On 2 May, London’s senior footballers should have been running out at McGovern Park for the biggest game in the county’s GAA calendar – the Connacht Championship quarter-final.
In the opposing dressing room, defending provincial champions Roscommon. Covid-19 had other ideas though.
It’s only the second time since 1981 – when London were given home advantage for the Connacht Championship quarter-final – that the game has failed to go ahead.
While Connacht remain “hopeful” of still playing a provincial championship, that looks less and less likely.
Even more so in light of Croke Park’s announcement that there will be no inter-county games before October – if they take place at all this year.
2020 could see the Exiles once again denied its day in the sun.
For London, the loss of the Connacht Championship game will be huge – with no guarantee that they will get a home game in any convoluted knock-out competition – both financially and in terms of prestige.
Just as it was in 2001, when the visitors were due to be Pat Holmes’ Division 1 league champions Mayo, only for the game (due to take place on 27 May) to be cancelled because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in England and Ireland.
It was the last time that we saw widespread social restrictions imposed on sporting activity.
“It was very disappointing – it’s the day everyone looks forward to. It’s the day that shows off London GAA,” then London County Board chairperson Larry O’Leary told the Irish World.
“The lads had trained so long for this and they didn’t get their big day.”
He added: “It was very detrimental; the gate receipts, the bar takings, food sales, the social events around it…..the Connacht Championship game has become an event in the London Irish community calendar.
“The Connacht Championship day isn’t just a game of football – it’s a festival.”
Responding to the first foot-and-mouth case in Meigh, Co Armagh, at the end of February 2001, the GAA postponed all inter-county games that weekend (3/4 March) including the All Ireland Club Hurling semi-finals and Sigerson Cup, which was due to take place in Sligo.
The Ireland rugby team’s home match with England (originally fixed for 24 March), and their trips to Wales (3 March) and Scotland (7 April) were pushed back until September and October.
Cheltenham also fell by the wayside. Originally scheduled for 13-15 March, it was initially postponed until 17-19 April, but then called off entirely on 1 April when a confirmed case of foot-and-mouth was found just five miles from Prestbury Park.
The stakes were high – a foot-and-mouth outbreak of abnormal proportions would have been disastrous for the agricultural industry in Ireland.
Six weeks after Meigh, further cases were discovered in Cushendall, Antrim, and Ardboe, Tyrone. The GAA suspended all matches for four weeks.
Tyrone were replaced in the Division 1 football semi-finals by Roscommon, while the All-Ireland senior club finals were delayed until April.
Antrim’s Ulster SFC quarter-final against Derry was pushed back to June.
The Under 21 football championship final, between Mayo and Tyrone, did not take place until October.
When the only case in the Republic was confirmed in Jenkinstown on 22 March, Louth’s involvement in the National League was promptly ended.
All the while, London were “watching the situation” intently, while remaining “hopeful” recalls O’Leary.
Former director general Páraic Duffy was chairperson of the GAA’s Games Administration Committee at the time.
“…..I don’t recall the situation ever creating a sense of crisis like today’s, to the extent that the championships were under threat,” said Duffy recently when reflecting on 2001.
That depends very much on whose championship you’re talking about. London’s was about to head south.
By 1 April the GAA at inter-county level was back up and running and the remaining league fixtures played out.
Four days after Mayo beat Galway in the Division 1 league final, Connacht Council met to discuss the matter (3 May).
Central Council had already decided on the weekend of 28/29 April that the final decision would rest with Connacht.
London had put their case as to why the game should go ahead by fax to be read out at the meeting “to ensure London is given every chance to host this vital game”.
The above are the words of then London PRO Jerry Daly in a letter to the Irish World, which appeared in the edition dated 11 May.
The final decision was deferred until Connacht’s 10 May meeting in Ballyhaunis.
While Mayo busied themselves with a challenge game against Offaly on 6 May, London awaited the verdict with a mix of hope and trepidation.
Daly added: “If we get the go ahead on Thursday, we will be delighted. It is not too late. The usual loyal band will swing into action to prepare the ground, the club manager and staff will have the premises in perfect order.”
But on 10 May Connacht Council made the decision to cancel London’s quarter-final with Mayo “because of the measures for foot-and-mouth prevention”.
It was the news “all exiles GAA fans feared” said the Irish World in its 18 May edition. The decision came as “a real shock to the officers of the London County Board”.
But the month of May would still see all four provincial championships get underway – Connacht on 19 May, Munster (13 May), Ulster (13 May) and Leinster (6 May).
“By the time the Connacht Championship came around games were being played, and that’s why we were hopeful. When games started being played, we thought we’d be alright,” said O’Leary.
Connacht Council secretary at the time was John Prenty.
“It was a huge decision for a province to decide that they weren’t going to play a championship match. It was very hard for us to say to one of our counties that they couldn’t play,” he said.
“We have a commitment to London that we play the first round of the Connacht Championship in London every year, going back to 1981.
“That game has never failed to have been played, except on one occasion in 2001. It was just unfortunate.
“At the end of day, we wanted to play the game in London, but had it taken out of our hands.”
On news of the decision, O’Leary recalls saying to Prenty, “so we’re getting a walkover then are we?”.
The idea of the game being switched to Ireland was never on the table. It was ‘Ruislip or nowhere’.
“Right now it is a question of playing in London or not at all,” Prenty was quoted as saying in an Irish Times article on 1 May.
“We are waiting to get the relevant information but there is no possibility of the game being moved to Mayo.”
The repercussions for London of losing the Connacht game were huge – not least in terms of lost revenue.
“It was a struggle; it made people realise that without the Connacht Championship we were raising very little funds at all,” said O’ Leary.
One of the consequences for O’Leary, was the introduction of the club draw to generate income.
2001 was a landmark year for the GAA with the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
The first round of games got underway on 9 June and London requested to be included in the draw, which took place on 3 June.
But the GAA Management Committee met on 25 May and decided to exclude them – even tough London were 150 miles from the nearest outbreak of the disease – on the grounds that they “hadn’t taken part in the [provincial] championship”.
A true enough assertion, but one that was through no fault of their own.
Ruislip has next door to it a farm, and O’Leary believes that may have been a factor.
“I remember getting a phone call on the Bank Holiday Monday – I was at Ruislip – and it was journalist who said ‘you’re not in [the qualifiers]’,” recalls O’Leary.
Afterwards O’Leary got official confirmation from then GAA director general Liam Mulvihill.
“Liam was disgusted that the press had got to me before he had,” remembers O’Leary.
Unfortunately, the reporter was correct – London would not be allowed to take part in the qualifiers.
By June, Ireland had regained its status as an FMD-free country – the exclusion zones and restricted movement serving to stall foot-and-mouth.
All told, the foot-and-mouth disruption lasted just under seven weeks.
While London’s year was over, Mayo advanced to a Connacht semi-final with Sligo.
But a first league title for 31 years was not to be a precursor for better things to come in 2001.
Beaten in the Connacht final by Roscommon, Mayo’s quest for a first All Ireland since 1951 would end in a fourth round qualifier defeat to Westmeath.