We revisit the May 2001 day Gaelic Games took over the home of Chelsea FC – 105 years after the first Stamford Bridge ‘invasion’…..but it’s not the only English club soccer ground to host GAA!
On Saturday 19 May, 2001, a ground more accustomed to worshipping the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Kerry Dixon, Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris, paid homage to the ‘Clash of Ash’.
On that slightly surreal West London day, Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC since its formation in 1905, played host to a Festival of Hurling and Shinty.
Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea were otherwise disposed elsewhere, playing their final game of the 2000/01 Premier League season away to Manchester City.
So while Blues fans were following their team’s 2-1 win at Maine Road, Stamford Bridge went GAA for the day.
An event sponsored by the Irish World included 7-a-side hurling, Under 12 and Under 18 hurling, camogie and the main event, a Hurling-Shinty mixed rules challenge match between the London county hurling team and shinty team Lochaber Camanachd, who’d travelled from Fort William in Scotland for the occasion.
For the GAA in London, it was a homecoming of sorts.
For well before Stamford Bridge became synonymous with the ‘Boys from the King’s Road’, GAA had already made its mark there in 1896 – the year the London County Board was officially founded.
Stamford Bridge opened as a sporting arena on 28 April 1877, and for the first 27 years of its existence was used almost exclusively for athletics meetings by the London Athletic Club.
But on Easter Monday (4 April) 1896, the ground played host to the ‘Great Gaelic invasion of London’.
Two hurling teams representing Munster and Leinster, along with a team of athletics, made the trip over.
The 3,000 attendance was below what had been hoped for, but “the presence of meaningful Gaelic games inspired those present to greater effort”, wrote Pat Griffin in his book Gaelic Hearts A History of London GAA 1896-1996.
In his book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front, author Ronan McGreevy noted that a football game between an ‘Ireland’ team and the London Exiles also took place that day.
The Ireland team included Laurence Roche, who won an All Ireland medal with Limerick in 1896 (the final wasn’t played until 1898).
From Dromin, Roche would go on to become the most prominent GAA athlete and official to both join and recruit for the British Army during the First World War.
The athletics part of the ‘invasion’ wasn’t without note either. A certain John Joseph Flanagan, from Kilbreedy, Co Limerick, smashed James Mitchell’s four-year record for throwing the 15-lb hammer.
Flanagan went on to win three Olympic gold medals in a row for the hammer (1900, 1904, and 1908).
On March 1905, Chelsea Football Club was born and a few months later moved into the new Stamford Bridge stadium.
Officially announced in January 2001, then London GAA chairperson Larry O’Leary said the ‘Clash of Ash’ at the Bridge promised to be a “massive showcase for London hurling”, subject to official sanction from Croke Park.
The event was the brainchild of Frank Winter of House of Wentworth, a marketing company, and held in conjunction with Chelsea Village PLC.
The initial plan was to bring over two top hurling teams from Ireland to headline the bill – an attempt perhaps to revive the formula and feel of the Wembley Games (1958-1976).
Talking to the Irish World (2 February 2001) O’Leary confirmed that there would be “no financial commitment” from London GAA, but that there would be a “donation to the Board”.
After the initial excitement, however, the project was beset by problems.
It had been hoped that Kilkenny and Cork would be the teams to take part – the 2000 and 1999 All Ireland champions respectively.
But that idea failed to get the green light from Croke Park’s Central Council. No teams would travel from Ireland for the event.
That decision coincided with an outbreak of foot and mouth in the UK, but it seems unlikely that was the reason at the time.
The disease would later account for London’s Connacht SFC quarter-final clash with Mayo at Ruislip at the end of May. But the decision by Connacht Council to postpone that game wasn’t made until early May.
Of course, had Central Council looked more favourably on Cork and Kilkenny’s involvement, then foot and mouth would undoubtedly have put an end to their participation anyway.
Not to have any county teams from Ireland with a huge blow, but far from cancelled, the venture was “salvaged” with House of Wentworth giving its backing to “an entirely new programme of events”, in order to save it from the “scrap heap”.
Rebilled as ‘The Festival of Hurling at Stamford Bridge’, it was now to be a celebration of hurling, camogie and shinty, as well as including live music and Irish dancing. An “excellent day of Celtic culture” would be rounded off by a Gala Dinner.
Although at this stage such plans were still “embryonic”, the desire to press on was admiral in the face of such adversity. It had thrown the venture a “lifeline it badly needed”.
Since the idea was first muted, the whole project had been a mixture of “highs and lows and unfortunately for one reason or another mostly lows” conceded O’Leary.
But plans could now move forwards once more. The ‘Countdown to the Bridge’ was on.
Come the day, O’Leary wrote in this chairperson’s address in the match day programme that he hoped “all the headaches suffered will be worth it by this evening”.
Amongst those in attendance was Irish Ambassador to Britain Ted Barrington, who officially opened the day’s proceedings.
On the pitch, Fr Murphy’s were crowned London hurling 7-a-side champions – the purple and gold seeing off Sean Treacy’s in the final. Robert Emmetts, Kilburn Gaels and Brian Boru also fielded on the day.
Martin Harrell, a Tottenham supporter, was part of that winning Fr Murphy’s side that day.
“To win the London 7s at Stamford Bridge was unbelievable. It was such a fast pitch to play on as the grass was cut so short, and it was summertime,” he said.
“I remember we caused loads of damage to seats in the stands, which exploded due to the impact of the balls.”
He added “We got to use the Chelsea dressing rooms, but they were small and couldn’t really cater for the larger GAA squad.
“Every game was played at a high intensity and challenges were much harder, as everyone wanted to win the London 7s at Stamford Bridge.”
He continued: “I remember the drive home to Harrow with my dad [Tommy Harrell RIP], Martin Kealy and Timmy Bennett. We were all buzzing and sharing stories of the day.”
It was then on to the Spanish Arch for the Murphy’s team, as they celebrated a “monumental achievement”, and a truly unique one at that.
How many other clubs can say they won a GAA tournament at the home of Chelsea FC?
Along with some of his Murphy’s teammates, Harrell also played for London in the mixed rules hurling/shinty game. “Some of us nearly got killed!,” he recalled.
“We caused loads of damage to seats in the stands exploding due to the impact of the balls.”
While the attendance on the day fell short of predictions – the lack of county teams from Ireland had a major part to play in that – the event sadly, and surprisingly, also failed to capture the imagination of the London Irish community.
It had been hoped in the build-up that in the absence of London’s big GAA day of the year – the Connacht SFC quarter-final and the visit of Mayo – the Gaels of London might “avail of a rare opportunity” to attend what might prove to be the “only real big Irish day” of sport that year. Not so.
Speaking at a post-event reception, O’Leary said: “It’s been a great day for Gaelic sport, even if many people chose to stay away. The day was all about what happened on the field and not in the stands.”
He added: “I hope it will be the first of many such meetings.”
Martin Harrell said: “It was one of the most prestigious and memorable days of my life and GAA playing days.
“It was a unique event that really should have been better attended, but the buzz and the atmosphere of all the teams was awesome.”
Those that weren’t there were the “real losers” noted the Irish World, after what turned out to be a “truly enjoyable day of ‘stick’ wielding sport at Stamford Bridge”.
‘Let’s do it again’ screamed our back page. Nineteen years on, we’re still waiting on a repeat.