By Damian Dolan
Warwickshire will take no baggage into Saturday’s eagerly awaited All-Britain Junior Football Championship final with London at Pairc na hEireann.
While victory would give the Midlanders a first junior provincial title since 2006, a London win would consign Warwickshire to a fourth consecutive final defeat.
The chance to achieve the former is the greater motivating factor, says Warwickshire manager Charlie O’Donnell, who has yet to taste defeat since taking over the reins this year.
Warwickshire were also runners up in 2014, 2011 and 2008.
“It’s a huge incentive; there’s no baggage,” he said. “I went in this year with a clean slate. The players have bought into what I’ve asked them to do. It’s been a brilliant journey so far.
“Our boys are looking forward to it and we have home advantage. Whether that makes any difference or not, it just incentivises our lads even more.”
Under the former Donegal U16, Minor and U21 footballer, Warwickshire have been a team with one goal, and one goal only, in mind – to end the county’s wait for an All-Britain JFC title.
O’Donnell had them back training early – on 5 April. It was clearly a statement of intent.
“If you’re going to do something you’ve got to do it properly,” he says.
It paid dividends as they notched up wins over Scotland, London and Lancashire, before outgunning Gloucestershire in the semi-finals.
O’Donnell is keen to deflect any praise to the “raw materials” he’s had to work with.
“I’m working with players who are as good as I’ve ever seen. I’ve coached and played at county level and some of these lads are exceptional,” he said.
O’Donnell, though, has clearly presided over a culture within the group which is constantly seeking improvement. They’re a team on a journey.
— Official London GAA (@LondainGAA) July 21, 2021
Their Round 1 win over Scotland – the side that beat them by a point (3-12 to 3-11) in the 2019 final in Birmingham – gave the players “huge belief” in themselves.
Early goals from Sean McDermott’s Joel Powney and Jack Keogh (Roger Casement’s) laid the “platform” for Warwickshire to make a winning start to their All-Britain title bid.
“We prepared very well for that game – we have so much respect for Scotland. We knew it was going to be a huge challenge,” said O’Donnell, who also manages St Finbarr’s in Coventry.
“We had that game targeted from a fair way out and the boys were up for it, because they knew how good Scotland would be.
“When you’re trying to put something new together and you get the first win, you get momentum and confidence. You get that ‘buy-in’ into the process we’re running this year.”
An impressive victory over London at McGovern Park – Powney top scored with 1-6 (4f) – sealed top spot in Group A.
PATH TO THE FINAL
It also meant that their Round 3 clash with Lancashire at Pairc na hEireann was now in effect a dead-rubber.
But it was a game O’Donnell took a huge amount from, as Warwickshire trailed at half-time by 1-4 to 0-4 only to battle back to win comfortably and keep their winning run going.
Most of the scoring damage against Lancashire was done by Roger Casement’s Seanie Boyle (0-3), Powney (0-5), Jack Keogh (0-3), Sean McDermott’s Conal Dowling (1-1) and substitute Alan Brookes (1-0) of St Mary’s.
O’Donnell would see his side rack up another impressive scoring tally in their commanding semi-final win over a depleted Gloucestershire – again in Birmingham – but he’s been equally impressed by what he’s seeing at the other end.
“We’re scoring heavy, but more importantly we’re not conceding,” said O’Donnell, who won a senior county title with Aodh Ruadh in 1994 and was part of Donegal’s senior panel in ’94 and ’95.
Goals from Dowling and Powney helped Warwickshire put the game to bed by half-time (2-13 to 0-3), with Dowling, Powney, Niall Gilbride (Sean McDermott’s) and Brookes adding second half majors as the Midlanders confidently strode into the final.
London, by contrast, had to dig out a one-point victory over Scotland in York, and O’Donnell has no doubts as to which path he’d prefer, if he was given the choice.
“It’s always, always, better to have a tighter game. Your players are tested, they’re questioned and the pressure is on them. How do they respond?” he said.
“You’d always take a one-point game – that’s how you test how a team is going.”
The journey so far has been a “very enjoyable” one for O’Donnell and his charges, but he’s pulled no punches in telling his players in the lead up to Saturday that there’s no point winning four games, to then go out and lose the final.
“We’re in the exact same boat as London now – it’s all about winning,” he said.
“You can be sure they’ll be one kick of the ball between the sides. That’s guaranteed. They’ll be well prepped and we’ll have to be very well prepared ourselves.”
All-Britain JFC Finals 2006-2019
2019 – Scotland 3-12 v 3-11 Warwickshire
2018 – Kilkenny 6-12 v 0-9 Warwickshire
2017 – Kilkenny 3-16 v 1-6 Warwickshire
2016 – Lancashire 1-10 v 2-6 London
2015 – Kilkenny 2-7 to 0-8 Scotland
2014 – Scotland 3-10 v 2-7 Warwickshire
2013 – Lancashire 2-12 v 1-11 Hertfordshire
2012 – Lancashire 2-10 v 0-10 London
2011 – Lancashire 1-13 v 0-4 Warwickshire
2010 – Lancashire 0-16 v 1-6 London
2009 – London 2-6 v 0-10 Lancashire
2008 – Gloucestershire 1-12 v 0-6 Warwickshire
2007 – London 0-11 v 0-9 Lancashire
2006 – Warwickshire winners
Saturday’s final is set to be the ‘homegrown’ All-Britain JFC final. While O’Donnell will be able to call on 17 Warwickshire born and breed players in his 28-29 strong panel, Stephen Lynch’s entire London squad is homegrown.
That change was at the behest of the London county board, and given the green light by Croke Park and provincial council earlier this year.
And now this London team is on a journey of its own, with London contesting its first final since 2016, and having not been crowned British junior champions since 2009.
Lynch has drawn the bulk of his London team from TCG and St Kiernan’s, augmented by players from Parnell’s, North London Shamrocks, Tara and Thomas McCurtains.
Brendan Rice, Kieran Clarke and Ryan McCready all featured in last month’s delayed 2020 senior championship final with Fulham Irish, while Matthew Tierney and Caolan Doyle played in St Kiernan’s senior semi-final loss to the same opposition.
Lynch’s young lions have had to learn quickly. While Warwickshire were back in training from 5 April, the London boss wasn’t able to get his full panel together until the week of their opening round game against Lancashire in Birmingham.
This was a result of the delayed 2020 county finals in London. Hardly ideal preparation.
Nonetheless, London overcame Lancashire by 1-13 to 0-9 with key man Ryan Kearney of Tir Chonaill Gaels scoring 1-3 (1f), and Mathew Joyce and Caolan Doyle contributing 0-2 a piece.
But London were then second-best to Warwickshire in Round 2 at Ruislip. Although the home side were left to rue not taking their chances, and not turning their periods of possession into points, the visitors were worthy winners.
Scotland’s win over Lancashire, however, made the Round 3 games redundant, and ensured that despite that defeat Lynch’s side advanced to the last four.
Regardless, London travelled to Glasgow for their semi-final dress rehearsal with defending champions Scotland.
London fought back from four points down in the closing stages at Clydebank to draw level thanks to Tara’s Sean McCready’s goal and a point from Kearney, only for Cathal Hanifin’s late point to give Scotland victory (0-13 to 1-9).
To York then for the semi-final, and this time it was London’s turn to edge it by the minimum (1-11 to 1-10).
Caolan Doyle’s brilliant second half goal put London up by one, but Lynch’s side were left hanging on going into the last ten minutes when Tara’s Sean McCabe received his marching orders.
But St Claret’s Alife McNulty knocked over what proved to be the winning score in injury-time, with Jack O’Connor Ryan’s free with the penultimate kick of the game proving academic.
Recent Meetings – Warwickshire vs London
2021 Provincial JFC Group Stage, Rnd 2
Warwickshire 1-13 v 0-7 London
McGovern Park, Ruislip
2019 Provincial JFC Group Stage, Rnd 3
Warwickshire 2-10 v 1-10 London
McGovern Park, Ruislip
2018 Provincial JFC Group Stage, Rnd 1
Warwickshire 3-12 v 2-14 London
McGovern Park, Ruislip
If it was a test of this London team’s character, then they’d emerged with honours – Lynch praised his players for having “fought to the bitter end”.
It was the kind of test O’Donnell would gladly have taken for his side.
Another pleasing aspect for Lynch was the contribution of two of his subs, McNulty and Josh Obahor (Parnell’s), who both came off the bench to score two points each, and help “finish the job”.
For Lynch, in his second year as London junior manager, it was also satisfying to see the way his side had responded to the defeats to Warwickshire and Scotland (at Clydebank).
“We knuckled down and stuck together,” he said.
Knuckle down they did and London are most certainly improving, but with four wins under their belt, and home advantage, Warwickshire will rightly go into Saturday’s final as favourites.
Whatever happens, one team is going to end their very long wait to be called British champions.