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Pioneer of London GAA who wrote first draft of history

London will make history if they beat Leitrim in the Connacht SFC semi-final on Sunday. Monaghan man Packie Hughes was involved the first and last time they won a championship game in 1977

Thu, Jun 20, 2013, 00:01


Robert Mulhern

London will make history if they can beat Leitrim in the Connacht SFC semi-final on Sunday afternoon. Monaghan native and publican Packie Hughes was involved the first and last time the Exiles won a championship game in Carrick on Shannon, in 1977.

Packie Hughes sits relaxed in the corner of The Boot pub in London’s King’s Cross. It’s his pub; has been since 1991. The Cross beats a relentless 24-7 rhythm, one where worldly crossroads overlap and intersect, where The Boot rests easy because, well, it’s as different as the next place.

But down the back and in the corner a collage of black and white sporting photographs fill three walls. They colour a small part of London’s football and hurling history. It’s the type of collection you could look at a million times and still see something new.

Beside a wall painted orange, and an old radiator, sits an even older chair, screwed to the ground, all musty brown, weathered steel and peeling leather. Above the chair a plaque screwed to the wall reads:

“This seat is from the Ard Comhairle box belonging to the old Hogan Stand in Croke Park, Dublin. Presidents of Ireland among other famous dignitaries watched the All-Ireland finals down through the years from this seat – demolition of the Hogan Stand commenced in September 1999 to make way for the further development of state of the art stadia at Croke Park.”

“Eamon de Valera probably parked his backside in that,” says Hughes leaning back in his chair. “Cost me nothing.”

His tone is easy. It matches the afternoon. The sun is boiling up a serious temperature outside but a cooling breeze blows through The Boot and performs an air-con job on history’s corner. Gerry Rafferty’s hit song Baker Street is playing on the radio…that famous Saxophone rift fills the air.

“We put the London senior team in a holiday competition in Ireland,” he said in explanation of the seat. “There was about 10 teams altogether, the Intercontinental Cup they called it. It was in Portmarnock in 2002. One of the lads doing the demolition in Croke Park was a Monaghan man. Sean Woods was his name. He played with the St Brendan’s team that won the London Senior Football Championship in 1995. I asked him to get me a bit of memorabilia; he landed out in Portmarnock and threw that out of the back of his car. It’s seat number 46, one of the prime positions in the Ard Comhairle. Some of the big noises used to park their backsides in that.”

In the opposite corner sits an old seat from Wembley and there’s one from Lords cricket ground too. He’s not half as proud about them, but still they stand as symbols of a wider embrace. Sure they’re souvenirs from London.

Chances are, Hughes would trade off some of those souvenirs for a few more medals. His years of service to London football wouldn’t make for a grand trophy cabinet, but then who said he was measuring his contribution in silver and gold. He might have won more with St. Brendan’s – he might have won more had he played for London through the 60s. “But Brendan’s weren’t senior then,” he said in clarification: “And you had to play senior to get recognised.”

He was signed on holy ground in 1960. The approach was made after mass at his local church in Botwell.

That meant his sporting allegiance got split between his new club based in Hayes, and Emyvale based in Monaghan. Over 50 years later he’s still involved with St Brendan’s.

Hughes has lots of previous. Significantly, he was part of the management team when the county footballers returned their first ever win in the Connacht senior football championship in 1977.

The game was played in Carrick-on-Shannon and he’d do well to remember any plays. But it’s funny how stupid things stick in your mind. His abiding memory is of the Leitrim chairman cutting a grass bank at pitch side ahead of the game. He can picture that alright, his smart suit styled by grass shavings. But he remembers the feeling of victory better though, because the aftertaste hadn’t been sampled since. (Until London ended a 36-year losing streak defeating Sligo in Ruislip on May 26th this year). The Exiles of ’77 marched on to Castlebar and bowed out Mayo in the Connacht semi-finals. For all their talent they just couldn’t make the next step. “We didn’t discredit ourselves and by no means was it a lashing,” he says. “Our preparation just wasn’t adequate. You have to remember there was no National League for London then. We played a few friendlies and when the championship came, it was in at the deep end.”

Hughes stepped away from the County team but in 1997, he was back walking the line again.

This time his role involved a variety of duties. He was a selector, and he was the chef too. Every Tuesday and Thursday he’d retreat to the kitchen of The Boot to make an army of sandwiches and a barrell of soup. Later the stockpile was driven out of King’s Cross through rush-hour traffic towards training sessions in Greenford or Perivale. What venue depended on conditions, but the flavour never changed.

“Some paper in Ireland did a splash on all this before. The Irish Times I think… I have a copy in the drawer here somewhere.”

And that’s how the rota went. Packie’s soup and sandwiches became the carrot on training’s stick, twice a week, every week.

Consistency was important. London would need it if they were going to beat Leitrim – a team often measured as their equal. That’s how they saw it, even if the stats didn’t tell it that way. Hughes bridged the decades and brought optimism, but this was an opportunity backed by substance and not just built on supposition. In the end though history pressed repeat.

This time defeat left a bitter taste. London were soured by Declan Darcy, the Dublin-reared-but-me-Da-is-from-Leitrim-sharp-shooter, who should have just played with the Dubs damn it. If there was to be a big moment in the game, then he was always going to be involved.

*Packie Hughes remains involved with the St Brendan’s GAA club and is attending the Leitrim versus London Connacht Senior football semi-final in Carrick on Shannon on Sunday June 23rd.

Robert Mulhern is a print and broadcast journalist working in London. The above extract is from his book A Very Different County, which tells the story of the GAA in London through personal experiences. For a profile of the current London GAA team, who will take on Leitrim this Sunday, see The wild geese at the heart of London GAA.