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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 31 March, 2020
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London footballers facing possibility of 'one-off' exclusion from 2020 All-Ireland SFC

The UK went into lockdown yesterday.

London's Liam Feerick is tackled by Shane Walsh of Galway in the 2019 Connacht SFC.
London's Liam Feerick is tackled by Shane Walsh of Galway in the 2019 Connacht SFC.
Image: ©INPHOGerry McManus

WHEN MICHAEL MAHER interviewed for the London football job last winter, one question that never cropped up was how he would deal with a pandemic that caused the GAA season to shut down mid-league.

“I don’t think anyone would have ever said, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ I’d have said they were dreaming,” he tells The42.

“You wouldn’t have ever thought this could be a possibility but look it is and it’s one of them things.”

Maher is the first London-born manager to take charge of the Exiles. His debut season as an inter-county boss could hardly have been more challenging.

There were struggles to find suitable pitches to train on, five successive defeats in Division 4, a 48-week ban imposed on star forward Killian Butler (which was later reduced on appeal) and a serious hamstring injury for captain Liam Gavaghan.

Then just as things were starting to come together came a more formidable obstacle in the form of Covid-19 which has put everything on ice. 

As it stands, London’s Connacht SFC opener against Roscommon on 2 May in Ruislip is still scheduled to be played but Maher believes there isn’t “a hope in hell of that game going ahead.”

New York’s tie against Galway on 3 May has already been postponed and it’s a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ the London-Roscommon clash will follow suit. The GAA shut down all activities until 29 March but that’s likely to be extended by at least another month to in the coming days.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” agrees Maher. “We’re going into April next week, there’s no way they could be saying, ‘Keep gearing yourselves up for that.’

“It wouldn’t be fair to Roscommon, to us, to people in Ireland who’d be looking to book flights and hotels and come over. It just wouldn’t be right. I don’t think there’s a hope in hell of that game going ahead as it stands.

“Whether it goes ahead in the format that’s on paper at all is out there.”

Maher is realistic enough to accept that London might not get a chance to compete in the All-Ireland this summer due to the increasing travel restrictions from abroad.

“Personally, I reckon they’ll go for an open draw and possibly exclude New York and London this year as a one-off,” says Maher.

“I just think Ireland and London are on two different scales at the moment. London have gone on different guidelines from the government to what Ireland have done. London seem to be a long way ahead of the rest of the UK in terms of where this virus is at.

“But still, we’re probably two weeks behind Ireland in terms of the measures that were taken. It’s a really tricky one.

original London manager Michael Maher.

“While Roscommon could, in theory, get back up and training for three weeks’ time let’s say, we might not be allowed to get together for another six weeks. I think they’ve got to take that into account, that they can’t bargain for the situation that we’ll be in here.

“Will they be able to firmly schedule a date that London can get back involved? Look, we’d love to be involved in some capacity but I’m also very aware there’s a lot of players here in London that need a club season.

“We’ve guys that rely on the GAA to get them through week-to-week and month-to-month over here. So we have to look after the whole of London as such. We’d definitely like to take part in a championship of sorts, whether we’ll be able to be in it – who knows?”

Last night, British prime minister Borris Johnson announced a lockdown, enforcing people to stay in their homes for three weeks to slow the spread of coronavirus.

And Maher has bigger issues than GAA on his mind at present. He works as a secondary school teacher in one of crime-ridden south-east London’s toughest areas. The school are remaining open during the crisis to cater for vulnerable children and kids of frontline workers.

“It’s a really strange time. The government over here have shut schools to the general population of kids but key workers’ children and the list the government produced last week was very extensive and rightly so.

“Any kids that have got parents like police officers, fire service, ambulance service, NHS workers, shop workers, delivery drivers, they all still need to be schooled. So it’s kind of business as usual for teachers.

“I know there’s talk of rotas being set-up and teachers being part-time as it goes along but for now we’re still in every day at the moment. The numbers are drastically down but we still do need to have the doors open for a number of kids. 

“The area I work in, it’s a tough area socioeconomic wise it is deprived and school does keep a lot of kids on the right track. It is a tough time and a worry in a city like London where there’s so many different situations you have to consider.

“I’m sure the time will come when people realise it’s time to take this really seriously now. It’s a strange time for everyone but you hope it’s a once in a lifetime situation.”

At the same time Maher and the rest of the London management team continue to monitor the players’ physical work in the hope the season isn’t lost.

“As regards to the football, obviously it came as a blow to everyone a few weeks ago. It’s a worldwide problem and football pales in significance at this time. Bitterly disappointing for anyone involved in a team when you’re gearing up to play games but we’re trying to manage the situation as best we can.

the-london-team-warming-up The London team warming up. Source: ©INPHOGerry McManus

“We’ve got them all on individual stuff. There’s no gyms open over here and the guidelines are to stay out of gyms so it’s all home-based stuff. We’re all in a Whatsapp group together so they’re challenging each other, posting pictures of the work they’ve done and their run times off the app we’re using. 

“We’re still preparing for the Roscommon game. At the back of all the lads’ minds, they must be thinking the same as me, they must know there’s no hope of that game going ahead.

“In fairness, not one of them has missed a workout, they’re doing everything we’ve asked of them. They’re keeping their spirits high. It’s strange, we’ve gone from meeting each other four times a week. I guess we’re different from teams at home as well, we have a lot of travel involved and a lot of time together.

“We’ve gone from having that support network and guys in training regularly to nothing. I’m sure for some of them and certainly, for myself and the management, you base your life around the involvement of what inter-county football brings. You’re kicking your heels at night, you don’t know what to do.

“You can’t think about the situation too much but at the same time you really do hope it clears up and we have something to play for. But if we don’t we’ll be all the stronger for it next year.

“I just hope the thing clears up but there’s people in very difficult situations and I don’t envy the work that frontline health workers have got at the moment at all. Hopefully, we have something to play for this year.”

His first season in charge has been a major learning curve as he encountered frustrating problems such as finding suitable training pitches around the English capital.

“It was a really challenging league campaign for us. Everything pre-Christmas went really well and then after Christmas we lost our training pitch because the weather here turned desperate. There was no-one opening the doors to us.

“The only three weeks of the season we got on a full-size rugby pitch, which still isn’t what you want to be on, but it was for the Limerick and Antrim games and they were our two best performances by a mile.

“The other three games we were training on half a 3G rugby pitch. It was madness. We had keepers kicking balls out from behind the try-scoring zones and asking them to avoid the posts. We’ve had a whole heap of things this year.

“We have so many hurdles we have to jump over here. I saw Ricey McMenamin was saying Fermanagh had to go across the border into Tyrone to get hold of a pitch, we would love to get on a pitch for one session a week.

“You could count on one hand the amount of times we’ve done a full Gaelic football pitch session this year, it must be five. A few Saturdays we went up to, ironically, Hertfordshire there wasn’t even a pitch in London available to us. 

“It’s been a great learning experience for me and the squad. We were just getting back to and running, we had Killian Butler back off his ban, we had a few injuries clearing up because we’d kind of just got back to grass training.

“We were getting to a place in the last two league games where we were in a position to probably be peaking in terms of our league performance so it came as a blow. Hopefully we’ll all be there again next year at some point.

“We’ll definitely be all the stronger for it, we’ll be a year wiser. I guess with this experience as well it can only give us experience that we can use to good effect in the future as well.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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