Seán Moran: New York waiting for their Broadway moment
New York brace for 20th crack at championship against a nervous Leitrim side
New York take to the field ahead of their Connacht championship match with Sligo last year. Photograph: Andy Marlin/Inpho
New York football manager Justin O’Halloran’s reference to there not being a hotel room to be had in the city such is the excitement over Leitrim’s arrival for Sunday’s Connacht championship match in Gaelic Park shows how effortlessly even the Gael absorbs the promotional instincts of the Big Apple.
It has to be the most peculiar aspect of the entire championship – a team that essentially comes together for one high-profile match, which it loses by an average of 13.2 points.
In recent years, however, it has become a more anxious affair for the visiting counties. Sligo had to pull out all the stops last year, having found themselves trailing midway through the second half and 12 months previously, league semi-finalists Roscommon came the closest of all teams to actually getting turned over when winning by just a point.
In the run-up to this weekend’s match, New York have had a decent win over All-Ireland club champions Corofin although the latter were acknowledged not to be exactly at full throttle.
The abiding problem for the exiles is lack of continuity and typically only handfuls continue from year to year but man of the match against Corofin was the peripatetic Armagh and Crossmaglen star, Jamie Clarke, who – as anyone familiar with the 2016 BBC documentary on his club would remember – is exactly the type of restless spirit that has ended up in or passed through NYC since time immemorial.
Leitrim, as the lowliest-ranked of the visiting Connacht counties, are thus perceived to be somewhat endangered even if the stark reality is that New York have yet to win a single championship match in the 19 years of contesting the provincial championship.
They don’t get the option of a crack at the qualifiers either but that is partly their own wish, as in the past the issue of visas meant that any travelling panel might contain players who would have difficulty regaining access to the US were they to travel back to the Old Country.
This was the rationale behind changing the early arrangements, which saw New York play their first three championship fixtures in Connacht before it was decreed that from 2002 the opposition would do the travelling.
There has been idle speculation that were Leitrim to lose this weekend, they would forfeit their right to enter the qualifiers but that’s not the case. The first county to lose in New York will be drawn against one of the other 16 counties to lose a first-round match in a preliminary qualifier.
This is actually a variation on the original structure, which envisaged any team losing in the Bronx packing their bags for the summer.
Leitrim won big the last time they visited, in 2013, but 10 years previously they were the only county to have needed extra-time – and a late equaliser – to complete the job
This changed after Galway’s uncomfortably close call in 2010 when what looks in retrospect an adequate seven-point win had been padded out by 1-2 in injury time and the prospect of one of the province’s big guns being out of the championship in early May prompted a relaxation of the rule.
As a five-yearly task for managers in Connacht, the trip to the US is viewed as something you could do without: trying to organise a travelling panel for a few days bang in the middle of the exam season, making sure they don’t get distracted or injured – in 1989 Cork’s Colman Corrigan, All Star fullback for the previous two years had his career ended in the last league final to feature New York – as well as taking part in ex-pat fundraisers and avoid becoming the first team to lose the fixture.
Leitrim won big the last time they visited, in 2013, but 10 years previously they were the only county to have needed extra-time – and a late equaliser – to complete the job. This doubtless alarming experience was followed on the way home by one of their players, Ciarán Murray, ill-advisedly quipping that he had a bomb in his luggage.
A county official made the reasonable point that whatever the chances of drawing a chuckle in Knock or Shannon, JFK little more than 18 months after the 9/11 attacks was less inclined to mirth.
What though is the point of the New York connection? The GAA was an obvious rallying point for emigrants in the early 20th century and onwards but the concept of New York as a representative unit within the association as opposed to an administrative one has a patchwork history.
The heyday was probably the couple of decades after the second World War. In his excellent television series, GAA USA, Dara Ó Cinnéide pinpoints the role of the 1947 All-Ireland final in the Polo Grounds in reviving the games in the US – “a big gesture from headquarters back at home to acknowledge what had been done,” to keep Gaelic games alive.
“Between 1947 and 1965,” according to Ó Cinnéide, “is widely acknowledged to be the golden age of the GAA in the US. The cut-off point is the Immigration Act (bringing to an end the prioritising of European immigrants), which changed everything for the GAA. It marked the start of the culture of paying to bring in players from Ireland.”
The 1950s and 1960s saw nine NFL finals involving New York played in Gaelic Park – against the “home” winners – and in 1950, 1964 and 1967, Cavan, Dublin and then All-Ireland champions Galway were all beaten.
Those days are gone but on Sunday New York play their 20th championship fixture and celebrate the 90th anniversary of the first match in Gaelic Park – and on the field their footballers, the usual motley assortment of transient wayfarers, will dream the big dream.