Two years is a long time for London and New York GAA

McGovern Park in Ruislip will finally welcome a crowd again this weekend

McGovern Park in Ruislip will finally welcome a crowd again this weekend, as the finals of the 2020 club championships are played.

McGovern Park in Ruislip will finally welcome a crowd again this weekend, as the finals of the 2020 club championships are played.

 

In London and New York, they can’t do much more than get on with getting along. McGovern Park in Ruislip will finally welcome a crowd again this weekend, as the finals of the 2020 club championships are played.

Fulham Irish take on Tir Chonaill Gaels at three o’clock on Sunday and it was confirmed midweek that the county board would be able to sell tickets for it. Small victories have never felt like bigger wins.

Across the Atlantic, an even more auspicious milestone will be passed next weekend when The Fairways at Dunwoodie in Yonkers hosts the annual New York GAA dinner dance. It’s one thing to get your club championships run off in the current climate - New York did that at every level from under-sevens all the way up to senior in 2020. But they’re surely the only county in the association to do so and double it up with the dinner dance. That’s getting things done.

You do what you can and try not to cry too many tears over the things you can’t. When the GAA championships begin three weeks from today, it will be the second year in a row that they do so without the traditional openers on the islands either side of us. Covid has knocked the stuffing out of a lot of life, leaving pieces to be picked up in places you wouldn’t ordinarily give a thought to.

By the time London get to tog out - hopefully - in the 2022 league, they’ll have gone two years without an inter-county match. By the time next summer’s championship comes around, it will be three years since New York’s last game. None of it is anybody’s fault. Everyone accepts that there was no other option. But it’s going to leave two teams who were a long way back already stuck watching as the rest of the GAA gallops off into the distance.

“We’re under no illusions that a lot of hard work has to be put in now,” says NYC chairperson Joan Henchy. “There is a ton of work that has to go in and we’ve started looking at our structure and putting the plan in place to have a team ready next year. But realistically, it will be the end of the summer before we’re able to really get going on it.

Challenges

“We know the challenges ahead. There are financial ramifications to all this as well. We haven’t just missed out on matches the past two years, we’ve missed out on the biggest day of the year for us. The Connacht Championship match is such a huge day here for the diaspora. It’s a huge weekend in fact.

“It’s a massive loss for the community as a whole. It’s not just the game and it’s not just the finance it brings in - although both are hugely important. It’s the fact that for that one weekend, we showcase everything we’re doing here. So losing that was a massive thing. But we got all our club competitions played. That’s a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of hard work but we got it done.”

In London, Michael Maher hasn’t had his team together since March 10th 2020. One minute he was on the phone to his liaison officer changing names on flights for that weekend’s trip over to play Waterford, the next he was waiting. And waiting. And still waiting.

It is tough being a London footballer, you really only have each other

“It’s going to be a massive task,” says the London manager. “There’s no two ways about that. It’s going to be a big task to get the guys back up to the level of conditioning required for intercounty football. We would hope the lead-in time will give us the chance to get the group together sufficiently, bearing in mind that we won’t have been playing at that level for two years.

“I have been watching Division Four games and the conditioning of the players is unbelievable. You have to say that throughout all the divisions, there’s an obvious change in how big and how strong everyone is now and how well they’ve used the lockdown. They have worked incredibly hard to keep themselves in massive shape.

“The good thing is that we’ve been in contact as a group all the way through. Last year we were involved on paper right up until we weren’t, if that makes sense. As in, the GAA did all they could to include us but once the travel restrictions were in place, they had no choice in the matter. So what that meant is that there was a great level of interest from the squad all the way through. We just didn’t get to play in the end.”

Two years is two years though. And three is three. Especially in the ex-pat world where everything is transient even in normal times. Maher was at a club game last weekend where he ran into a couple of his players. It was the first time they had seen each other face to face in 15 months. London isn’t the kind of place you bump into people in the street, lockdown London even less so. There’s really no telling where everyone will be when he starts getting a squad together for next year’s league.

“We’ve lost a few lads from last year’s squad, lads who got furloughed and others who were able to work remotely from home rather than staying in London. You have to just say thanks and good luck to those guys because they were fully invested when they were here but home is always going to be home.

“A lot of the players are still in London and we have 13, 14 London-born lads on the panel and you’d hope that they’re still up for it when we start getting everyone together. You hope that the lads who are Irish-born are still able to commit. Whether they are still up for it, whether they’re still in the right shape to play it, we will find out as we go. Two years is a long time for any player to stay conditioned without playing a game.

Priority

“So we’ll see. We’ll be watching games through the club championship, we’ll be making calls and getting a group together. You can’t really tell at the minute. By the time we start up in October-November, lads could be gone, they could have moved on, you won’t know until the time comes.

“Four or five months is a long time in the life of a young lad, especially when they are in London primarily for work. That’s their number one priority and if the job means they can’t commit to inter-county football, then it has to be a kind of a thanks-but-no-thanks situation.”

In New York, the pre-pandemic manager was Gerry Fox but he had to step back from the role during the crisis because his business is in hospitality and he understandably has a lot more on his plate than managing a football team. Henchy says she has another man lined up if Fox doesn’t come back but she’s coy about revealing the name just yet. As with everything else, the lesson of Covid times is not to get too far ahead of yourself on anything.

New York will again take no part in this year’s Connacht football championship. Photograph: Andy Marlin/Inpho
New York will again take no part in this year’s Connacht football championship. Photograph: Andy Marlin/Inpho

“We were in the epicentre of the epicentre at the start,” she says. “But New York is coming back. The governor releases the testing stats every day - we’re still testing 150,000 people a day and the positivity rate is down to 0.6 per cent. And I think I read yesterday that the vaccination rate is up to 61 per cent. So the city is coming back and that had to happen before everything.

“Irish people in general like to move around. We do have an amount of player turnover and we’re very conscious of that turnover. It’s something we have tried very hard to deal with and to change so that we have less of a turnover going forward. We are entering a team in the junior All-Ireland and it will mean all-American team. All the players have to come through our development squads to be allowed to play. So that’s a big part of addressing the turnover.”

If and when they get back, both counties will be strong advocates for the Tailteann Cup. London will be gung-ho for taking their spot in Division Four as ever but the idea of a second-tier championship, the hope of a home game in Ruislip and a team of their own level coming over with their knees knocking, that’s a massive draw. For now though, Maher will take the simple act of getting a panel on a pitch and being a single organism again.

“You’re together two nights a week and again on weekends. And we’re different to other counties in that when we travel for a game, it’s a whole weekend together. It’s an early flight on a Saturday morning and late home on Sunday night. You’re all in that same boat together and you spend the whole time in each other’s pockets.

“And it is tough being a London footballer, you really only have each other. You get so used to each other and you rely on each other to pull each other through it. So when you go a year, two years without being together as a team, you lose a lot. You lose connections. You miss being around the lads, you miss the changing room, you miss the challenge. It’s been a long, long time without it.”

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