London calling a labour of love for Ciarán Deely and his team
Big win over Wicklow a red-letter day for all involved with the cause of London GAA
Ciarán Deely: “It’s validation of what we’ve been doing here to win a game. It tells us and the players that we’re doing something right.” Photograph: Gerry McManus/Inpho
Insofar as anyone could make out, this was all virgin territory for London.
At Ruislip last Sunday, Ciarán Deely’s side scored the opening point of the game against Wicklow, went 0-4 to 0-1 up in the early exchanges, constructed a neat goal to take a 1-10 to 0-5 lead in at half-time and saw out the second half like it was something they did every week. When the full-time whistle went, they had nine points to spare.
As a rule, London don’t do that kind of thing. For one, they don’t beat Wicklow – this was only their second victory over them in 17 seasons. For another, they don’t generally win games in February – before last year’s shock win over Carlow, you had to go back to the days when Kilkenny were still fielding a football team. And it barely needs mentioning that they don’t win games by nine points.
“Certainly we haven’t beaten any team by anything like that in my time,” says Deely, who took over from Paul Coggins in 2015.
“It’s been more end-of-the-league games that we’ve won. We beat Waterford two years ago by a point in a game when neither side played well.
“But on Sunday, I felt we controlled the game more or less from the start and put in a mature performance. We were very happy and we weren’t all that surprised by it to be honest. We were under a bit of pressure to get that win. But I suppose people sit up and take notice when they see London getting a win.”
Especially this sort of win.
Deely’s day job is in sports science at the QPR academy. In one of his myriad former lives he was the Wexford football captain but he’s been around the world too, including a spell as fitness coach with Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League. He is unabashedly ambitious for London, even with all the structural obstacles they have to jump.
As ever, player turnover is an issue. London were back training in November but the Christmas break always hammers them more than every other county, as does the fact that they have no access to challenge matches or pre-season tournaments. Hence they’re usually a reliably soft touch in early league games.
Deely dragged in coaches and trainers from QPR, Millwall and Watford to organise the training programme and, as a result, he feels they’re fitter now than at this point in other campaigns.
Beyond that, he has managed to retain a fairly solid core of players from last year to this. Key to that strategy has been the amount of London-born players in the panel. Of the team that played Carlow in the opening game a fortnight ago, seven had English accents. Injury knocked that number down to six for the Wicklow game but, as far as Deely sees it, that’s the only way forward.
“I think it’s the future, definitely. When I came in at the beginning I said the only long-term, sustainable and viable set-up here is a good number of London-born players married with a good lot of the lads who had been in London for a number of years. We have lads who are in the squad for about five seasons now, London is their county. You will always have lads who are here for a couple of years for work and then will be moving on again but the thing is, you want them to be the exception.
“It’s something that we really wanted to do. And I was mad to get an English-born player as captain of the team. I thought that was symbolically an important thing for us to do. Liam Gavaghan’s performances over the past few seasons, his scoring rate, his skills – for someone who didn’t play a huge amount of underage Gaelic football growing up, he is as good as any player in Division Four, to my mind.”
The problem, naturally enough, is finding more Liam Gavaghans. The culture and structures that source players in Ireland and wet-nurse them to senior inter-county football just aren’t a thing in London. But they do the best with what they can find.
“We’ve done a lot of development work around the squad. Killian Butler has been in with us since he was 18 or so. I dropped him off the panel a couple of years ago to give him a little bit of a lesson about humility and how to perform among older lads. But he’s now become, to my mind, a potential top inter-county player. He’s as good as anything I saw coming through as young players in Wexford in my time there, bar Mattie Forde and couple of others.
“There’s talent in London but unfortunately we lose a lot of it along the way. We barely have a minor team, we have no under-20 team. Our problem is the opposite to players in Ireland just now. They’re talking over there of players playing too many games for too many teams – we don’t get enough games for the younger lads to bring them on. So we bring them in and have them around the panel in an effort to develop them but you can’t then throw them in at senior intercounty, you need to give them a few years. But without games, they understandably drift away. So we lose a lot, unfortunately.”
But they keep on keeping on, all the same. Deely could talk for hours about the problems of trying to magic up a competitive London team. He sees huge untapped potential in the Irish community in Britain but knows that all the grassroots work in the world will only be half as effective as the PR that comes with winning games in Ruislip or back in Ireland. That’s his job for now – everything else can come in tow.
“It’s like anything – you won’t get the engagement from fans or businesses if you’re not winning games. Winning covers a lot of cracks. In some ways, it’s validation of what we’ve been doing here to win a game. It tells us and the players that we’re doing something right. I’m fairly confident in what we’ve been doing and in the players we have and in the gameplans we’ve come up with. To ourselves, it’s a good step along the road. To others, maybe it’s a big surprise.
“But it comes down to what you term success. For London, getting two wins in the league would be an amazing success. For Carlow, they’re beyond that stage. Two league wins is probably a disaster for them by now. In London, we’ve always traditionally followed a win with a poor performance. And we’ve always averaged one win per league. So the challenge is to change that now.
“You can talk about things as much as you want but actually doing them and following through on them is another thing. I know that we can be the best prepared London team there’s ever been and still go through the season not winning a single game. I know that and the players deep down know that. All we can do is our best and try to be in the mix with a few minutes to go. If we do that, I hope as we become more mature that maybe we can compete for a few more wins.”