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'Deflating,' 'disappointing' and 'step backward' - London hit out after All-Ireland championship exclusion

Exiles boss Paddy Bowles and player Niamh Lister discuss the situation with The42 as they call on the LGFA to ‘reconsider the decision.’

TUESDAY NIGHT WAS a tough one for the London Ladies Gaelic football team.

fermanagh-v-london-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-junior-championship-semi-final The London ladies football team ahead of the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

The TG4 All-Ireland championship draw took place, but they weren’t watching with their usual enthusiasm and excitement. Instead, it was a bitter pill to swallow as the show went on without them.

Earlier in the evening, they had made their feelings known about their exclusion.

In a lengthy statement entitled ‘Where is the #SeriousSupport,’ the Exiles hit out at the LGFA’s decision to withdraw the All-Ireland junior championship place on offer to the All-Britain winners amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

Within, they took particular issue with the fact the London men’s footballers and hurlers and Warwickshire hurlers “have been given the element of time before being eliminated from their respective competitions” by the GAA.

Image from iOS (3) Source: London Ladies Gaelic football team.

Though 2019 ladies football semi-finalists London were yet to qualify for this year’s All-Ireland junior championship series — which is four months away — as they had to win the All-Britain competition first, they were making serious noise.

The strongly-worded document landed on Tuesday, but this had been brewing for a few weeks now. On 15 June, the side learned that the All-Britain representative’s spot was being pulled. They appealed, the appeal was rejected. With New York also excluded, LGFA President Marie Hickey defended the “good, early” decision in an interview with The Irish World last week.

Speaking to The42 shortly after, Women’s GPA chief Maria Kinsella said she “would be interested to see if the LGFA engaged with London before” the decision was made, though conceding “it is difficult to see how a London team could travel across.”

“I also think it would be worthwhile seeing what the GAA are doing with the London men’s team in championship,” she added. “If they’re going to participate or be removed.” 

Now, the general consensus with the London ladies football outfit is it was too early for the LGFA to make the call amidst this ever-changing landscape. 

“Everyone’s just extremely disappointed,” star defender and Meath native Niamh Lister told The42 yesterday.

“With the men’s football and the hurling [teams] still expecting to play in their respective championships in October, we just feel that the decision was made a little bit prematurely.

The LGFA and the GAA are two different organisations, they have to go with what they feel is best for their own players. Ideally, we would like to see a bit more consistency in the decisions being made between the two organisations.

“We understand that it’s somebody’s job to make these decisions and we don’t hold anything against the the LGFA, but we just feel that it could have been held out a little bit longer. I think the men are waiting until September to make a decision on travel restrictions.

“We also understand that they have to look after player welfare, not just for our own sake but for those teams that we’d be travelling to or would be expected to travel to London.

“The last two weeks or two have just been a bit deflating.”

meath-v-tipperary-tg4-ladies-football-all-ireland-intermediate-championship-semi-final Lister on the ball for Meath against Tipperary. Source: SPORTSFILE

Particularly, given she feels the call came too soon. It’s something Lister — who is in her second year playing with the team — stresses time and time again.

There’s been a lot of restrictions set and lifted in the last three months and we would expect in the next three months, that there will be more restrictions set and lifted again,” she continues.

“What will be really devastating for us is is if the travel restrictions are lifted come October, and we have to sit back and watch the junior championship go ahead knowing that potentially had a decision been made later, we could have been playing on that pitch.

“The draw was obviously quite tough for us to watch, not being part of it. I just hope that we don’t have to sit in October, knowing that the championship was there for us maybe to grab a hold of, and due to a preempted decision, we were kind of denied that opportunity. I guess only time will tell in that sense.”

Like Lister, manager Paddy Bowles acknowledges that the LGFA and GAA are two different bodies but feels that their male counterparts’ inclusion — as of now — adds an extra layer of frustration for his players.

“It’s disappointing. That’s the overriding feeling, it seems to be a very early decision,” he told The42 from London, stating that he understands the LGFA’s early decision from a planning and pathway perspective.

“From our point of view, the biggest thing is the Warwickshire hurlers, the London hurling team and football team are still involved. They were put into the draw last week when the announcement was made by the GAA.

I know we’ve got two separate identities as such — the LGFA and the GAA — but a lot of the decisions they’ve made so far [through the Covid-19 crisis] have been very similar. They’re working together on the committee to return to play safely.

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“In that sense, it’s disappointing because they’ve given the men’s game a chance to have an opportunity to take part. That’s probably the biggest disappointment.”

“But I do get it. It’s a hard decision,” he added, with a nod to the UK’s experience with coronavirus compared to Ireland’s.

“We saw Leicester going into a lockdown last night. This morning, they were saying there might be lockdowns in boroughs of London if things don’t change. I understand that from Ireland, it does obviously look quite bad over here.

fermanagh-v-london-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-junior-championship-semi-final Manager Paddy Bowles. Source: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

“There is a lot of improvement though; returning to play, normal work life, everything is moving along and getting there. But I do understand the issue of travel and the safety of players.” 

While Lister remains firmly rooted in her native Meath since returning home in mid-March, she was kept going by the guarantee of football with the Exiles — who have reached the last four All-Ireland semi-finals — later in the year. 

With everything going on at the minute and the uncertainty around so many things, one thing we held certain was that we would be playing football together as London Ladies in September, with the prospect of matches being in October,” she noted, painting the picture of how the set-up works.

While inter-county teams are spread across their county, her “international” team are scattered around the UK — and Ireland at the minute, with many on home soil through the pandemic. 

Other county teams were training together since before Christmas, through the league and up until lockdown, while London reconvened online in March and have been training individually — but towards the common goal of championship football — since.

Over the past few years, London haven’t played in the Lidl Ladies National Football League, so they’ve not gathered as a collective since their championship exit last August.

“That’s quite tough,” Lister nods. “You’re looking forward even to just getting to see the girls and meeting everyone again. It’s been so long.

“It’s not like a regular county. We have a lot less games than any other county team and we have such a high turnover of players that it’s quite difficult for us to regroup every single year. Last year, we had a lot of our key players leave.

“Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of really good players in this year that really threw themselves into the deep end at the start of the year through Zoom and Whatsapp and that.

A big part of London is development, and the development of our underage teams as well. If we go… it’s nearly looking like 22 months without a game, that is a big setback for us in terms of the development of not only our senior squad but who do our younger teams look up to, in terms of development and in terms of setting goals for the future?”

While conceding he would be very surprised if anything changed regarding their 2020 championship status — or lack thereof — at this point after the draw on Tuesday, Limerick man Bowles was keen to “be realistic” and to look forward with optimism.

fermanagh-v-london-tg4-ladies-football-all-ireland-junior-championship-semi-final London ahead of the 2017 All-Ireland junioe semi-final. Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

London’s potential inclusion in the 2021 Lidl Ladies National League would certainly come as a welcome boost in these turbulent times.

“We’ve just put in an application to the league in the new year coming,” Bowles concluded, “which I think will be even a bigger thing again for London to be honest. To play quality games at a high standard before championship next summer — hopefully, if we go back to normal — would be huge.

If we aren’t involved in that league we’re looking at something like 20-22 months of non-activity; no matches or competitive games. That’s another thing to look at on the broader spectrum for development.

“It’s the year of 20×20. We’ve seen so much about participation in female sports increasing and if London were to take part in the National League next year, that would have a huge impact here.

“It is obviously disappointing this year with the championship and everything else.

“Hopefully the LGFA can look at the London county board’s application for league involvement. That’s probably even a bigger issue now in my mind going forward.”

Another piece on London and their 2021 league hopes will follow on The42 this week.

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Emma Duffy

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