Tír Chonaill Gaels continue to aim high
Twenty-two years ago this week, what would have been the biggest shock in the history of the AIB All-Ireland club football championship nearly took place when Lavey faced London champions Tír Chonaill Gaels in the quarter-final in Ballinascreen.
The Derry side trailed 1-6 to 1-9 with time running out but somehow contrived a goal from veteran Anthony McGurk, which brought the match to extra-time during which they made good their escape. The winners would go on to be crowned champions on St Patrick’s Day 1991.
On Sunday the London club – celebrating their 50th anniversary and champions for the 14th time – renew their still fruitless pursuit of a win over mainland opposition. Opponents this year are Dr Crokes of Killarney, currently lying second in the betting behind champions Crossmaglen.
For Tír Chonaill coach Kevin Downes, St Patrick’s Day has, however, different connotations. It was the date two years ago when he was due to emigrate to Australia. Instead he found himself in Dublin’s Mater Hospital after – to put it conservatively – a freakish accident had left him with a damaged contact lens through which a water-borne infection got into his eye.
“I had come home from London to say goodbye to the family,” he recalls, “but I lost all sight in that eye and ended up in the Mater. I’ll never forget the pain in the first 48 hours after it happened. I remember lying in the back of the car heading there covered with coats because I couldn’t bear any light.”
Talented dual player
To rewind: Downes was a talented dual player in Cavan up until 4½ years ago and had won a county title with Cavan Gaels as well as a Nicky Rackard All Star in 2008 as recognition of his performances with the Cavan hurlers.
He went to London that year partly for work but partly because he had friends in London and was intrigued by the prospect of having a go at the GAA scene in the city, which he did with TCG and in hurling with Robert Emmets – winning county titles with both.
Emigration to Australia subsequently beckoned and but for the eye incident, that’s where he’d be.
“I was back and forward to the Mater for months afterwards,” he says, “and I decided to stay. The company took me back with open arms and were great about it.”
The only jolt to Downes’s life was that football and hurling were now in his past and for someone not yet 30 that was going to leave a void.
“I just refocused on coaching. When you’re as involved as I am you can’t just give it up. Paul Coggins asked me to do a few coaching sessions with London and I’d done a bit of work with Tír Chonaill Gaels.”
His work as a coach drew praise from one of his opponents on Sunday, Shane Doolan, who played in London over the past two years and lined out for the county side when they defeated Fermanagh in the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2011.
One of the management team at the club along with JP O’Donnell, Maurice Carr, Mickey Kelly and Paddy Carr, who managed Kilmacud Crokes to the 2009 All-Ireland and who has a long history with the TCG, Downes feels that the standard of players in London has risen with renewed emigration from Ireland.
“There’s a better quality of player across London at the moment. Our team has had a huge turnaround. In the first round against Fulham we’d 13 new starters.”
He says that the poor record of senior clubs from Britain in the All-Ireland (at intermediate and junior level it is more competitive) wasn’t over the years helped by scheduling.
“We would have finished our county final in October and would have no matches while the club we’re playing is involved in the provincial championship. Sometimes it was played in January and that was a disaster for us because our players would go home at Christmas to every corner of Ireland and we wouldn’t be able to train.”
Characteristically he sees the up side. “It’s a fantastic challenge, trying to improve.”