed from Charlestown.
A civil engineer, Brett got work on the building sites for the first few months up to the Christmas of ’76. Through Iggy Donnelly, he then got a job in civil engineering.
It was St Brendan’s stalwart Packie Hughes, a London selector, who got him involved with the county team.
Wembley Stadium was a surreal place to make his first appearance for London, though.
“It’s not often you get a chance to play on the Wembley pitch – which was grand to play on,” laughs Brett.
“But I remember thinking it was very short compared to a GAA pitch. The kick-outs were nearly landing in the half back line.”
Looking around him, Brett was impressed by the calibre of player in London.
“There was good competition for places and there was no guarantee of getting on to that London team. You had to perform,” he said.
“We had some good players, and some had inter-county experience.
“Billy O’Connell was a great player; a real athlete and very hard to mark. He always seemed to have a yard or two of room, even when he was cornered.
“He could always make space and be there to take or give a pass.”
A right half forward from St Senans, Co Kerry, O’Connell arrived in London in 1972. The following year he played in the Junior All Ireland final defeat to Laois, and in ’75 captained the London senior team in its inaugural Connacht match against Mayo.
“You can see the players who had the experience. They have the handy knack of being in the right place, a good eye for position and organisation,” adds Brett.
O’Connell’s Kingdom teammate, Jerry Mahoney, was the other real stand-out player. From Renard, Co Kerry, Jerry Mahoney was for many the greatest footballer to ever play in London.
A classy player with wonderful high fielding skills, he was one of the shinning stars as London beat Dublin in the Junior All Ireland final of 1971. Jerry’s brother, John, was also on that team.
O’Connell, Jerry and John Mahoney (who passed away in 2009) had all represented Kerry at either Minor, Under 21 or junior, before going on to be mainstays of the Kingdom team which won six London senior titles in a row between 1973-78.
The club also collected two All Ireland 7-a-sides, five senior football leagues and five club Championships of Britain, for good measure.
In the likes of Jerry and John Mahoney and Billy O’Connell, London had some “great footballers”, says Sean Harte.
“They were terrific players and the Kingdom boys were fit enough. We also had some good sturdy fellas in the backs, Timmy Shanahan and Eamonn Brett. It was a strong team,” he said.
The Kingdom may have back-boned that London team, but there were other stars.
“Kevin Maguire (Round Towers) was a good player. I always liked him from a defensive point of view because he was solid as a rock,” said Brett.
Brett’s St Brendan’s teammate Mick McGovern was the only London-born player in the side.
From Hayes in West London, McGovern joined QPR in 1966 as an apprentice when he was 16. He spent six seasons at Loftus Road, making 12 first-team appearances, before moving to Swindon Town.
He then dropped down to play semi-professional football, and after spells with Hillingdon Borough and Harrow Borough enjoyed a long and successful career with his hometown club Hayes.
“Mick was a great athlete – he had speed and acceleration. I was brought up playing football in Mayo, so for him to get to that level being London born said an awful lot for his talents,” said Brett.
Released by The Missioners in July 1985, he joined Southall and the following year helped them reach the FA Vase final at Wembley, alongside a 19-year-old Les Ferdinand.
In the likes of Jerry Mahoney, Tony Flavin and Kevin Maguire, London had “experienced players in the middle of the field” who weren’t going to be “phased by the occasion”.
“They just got on with the game. When you have players who don’t play together regularly, you need a certain number of experienced players to lead the way and keep everyone doing what they should be doing,” said Brett.
“We were a good all-round team. We had a good bunch who worked hard for each other.
“We also had an experienced core group who were well used to playing with, and against, each other, and knew each other’s strengths.
“For the rest of us, it was then easy to blend in and strengthen that core.”
The Kingdom’s all-conquering team of the 1970s was very much part of that core. Six of the London team had started the previous year against Roscommon – goalkeeper Brendan Greenaway, Kevin Maguire, Tony Flavin, Jerry and John Mahoney, and Billy O’Connell.
On the bench were Sean Harte, Jim Colleary and Eugene O’Sullivan.
It all helped to compensate for the biggest draw-back facing the Exiles in the lead up to Leitrim – a lack of games.
“You were always going to be a few yards short on the competitive edge than you needed,” said Brett.
London attempted to make up for it by training long and hard at Wormwood Scrubs in the lead up to Leitrim.
Despite being well beaten by Mayo in ’75 and Roscommon the following year (2-18 to 1-7), London travelled to Carrick quietly confident, and focused.
A leading Dublin bookmaker didn’t share that feeling – London were unquoted for the Connacht championship outright, the Leitrim Observer noted. Before adding that “rumours circulating from the English capital indicate every optimism of toppling Leitrim”.
While London could be assured of a “warm welcome”, there would be “no mercy on the football field”.
London were trained by Kerryman Eugene O’Sullivan, while the manager was Sligoman Jim Colleary, who’d won a Railway Cup with Connacht. Pat Griffin, Martin Diggins and Packie Hughes made up the management team.
The captain was the Kingdom’s Tony Flavin, from Ballydonoghue in Co Kerry.
Flavin had been a sub on the Kerry Minor team that reached the 1965 All Ireland final, and won Munster Junior and Under 21 medals in 1968.
He won an All Ireland Junior medal when London defeated Dublin in 1971, before becoming a permanent figure in the great Kingdom team of the ‘70s.
Flavin would later serve the Kingdom as chairman (1979-81) and manage London’s footballers in 1982. He sadly passed away in February 2020.
With a team backboned by experienced players used to tasting success, this was not just a “good weekend away” for London’s players. Far from it.
“We were going there to perform – our concentration was on the game,” recalls Brett.
“The club scene in London at that time was fairly strong – the standard was good. The difficulty was trying to get a bunch of players together, but that team did.”
Speaking in the Irish Independent in 2013, Padraig Carney – London corner forward in ‘77 – recalled the players “training hard” at Gladstone Park on the Thursday night before the game.
The London team to face Leitrim was picked that night.
Among the backs was Sean Harte. From Cloone in Co Leitrim, Harte had arrived in London in 1970, when he was 15, and to begin with lived with an older sister in Cricklewood.
“I nearly grew up in London,” says Harte, who eventually settled in Kingsbury for 22 years, before moving back to Athlone, Co Meath, in 1997.
Harte started off by playing Under 16 for Tara and St Agnes, alongside the likes of Tony Grealish, before progressing to the Tara senior team.
Having played Minor, Under 21 and junior for London, his senior debut came against Allied Irish Bank in May 1974 at the Wembley Games.
“I was right full back,” recalls Harte without hesitation.
When London made their debut in Connacht against Mayo in Castlebar in ‘75, Harte was among the substitutes but didn’t get on.
He recalls Mick Coyle, one of the London selectors, pacing up and down outside the team’s hotel in Castlebar to stop any of the players going out the night before the game.
“Someone threw a basin of water down on top of him!,” says Harte, who was named among the subs again in 1976 against Roscommon.
He would make amends in ’77, though, and can remember the excitement in the lead up to the game, especially between himself and his fellow Leitrim-native and Tara teammate Gerry Keegan – the latter a former Leitrim player from Mohill, who was “one of Leitrim’s brightest prospects” before departing.
Awaiting them in Carrick was a partisan 3,500-4,000 home support, but a Leitrim side minus their star forward Michael Martin, who was on All Star duty in New York.
But as Leitrim county secretary Tony McGowan said in the week leading up to the game, “if we cannot beat London without Martin then what chance will we have against Galway?”
Despite the absence of Martin, Leitrim were confident and with good reason.
In ’76, they’d knocked Mayo out of Connacht after a replay – Brett played in that four-point defeat in Carrick. It proved to be his last senior game for Mayo.
1977 also saw Leitrim beat Roscommon to win a first Connacht Under 21 title on 24 July. They subsequently lost to Kerry in the All Ireland semi-final.
Martin was a big part of that Under 21 success, but so too were Dan Meehan, Frank Holohan, Frankie Bohan, Sean Leydon, Des McNulty, Joe Reynolds and Frank Smyth, all of whom started against London.
It gave the Leitrim team a youthful look that day in Carrick. Yet Frank Smyth had captained Aughawillan to a Leitrim senior title in ’76, while Frank Holohan would go on to be named in the Leitrim Team of the Millennium. Michael Martin also made the team.
Leitrim optimism, though, was checked a week before London, when a full-strength team went down 0-9 to 0-6 to Clare in a tournament in Ennis. The Leitrim Observer called the performance “absolutely pathetic”.
Having spent the Saturday night at the Bush Hotel in the heart of Carrick-on-Shannon, London were greeted by a fine day the next morning. The ball was “as dry as snuff” recalled Carney.
“There was a feeling in the dressing-room before the game – we knew we had it in us,” he told the Irish Independent.
Noel Mahon opened the scoring in the third minute, but points from Frank Cousins, John Mahoney and Billy O’Connell gave London a 0-3 to 0-1 lead after 15 minutes.
The visitors’ lack of match practice wasn’t impacting on the “combination and flow” of their play.
“We started well and we took our scores,” says Brett.
By the 27th minute that gap had stretched to three points (0-5 to 0-2) with Mick McGovern and Frank Cousins both on target.
But London then “squandered a number of chances” and Ben Wrynne closed out the first half scoring to see the Exiles take a far from commanding 0-5 to 0-3 lead into the break.
Leitrim’s management reshuffled their forward line, but a London attack straight from the throw in was thwarted only by the crossbar.
A “lucky let off for Leitrim” the Leitrim Observer call it.
London wasted no time in pushing on and two points inside the opening two minutes – a Maguire ’50 and a McGovern point from play – put the Exiles four to the good (0-7 to 0-3).
Leitrim responded by switching captain Sean Flanagan to midfield and soon after he burst through to point. It was Leitrim’s captain who was responsible for “stemming the London midfield stranglehold”.
Even so, points from John Mahoney and McGovern (free) kept the gap at four (0-9 to 0-5) with 12 minutes gone in the second half.
It might have been more but for the “anticipation” of Leitrim’s Noel Crossan, who denied Norman McCarthy “an almost certain goal”. A goal then would have “sown up” the home side.
“We were comfortable and were maybe even controlling the game. We weren’t overawed by the occasion and as the game wore on we got more and more confident. It was ours to lose,” added Brett.
London had dominated three quarters of this contest wrote the Leitrim Observer – Tony Flavin and Jerry Mahoney “completely dominated the midfield tussle”.
But the visitors hadn’t made it tell on the scoreboard, and the door opened for Leitrim as London “ran out of steam in the final quarter”.
When Leitrim substitute Peter McPartland pointed in the 24th minute, there was just a goal between the sides (0-9 to 0-6).
Leitrim camped in the London half for the remainder of the game, as they “desperately strove to save face”.
The home support waited “to the bitter end in the hope of perhaps seeing Leitrim snatch a late equaliser”, and on a couple of occasions they threatened to do so.
Most notably, Brendan Greenaway had to come to the Exiles’ rescue when Joe Reynolds found himself with the London goalkeeper “at his mercy”, only to see his shot “smothered” by the advancing Greenaway.
Speaking to the Irish Independent in 2013, Leitrim goalkeeper that day, Noel Crossan, recalled the moment.
He said: “I thought, ‘this is it, this’ll get us back into it’ but then Brendan Greenaway, the London goalkeeper, made a mighty stop on Joe and that was our last chance gone.”
Brett remembers it to, calling it a “great save”.
“When you have a lead and time is creeping towards the end, you are inclined to get a little bit defensive,” said Brett.
“You might not want to do it, but you do. You take a step backwards, when you should be stepping forwards, and you draw pressure onto yourselves.”
If London were guilty of that in those closing moments in Carrick, who could blame them.
Faced with the unthinkable and driven forward by desperation, Leitrim had a penalty claim when Peter McPartland “was grounded” in the small square waved away by Sligo referee John Lee, who instead awarded a free out to London.
The final whistle came soon after, securing the 1977 London team its place in history.
London, “inspired by capital displays from Kerrymen Timmy Shanahan and Billy O’Connell, and ironically two Leitrim-born players Gerry Keegan and Sean Harte held out”, wrote Tom O’Riordan in his report.
Liberal in his praise for London, O’Riordan added: “Leitrim would be the first to admit they would not have deserved a second chance”.
London were “deserving winners after taking the lead in the tenth minute and maintaining it with a wholesome workmanlike, rather than spectacular display”.
They’d “worked hard from beginning to end and grafted with a total lack of inhibition”.
‘London lions upset the odds’ hailed one headline. The decisive factors in London’s victory? A “more positive sense of commitment” and an “obvious hunger”.
The Leitrim Observer’s headline screamed ‘London Lynch Leitrim!’, with the paper calling it a “sad day” for the county’s footballers and an “all time low”. The final score, though, “in no way flattered London”.
The Leitrim Observer went on to brand the decision to play the game without star man Martin as a “grievous error of judgement”. Martin arrived back from New York two days after the London defeat.
“The crowd weren’t expecting London to turn them over,” says Brett.
“They probably expected London to put up a fight until half-time, and then Leitrim’s superior fitness, and the class of one or two of their players would come through. But that didn’t happen.”
Among the crowd was Sean Harte’s Leitrim family. He recalls: “After winning we were very excited – beating our home county.
“It was a major upset; they were missing one of their best players at the time, Michael Martin, but even without him they weren’t expecting London to beat them.
“It was a great achievement and there was great excitement at the time in London.”
Harte adds: “They didn’t think a lot of London beating them – London was only getting off the ground – but my family was happy for me.”
Afterwards, Leitrim’s Noel Crossan recalled the “terrible silence” in the home dressing room.
“We were like mice,” he said. “We’d usually hang around after a match, but not that day. We all disappeared away as quickly as we could.”
London had four weeks to prepare for a semi-final showdown with defending Connacht champions Galway on 12 June.
“There was good excitement in London circles. We’d created a bit of a stir and put London up there,” recalls Brett.
Early on, London threatened to pull off another shock at a rain-lashed Ballinasloe. Two points up inside the opening ten minutes, the visitors still led after 20 minutes, 1-3 to 1-2.
But then an opportunistic goal from Galway’s John Tobin gave the home side the ascendancy, and a narrow half-time lead (2-3 to 1-5). London’s goal came from Eugene O’Sullivan.
“We trained well for Galway and played very well in the first half – it was nip and tuck,” remembers Brett.
“Whoever I was marking was taken off at half-time and they brought on Tom Naughton.”
The introduction of 1974 All Star Naughton to Galway’s attack, coupled with some strong dressing room words from their manager Enda Colleran, turned the semi-final decisively in the home side’s favour.
“I hadn’t heard of him [Naughton] at the time, but I knew about him afterwards!,” adds Brett. “Once they got a goal or two, they took over and pulled away.”
Six points in as many minutes at the start of the second half took the game away from London. The visitors eventually went down by 5-13 to 1-9, and the adventure was over.
“I wasn’t happy with the result, but I was certainly happy with our first half performance,” said Brett.
“We shipped a few goals [in the second half] but when you’re down you may as well try and retrieve the situation. We’d prefer to go down fighting.”
Harte had been on holiday in Meath prior to Galway, and remembers driving over to Ballinasloe for the game.
“I was playing full back and I was kicking out the ball. I was marking Jimmy Duggan and every time I’d kick it out, either he’d get it or someone would get it to him and it would be over the bar,” he recalls.
“I was taken off with five or ten minutes to go. I was walking off the field and another goal went in.
“We were beaten badly in the end, but it was a fair Galway team and we weren’t in the same class as them that day.”
Brett, along with Mick McGovern, rounded off ’77 by helping St Brendan’s to intermediate championship success. The following year Brett played against Roscommon, before heading back to Ireland at the end of 1979.
Harte lined out against Mayo in 1981, when the Connacht Championship came to Ruislip for the first time.
Following the events of ’77, It would be another 36 years before London once again enjoyed such a summer, and Brett and Harte were both in Castlebar in 2013 to see the Exiles run out in a Connacht final for the first time.
“I was very proud of being on the London team in 1977 and to represent the Irish over there (in London), and coming home and playing in Ireland,” reflects Harte.
For Brett, events had finally come full circle.
“I’m always proud of having had the opportunity of playing with London, and it was a privilege to play with some of those players,” he said.
London 0-9 vs 0-6 Leitrim
Connacht SFC Quarter-Final
15 May 1977
Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, Carrick on Shannon
LONDON: Brendan Greenaway (Cork); Gerry Keegan (Leitrim), Sean Harte (Leitrim), Timmy Shanahan (Kerry); Eamonn Brett (Mayo), Kevin Maguire (Kildare) 0-1 (’50), Billy O’Connell (Kerry) 0-1; Tony Flavin (Kerry), Jerry Mahoney (Kerry); Gerry Mallon (Tyrone), Norman McCarthy (Mayo); Mick McGovern (London) 0-3 (2f), John Mahoney (Kerry) 0-2, Frank Cousins (Clare) 0-2, Padraig Carney (Roscommon). Subs: Eugene O’Sullivan (Kerry) for Mallon, Tom Walsh (Mayo) for Carney.
LEITRIM: Noel Crossnan; Sean Creamer, Dan Meehan, Tony Mulvey; Joe Reynolds, Frankie Holohan, Sean Leydon; Dessie McNulty, Frankie Bohan; Padraig Leydon, Frankie Smyth, Ben Wrynne 0-2 (2f); James Holohan 0-1, Sean Flanagan 0-1, Noel Mahon 0-1. Subs: Kieran Brennan for Mahon, Peter McPartland 0-1 for Bohan, Liam Kelly for McNulty.
REFEREE: John Lee (Sligo).