When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

Barry Mitchell revisits the 2013 day London’s Gaelic footballers took on the might of Mayo in the Connacht Championship final

After the drama of Ruislip, Hyde Park and Carrick, London’s bandwagon rolled into MacHale Park on 21 July 2013 – a day that may never be repeated.

With then London Mayor Boris Johnson backing ‘our boys’, all of London’s GAA community seemed to decamp to Castlebar to be there to witness London’s first-ever Connacht final appearance.

“Go London!” tweeted Mr Johnson along with his “best wishes” to the team for the final against Mayo.

“Regardless of the result against Mayo, London can be proud of their mightily impressive achievements this year.”

A social media campaign to #getboristocastlebar would prove unsuccessful – just as it had for the drawn semi-final in Carrick-on-Shannon. The Queen did at least reply to send her apologies.

Hotelier Joe Dolan, the chairman of Leitrim Tourism, and Enda Stenson, chairman of Leitrim county council, were the pair to extend a warm invite to her majesty.

In the space of a short few weeks, London’s footballers had gone from a bunch of unknowns to the most sort after and talked about team in the championship – editors across Ireland frantically scrambling to find out who they were, and where they were from.

It was the fairytale story of the summer. The underdog finally having its day.

The team’s exploits that summer unified a county behind them, and made the London jersey a must have item.

The team had “lit up the GAA Championship” that summer, said then GAA President Liam O’Neill.

In the middle of the whirlwind that London’s footballers had created with their one-point wins over Sligo – the county’s first win in Connacht since 1977 – and Leitrim, was Laois native Barry Michell.

“Our families were in the crowd [at MacHale Park] and it was a feeling of great pride to be out on the pitch wearing the London jersey in a Connacht final,” he says.

“There was an amazing atmosphere when we came out – the whole crowd was cheering. You had goosebumps.”

Mitchell had arrived in London the previous year, helping Tir Chonaill Gaels to senior title success, chipping in with two points as the Greenford club defeated Kingdom Kerry Gaels in the final.

In December, Colm Coopers’ Dr Crokes dished out a sobering 15-point “hammering” in the All Ireland Club Championship, however.

His London debut came at Cusack Park, Ennis, in Round 6. A second half substitute for Lloyd Colfer, Mitchell scored a point in a 2-14 to 0-8 loss.

He came off the bench again in London’s final league game – away to Leitrim – but had forced his way into the starting line-up for the Connacht quarter-final with Sligo.

He contributed a point as London made history by beating Sligo at Ruislip, and then started the semi-final draw in Carrick.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

He then came off the bench in the 60th minute at Dr Hyde Park on 30 June as London’s house threatened to cave in all around them, but somehow they survived to set up a Connacht final date with James Horan’s Mayo.

If London’s players thought they’d been in demand before the events at Hyde Park, all hell was about to break loose.

London was caught in the grip of Connacht final fever, and the Irish media couldn’t get enough of Paul Coggins’ band of Exiled brothers.

“It was chaos, but it was exciting chaos,” recalls Mitchell, who comes from Portarlington and now lives in Aylesbury.

He still works for Irish company O’Neill and Brennan, who were a sponsor of London GAA back in 2013.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“It was insane; you’d have to book a timeslot to have a conversation with some of the lads, they had so much media. Some were getting calls left, right and centre.

“Lorcan Mulvey must have had a PA and Tony Gaughan, being from Mayo, was non-stop. They were lucky to fit training in.”

Still relatively new to London, and certainly new to the county team, Mitchell found himself caught up in a whirlwind. What surprised him most of all, was how tight-knit the community was.

“For people who weren’t born here [in London] to have such passion for London GAA was just amazing. They loved the game and they’d do anything for London,” he said.

“That was something Coggins drove into us. He was the driving force – he’d make you die for that shirt. You were part of London and this was your county now.”

Media glare

If London’s management was wary of the team’s newfound fame and the impending media glare in the lead up to Mayo, they were right to be.

Following the team’s 2011 first round qualifier win over Fermanagh, which gave London a first championship win since ’77, the media attention arguably became a distraction.

London subsequently slipped to a seven-point defeat to Waterford in Round 2 at Ruislip, and a golden opportunity was lost. That wouldn’t be allowed to happen again – this time London took control.

An official media day was arranged well in advance of the final with media from Ireland and the UK invited, with the assistance of Croke Park, to attend.

It took place at Ruislip on 9 July and combined with a training session, to enable television to get footage.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

London made its full squad available for interviews and photos, and even arranged for some of the team to give a coaching session to some of the county’s underage players.

For Mitchell, it was a way of showing the young players what they too “could achieve”, and an opportunity to say thank you to the London GAA community.

“None of us would be there but for the community around us and the support and sponsorship given to us,” said Mitchell.

The media left satisfied, leaving London free to focus on the task in hand.

“The minute it was over the focus was on for Mayo,” says Mitchell.

And with good need – competition for places on the bench, let alone in the starting 15, was fierce. The intensity in training reflected that.

“Sometimes training was like being in the colosseum in the film Gladiator,” says Mitchell.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“You’d just be taking scalps out of each other – it was like playing championship football.

“You loved it, but you’d come off afterwards with a black eye and cuts left, right and centre. Lads would be queuing up for the physio table.”

While there was plenty of inter-county experience in Coggins’ squad, this was very much a team.

While the players continued their preparations, London’s GAA community was consumed by Connacht final excitement.

Well-known London-Irish band The Biblecode Sundays released a song celebrating the team reaching the final, while Irish TV.ie. descended on Ruislip for a special pre-Connacht final preview show (‘Mad For Sam – London Calling’) on 18 July.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

Broadcast Live on Sky, it was also available to subscribers to Setanta Sports, Premier Sports, Freesat, Eircom and UPC in Ireland and the UK. TG4 also took the feed from Ruislip and broadcast it on the day of the final.

Amongst the special guests on the night were Mayo legend Willie Joe Padden, former Mayo stars Pat Holmes and Colm McMenamin, and former Antrim and Ulster star and top GAA columnist Kevin Madden.

London’s run had caused the county board’s fixture committee a headache though. The senior football championship had been due to commence on 20/21 July.

It was subsequently pushed back two weeks, while three intermediate clubs also had their championship games moved – Heston Gaels (Padraig McGoldrick), Cuchulainns (Sean Kelly) and North London Shamrocks (Graham Carr).

Homeward bound

It was an early start for London’s players and management on 20 July. Seizing on the opportunity for some good PR, Aer Lingus offered to fly the team from London Southend Airport to Knock on a special chartered flight.

London Southend Airport was Aer Lingus Regional’s newest London hub – the team’s ‘homeward bound’ journey would serve to promote it.

That meant more media. Lorcan Mulvey was there extra early – decked out in a suit with green London football socks – to film a video.

Journalists from Ireland had flown over that morning, solely to accompany the team on its ‘journey home’ to Ireland.

“It was surreal; I think some of the lads thought ‘we’ve made it – this is the life’. There were photographers everywhere,” recalls Mitchell.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

But far from intimidating the players, Mitchell says it was a “source of encouragement” and “calming”, and something of a welcome distraction.

“It [the media presence] stopped us from thinking about the game too much,” he added.

Manager Paul Coggins was nowhere to be seen, though. Not a fan of flying, he’d made his own arrangements.

“Paul and Damien Dunleavy were both terrified of flying – they’d be holding hands,” says Mitchell.

Touching down at Knock Airport, there were more photos on the tarmac.

But walking through the arrivals gate at Knock made the fuss all worthwhile, as the players were greeted by an army of family and friends.

“It was brilliant; with all of us coming from massive footballing backgrounds and big passionate clubs from home, it was lovely to feel that warmth again,” says Mitchell.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“As much as we all loved being in London, there’s nothing like travelling back home.”

After a specially chartered flight, the team’s mode of transport to their hotel was slightly less auspicious – a Dublin Airport Courtesy Coach.

As the bus turned on to the main road the team was greeted by a sign on the side of the road ‘London land to Knock Mayo’.

Similar to the drawn game with Leitrim, when London opted to stay outside of Carrick-on-Shannon in a small town called Drumshanbo, the team plumped for the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris – a near 30-minute drive from Castlebar.

After settling in, it was over to MacHale Park for a kickaround on the back pitch to loosen the legs and work off the flight.

At a team meeting later that evening the team to face Mayo was announced and tactics gone over.

Calm

When London left the hotel, the Airport bus was waiting. The players chucked their bags on board, along with all of their equipment and kit. The players would follow behind in a separate coach.

There was a tangible change in mood during the half hour drive to MacHale Park. Throw in was 2pm.

“It was very calm, there wasn’t much talking going on,” remembers Mitchell.

“You can tell there was a bit of nerves. Guys were very focused on what they needed to do. There were a lot of headphones in.”

That continued into the dressing. London had arrived early and there was no need to crank up the intensity levels and expend nervous energy too soon before throw in.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“Mulvey was unbelievable, he was such a leader. He would chat away with everyone, nice and calm. Damien Dunlevy was another brilliant character. They were the calming force,” says Mitchell.

When the players went out for their initial warm-up, they were not short of support. Plenty had made the trip to cheer the boys on.

One wondered if there was anyone left at Ruislip, such was the support for the Exiles in the crowd.

London’s entire GAA community had relocated en masse, it seemed, to Castlebar for the day, led by the Supporters Club and its driving force, the late Kevin Kelly.

Game plan

The big thing in the build-up, Mitchell recalls, was for London’s players to stick to the game plan, work as a team and enjoy it. Do that, and London would give them “as big a battle as they can”.

Coggins warned his players against getting distracted by the 21,000 crowd, and instead reinforced to them that everyone was behind them.

“His team talks were unbelievable – you’d come out of the dressing room and you’d be ready to go,” said Mitchell.

But while London had been edging past Sligo and Leitrim by the minimum, James Horan’s Mayo had emphatically dismissed the challenge of Galway (4-16 to 0-11) and Roscommon (0-21 to 0-9).

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

Two years earlier, London had led Mayo by two points with just two minutes to go in their Connacht quarter-final at Ruislip, only for Mayo to wriggle off the hook and get over the line in extra-time.

Coincidently that was Coggins and Horan’s first championship games in charge. By 2013, both sides had moved forwards, but Mayo considerably so.

“They were an unbelievable outfit. They were at their peak and they were hungry – they believed they could win that All Ireland,” says Mitchell.

“No one gave us a chance – them boys were on another level in terms of talent, and even their fitness. For me, they were the best team in the country at the time.”

London had a few native Mayo players on their panel – Tony Gaughan (Kiltane), Sean Kelly (Crossmolina), Danny Ryan (Kilmeena) and Aidan McTigue (Irishtown).

Perhaps it was that which ensured a warm welcome from those supporting the green and red.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

London went through their final warm up, by which time the ground was close to full.

“Kicking points in the warm up in front of a crowd like that…..I think nine out of ten were wide. If you got one over the bar you were over the moon,” says Mitchell.

London were “very calm, but very driven”, but it was impossible to ignore the magnitude of the occasion.

London’s Longford captain Seamus Hannon led the team out to a wall of noise and colour, before Taoiseach Enda Kenny was introduced to both sets of players.

The build-up was finally over, it was finally down to the action.

Clinical

Unfortunately for London, once bitten, twice shy, Mayo had no intention of allowing a repeat of 2011.

London were not without goal chances of their own, but where Mayo were accurate and decisive when presented with a sight of Declan Traynor’s goal, the clinicalness of Dr Hyde Park disserted the Exiles just when they needed it most.

Kevin McLoughlin opened the scoring with a free, with Aidan O’Shea soon dominating the middle of the field.

The first opportunity to raise a green flag actually fell to London. Galwaymen Damien Dunleavy and Paul Geraghty combined, but the final pass went awry, otherwise Geraghty would have been in on Rob Hennelly’s goal.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

But from the first minute, however, Mayo, set about delivering the result that almost everyone expected.

Lorcan Mulvey’s free did level things up, but Richie Feeney immediately responded, before London were rocked by Mayo’s opening goal.

Alan Dillon dispossessed Shane Mulligan with Alan Freeman the beneficiary. He coolly placed the ball past Declan Traynor.

Kevin McLoughlin’s super ball set up Freeman to extend the lead to five points and things were suddenly happening far too quickly for the Exiles’ liking.

They replied when Stephen Curran surged up field and Dunleavy pointed, but Mayo were pouring forward with Lee Keagan and McLoughlin on target.

London did have the ball in the back of the Mayo net on 17 minutes, but Eoin O’Neill’s effort was contentiously ruled out for a foul on Hennelly. How London could have done with that counting.

Darren Coen added Mayo’s second goal on 23 minutes, with the Exiles left appealing for a foul on Dunleavy back on half-way. None came.

Needing to address the balance in midfield, London manager Paul Coggins gave a debut to former Laois intercounty star Cathal Og Greene, and then threw former Dublin junior player Colin Daly into the fray.

Og Greene had only qualified to play for London in the weeks following the win over Leitrim, by togging out in a championship hurling game for St Gabriels. Mayo led 2-6 to 0-3 at half-time.

kick in the teeth

London had been as good as their word, they’d given Mayo a “good battle”, but as they returned to their dressing room they were left to rue O’Neill’s goal being ruled out. It was a “kick in the teeth”.

“Had we gone in 2-6 to 1-3 it would still have been a game. but that nine-point gap killed us,” says Mitchell.

Amongst the positives, Philip Butler, playing just his third championship game, had held Andy Moran scoreless in the first half, and London had created goal chances.

Mitchell recalls Mulvey being particularly vocal during that half-time break.

“He was saying ‘don’t let these guys run away with this, we’ve shown we’re not here to be turned over, let’s go out and show them again’,” says Mitchell.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“Mulvey was brilliant at calming things down. No one needed to talk. Just get a drink and a breather.”

While London had acquitted themselves well enough, Coggins made sure they knew that they were better than their first half showing.

“He was right, we could give more than we’d given. Two unforced errors led to their two goals – coming out of defence we handed it to them, and they buried it. They were clinical the minute we made a mistake,” said Mitchell.

“But by no means were we letting them run through us. Small things had made the difference in that first half, and that was the encouraging thing.

“Paul and Lorcan made sure we were well aware that by no means were we embarrassing ourselves.”

The reality of the situation was staring them all in the face, however.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“Mentally as much as you want to convince yourself that you’re still in it, you’re nine points down to Mayo in a Connacht final,” said Mitchell.

In 2011, Mayo had struggled to shake London off. It allowed the Exiles to stay in the game and they so very nearly pinched it late on.

Horan was not prepared to allow a repeat of 2011 – Mayo got their noses in front early and then set about building an unassailable lead, against a London team not renowned as big scorers.

“We were quite a defensive team, difficult to play against, and we were good at staying with teams and then knicking it by a point,” said Mitchell.

“They knew we weren’t going to come back from nine points.”

Punished

Mulvey opened the second half scoring with a free to briefly raise hopes, after Ciaran McCallion was fouled, although Eoin O’Neill would rather the referee had played advantage as the way to goal had opened up for the corner forward.

Unruffled Mayo simply cancelled out Mulvey’s strike and added another of their own, while Dunleavy, Daly and London did everything right at the other end, only for Daly to slice wide.

Another goal chance had gone a begging and how Mayo punished them. Within seconds O’Shea set up Cillian O’Connor for the first of his second-half hat-trick.

There was no way back for London now.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

When Mitchell was introduced in the 56th minute, he was tasked with marking Lee Keegan, just as he had five years earlier in an All Ireland schools final.

“He just had one pace, this consistent sprint. There was no jogging. I was on him for about 20 minutes, and I felt like I’d played the full game and extra-time,” recalled Mitchell of the four-time All-Star.

Although they weren’t supposed to, Mitchell swapped jerseys with Keegan afterwards.

It was Keegan who combined with Moran to set up O’Connor for his second, Mayo’s fourth, and O’Connor completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot.

“I remember O’Connor just punishing us. It was demoralising, but we gave it everything we could,” said Mitchell.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

“Those boys had another level and when they changed gear we couldn’t handle them.”

And just like that London’s Connacht adventure was over. For the green and white army among the 21,274 it was an ‘I was there moment’ to rival all others.

“Realistically, Mayo was a step too far, but we’d almost achieved everything we could [by reaching the final],” Mitchell reflects.

“The big thing was to go out, show the talent we had and give Mayo a battle. I feel we did that.”

Reward

The first priority for the players afterwards was to see their families on the pitch – shades of Dr Hyde Park.

Back in the confines of their dressing room, reality kicked in and attention turned to making sure they had a “good night”.

They hit Castlebar and had an “unbelievable night out” with their families. They didn’t make it back to the hotel until the early hours, and some even ended up in the hotel swimming pool by all accounts.

But it wasn’t quite over yet – a mere six days later London were back in Ireland, this time to face Cavan in a Round 4 qualifier.

When Connacht final fever gripped London GAA

The morning after the Connacht final, as the players waited in the lobby of the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris for their coach to take them to the airport, confirmation came through that the Cavan game had been fixed for Croke Park.

London’s junior had graced the stadium on 11 occasions, between 1929 and 1988, but never before had London’s seniors got to run out there. More history in the making in an unforgettable summer.

Of the London matchday 26 against Mayo, Mitchell was one of only nine players who’d played there before.

While Mayo went on to lose out to Dublin in the All Ireland final by a point, London’s adventure came to an end at Croker, with defeat to Cavan.

For Mitchell, Croke Park was recognition by the GAA for the team’s exploits that summer. If it was, it was just reward at that.


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