On the first Sunday in April 2013, the London footballers finished out yet another gruelling league campaign with yet another defeat. This one was away to Leitrim and it meant that they were, once again, officially the worst team in the entire league. Bottom of Division 4, the fewest scores of any team anywhere, the lowest of the low.
By the third Sunday in July 2013, the championship had taken shape. In the time that passed in between, every county in Ireland had knuckled down, had their go, found out where they were. Here's where the worst team in Ireland were. Only five counties had made it through the late spring and early summer without losing a game – Dublin, Kerry, Monaghan, Donegal and London.
It was a mad old ride they went on. For two months, they were the best story the championship had to offer. It started with them beating Sligo in Ruislip on May 26th and ended with a defeat to Cavan in Croke Park on July 27th. London, a hotchpotch team of former county panellists and horizon-chasing club players, ended their year playing in Croke Park in the last 12 of the All-Ireland. Still a going concern after the likes of Kildare and Meath and Armagh and Roscommon had all tapped out.
This wasn’t a sporting upset. Not in the way everything else in this series has been, anyway. It wasn’t like they landed a punch out of nowhere or caught a bigger name on an off-day and skipped away with an ambush. London played five games in the 2013 championship and only lost two of them. They had ample opportunity to slip meekly out of the summer but they didn’t. When someone shows you who they are, believe them.
At the start, nobody saw them coming. How could they? They had brought Mayo to extra-time in 2011 but it looked like a dereliction of duty for James Horan's men as much as anything. They pulled off a win against Fermanagh in the qualifiers but the northern county was in the middle of a player revolt at the time and had seen 11 players walk off the panel. It was an upset but only because it was London and nobody expected anything from London. Buster Douglas, they were not.
And in any case, by the time they took the pitch in Ruislip two years later to play Sligo, only six of that London team remained. In any other county, you’d need a bout of plague to bring about the level of player turnover. But in London, it was the normal run of business. New faces came in the door every year but come the following winter, plenty had found another thread of life to pull on for a while.
It was easy to see why. By every measure, playing county football for London was a slog. You trained for the winter on rugby pitches or Astroturf playing fields rented from schools, never having enough bodies to play a game. Or, y’know, goalposts.
There were a few voices here and there warning that London could spring a surprise but they were mostly people trying to look wise after the event before the event
You didn’t get to play in any of the pre-season competitions that the other counties did so you never knew what sort of team you had until you played the first game of the league. In 20 years of league football, London had only ever beaten Kilkenny in February. So you basically spent the first half of the league doing pre-season and if you scraped a win and a draw near the end, it was a good spring. Then you went and got beaten twice in the championship and that was it until winter came around again.
It wasn’t an attractive life. Most of the players who got involved had come to London for work, had found a club to kick a bit of ball and had used it to slide themselves into a social circle. Somewhere along the way, word would have made it to the London set-up that you had been a good county minor back home and next thing you know, you were an intercounty footballer. All the graft with none of the glory.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the summer of 2013 came around. It was Sligo's turn to head to Ruislip in the Connacht championship and though they were nobody's idea of a Goliath, they could generally be relied on to do their business and head to Heathrow without too much fuss.
They had been in the Connacht final the previous year, only losing to Mayo by two points. And though they hadn't exactly lit up the 2013 league, they came through a final-day test against Wicklow to stay in Division 3. There were a few voices here and there warning that London could spring a surprise but they were mostly people trying to look wise after the event before the event.
It was one of those days where everything went wrong. For London, that is. They missed a penalty and had a man sent off and still led by seven points soon after half-time. Their goal came from Lorcan Mulvey, a big hardy brute of a full forward from Cavan. Their best player was an every-blade-of-grass midfielder called Mark Goettsche, a German-born, Galway-raised, London-settled logistics manager. Between them, Mulvey and Goettsche scored 1-6 and London built up just enough of a lead to see it out.
And the walls came tumbling down. It was London's first win in the Connacht championship since 1977. The traditional exiles summer day out went long into the night. The marquee behind the goals was still pumping out pints as Eamonn O'Hara filleted Sligo manager Kevin Walsh on The Sunday Game that evening. London had turned the whole thing on its head.
They weren’t finished either. They had Leitrim up next and well, if they could beat Sligo then surely they had a shot against Leitrim. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know who they were, what they were about, where had this come from. They were happy to chat away, dispelling myths when the mood took them.
London led by two in the closing stages but the home side pulled it back and got out with a draw, to a tidal wave of roars from the home crowd.
“I had a journalist onto me one of the days,” said Mulvey. “You know what he asked me? He said I presume all London footballers work on building sites and that yis all go on the beer the whole time. I didn’t want to disappoint the fella. But the truth is you’d see very few lads coming into the dressingroom in dirty clothes. Chinos and Toms would be more like it.”
This was who they were. Mulvey was a site manager for a Tube station. Shane Mulligan, the stylish centre back from Monaghan, was an engineer. Dave McGreevy, a bustling corner back from Down, worked in recruitment. They had skipped across the Irish Sea when the Celtic Tiger had wheezed its last and found a common cause in a football team none of them grew up dreaming about.
And now they had the one thing that traditionally was further beyond them than all the teams at home. They had hope. Leitrim knew it too. One of them told me a story about going to play in Ruislip one year and running into Marty Morrissey at the airport, heading over on the same flight to cover the game. Marty was all smiles and selfies but straight away the Leitrim players copped why he was there. "RTÉ weren't flying him over for the day to see us beat London out the gate. Marty was coming because there was a chance we'd lose."
Now the two teams faced off in Carrick-on-Shannon, with a Connacht final spot sitting there waiting to be grabbed. As an event, it was as tense as anything else the championship had to offer that year. The limitations of both sides somehow cranked it up even further. London led by two in the closing stages but the home side pulled it back and got out with a draw, to a tidal wave of roars from the home crowd.
After the game, something beautiful happened out on the pitch. It wasn’t obvious at first but once you saw it, you could see nothing else. Once they had shaken hands and warmed down, each London player found himself circled by a group of people. It was only when you went closer that you realised that it was the players’ families, drawn from Derry and Cork and Galway and all points all around.
They stood in for photos and hugged their mams and stood there sweating and getting their water in. It was only a 10-minute thing altogether – they had showers to take, a meal to get down them and a bus to catch to the airport. But it was a 10-minute thing that, for once, wasn’t on the phone. A small bath of home to soak in for a bit.
They weren't all exiles, it should be said. Philly Butler was a Londoner with a Cork mother and grandparents from Wicklow. But he was English, make no mistake. A big Saracens rugby fan and not opposed to wearing an England soccer top to training to tweak his team-mates. When one of the other players mentioned that they'd be on The Sunday Game that night, Butler responded with a blank face. "What's The Sunday Game?" he said.
They were to become mainstays of the show. When the replay took place in Dr Hyde Park the following week, London exploded into a 14-point lead by half-time. Mulvey was causing wreck, Leitrim were losing key players to injury, the wind was helping. But even so, a 2-10 to 0-2 lead was all kinds of ridiculous.
Covid's cold hand means there's no game for them this year. The 2021 league seems a pipe dream as well just now
And then, just to confound matters, they froze in the second half. Bit by little bit, Leitrim reeled them in, cutting the lead to four points with nine minutes to go and carrying all the momentum into the closing stages. But a succession of bad misses in injury-time left Leitrim buckled on the floor. London were in the Connacht final, winners by a point.
After that, the clock started to tick towards midnight, as everyone knew it would. Mayo used them for target practice in the Connacht final and Cavan took full advantage of drawing them in last 12. But even so, they got to finish their year playing in Croke Park. And when they walked off after a 1-17 to 1-8 defeat, the gathered supporters of Cavan, Cork and Galway sent them home to a genuinely warm reception.
The world turned and London found their place in it. Mulvey got London's first ever All Star nomination at the end of the year and when they opened their Connacht championship against Galway the following year, there was more than just Marty Morrissey in the press pack to cover it. They got their traditional hiding and lost in the first round of the qualifiers to Limerick.
The 2013 run didn’t lead on to a big revolution or anything. The player turnover is just as relentless now as it ever was and they haven’t won a championship game since. Covid’s cold hand means there’s no game for them this year. The 2021 league seems a pipe dream as well just now.
But for one summer seven years ago, they were golden. Whatever the future holds, that’s forever.