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From FA Cup dreams to Féile dominance - the GAA rise of London's native son

Michael Maher has become the first London-born manager to take charge of the Exiles.

LAST NIGHT, LONDON became the final county to unveil their choice of senior football manager for the 2020 campaign. 

london-football-squad-portraits-2019 New London manager Michael Maher.

It was a significant appointment as Round Towers clubman Michael Maher was ratified at a county board meeting in Ruislip to become their first London-born manager. Earlier this year he was the first homegrown selector to get involved with the Exiles when Ciaran Deely enticed him to join his backroom team.

Now aged just 32, Maher is the second-youngest boss in the inter-county game – a year older than new Wicklow manager Davy Burke.

He agreed on a two-year term, which will be reviewed after 12 months. He saw off competition from former London boss Paul Coggins, who led the Exiles during their famous run to the Connacht SFC final in 2013. 

Former Mayo coach Martin McGrath, who has worked closely with Maher at various teams in recent years, will be part of his coaching set-up.

Maher has certainly taken the road less travelled to get to this point. He’s never been trapped by convention or conservative ambitions. Despite his age, he’s enjoyed a fascinating career path to date.

Initially showing promise in soccer management where he holds a UEFA ‘A’ coaching licence, Maher took charge of a non-league English club during his mid-20s and brought them to the brink of the FA Cup first round during an eventful tenure.

He soon returned to his roots and became heavily involved in GAA coaching across all levels. A secondary school teacher in one of crime-ridden south-east London’s toughest areas, Maher has helped Gaelic football thrive at St Paul’s Academy where their students predominantly hail from African, Portuguese and Brazilian backgrounds. 

feile The South London team that reached the All-Ireland Féile Division 1 final back in July.

Players from the school make up the bulk of the South London U14 team that Maher has managed for just over a decade, during which time they’ve won six All-Ireland Féile titles.

Earlier this year South London, a team mainly containing black players, defeated Galway giants Corofin and Kerry champions Austin Stacks en-route to the All-Ireland Féile Division 1 final where they eventually went down to Dublin superclub Kilmacud Crokes.

Maher has also been in charge of Round Towers men and ladies senior teams in recent years. The men reached a couple of London SFC semi-finals under his stewardship while the women’s team lost the All-Britain decider to Parnells last weekend in only their third year in existence.

“Delighted and thrilled,” Maher tells The42 in his distinctly Cockney accent. ”It’s absolutely huge.

“Growing up, London was my county. Achieving this role is something I’ve aspired to achieve over the last few years since I immersed myself back in the Gaelic football coaching scene.

“It’ll be a good journey now, hopefully.”

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Maher’s father is from Kilkenny and moved to London when he was 18, while his mother’s parents hail from Cork and Kerry.

Given his father’s background, it’s no surprise that hurling was Maher’s first love and he represented London in an All-Ireland Féile final in Belfast’s Casement Park as a 14-year-old with the Sean Treacy’s club.

“Dad was the manager of that team,” says Maher. “He was on the county board in a role for a period of time. He was a massive, massive influence on Gaelic games in south London.” 

At 16, Maher began his journey into coaching. He started in a community scheme ran by Fulham FC, before later graduating to working in the club’s academy. At the same time, he became involved with South London GAA, taking charge of their U12 and U14 sides after the club was established in 2007 by Pat Winston.  

He then started to cut his teeth at non-league level in English soccer, working with both Tooting & Mitcham United and Sutton United.

“I’m blessed, I’ve worked with some really good teams and kids, a number of boys I’ve worked with are still playing professional football now,” he remarks.

“Some are out in America, some are playing in England and some are still playing at a very, very high level in non-league football.

“I coached from a young age within Gaelic football and football, but football was my main focus for a five-year period there.”

DSC_0276-500x323 Michael Maher served as coach/selector with London in 2019. Source: Irish World

Maher joined Redhill FC as their youth team manager – a role he filled for two and a half years until a chain of events saw him take charge of the first-team while he was still in his mid-20s.

“It was kind of a whirlwind I guess how it happened,” he recalls. “During my last half-season with the youth team, the first team manager asked me to step up and become his assistant coach.

“So I did and he decided to move to a club a league above midway through the season which had happened to Redhill a number of times.

“They’d gone through 10 managers in 10 seasons before I took the job. They’d been seeking promotion for years and years. So I took the job mid-season and it was a really tricky situation – they weren’t going up or down and a lot of players followed the last manager as happens a lot in non-league football. 

“I took over the youth team and first team for the last few months of the year. Then in the summer I sat down with the club. I showed them the structure we were going to put in place and to bring the team on a level and make it more professional.”

Promotion was achieved the following year to the Ryman South league (now called the Isthmian league) which represented the club’s most successful season for 30 years.

“I was confident we’d have a real crack at it in the first (full) year and we signed some really, really good players. We retained the best of the youth players and we got promotion in the first year. We got a record amount of points that the club had ever gotten at that level.

“It was a wonderful experience and journey, and there were a lot of challenges along the way in that first season. A lot of lads in the dressing room were older (than me) but I don’t think that becomes a problem when they see you’ve got a vision, you’re confident and able to back up your ideas on the training pitch and there’s a real mutual respect amongst everyone in the group.

“That’s the key to working with any team that you’ve got a high level of respect for those guys that are playing for you. I think you’ll always get that respect back once they see that respect is a two-way thing.

“So we got up into the Ryman league and then we had a whirlwind time in there. We were absolutely flying, we took the club to the last qualifying round of the FA Cup we were 90 minutes from drawing a professional side.

BNx5Z6XCAAEHhk6 Maher pictured with a new signing during his time in charge of Redhill FC.

“Lost the game 1-0 unfortunately and the club – I don’t know how to describe it – kind of hit the rocks off the field for some unknown reason. You ended up becoming a groundsman, a kitman, way more than just a manager.

“I stuck with the club through thick and thin because they’d given me a chance. I maintain until now it was probably the best learning experience for me because I’ll never be in that situation again, I would hope, in any managerial job be it Gaelic football or soccer.

“The club is collapsing around you and all you’ve got is your group of players and yourself that is the only stable thing.”

The Surrey outfit let Maher go at the end of the 2014/15 season following their relegation. He retains a positive outlook when he reflects on his tenure in charge.

“It was a wonderful experience managing Redhill. A lot of things came with the job, you had to learn how to manage budgets, how to manage players, negotiate with players, player transfers.

“The most pleasing thing for me was we developed some players and they’re now playing professionally in England. We brought 23 young lads through in my four years at the club to play first-team football which is a tremendous success rate.

“So I know what it takes to bring players through a system, keep them involved and identify when they’re good enough and when they need more time developing at a lower level.

“We were sending boys out on loan to get them match experience at senior level but maybe a level or two below what we were. I’d like to think all that experience has stood me in good stead for what I’ve done in Gaelic football.” 

A week after he departed Redhill, the call came to take over his home side who’d suffered a worrying decline in the years beforehand. They reached back-to-back London SFC semi-finals in 2016 and ’17 and lifted the Division 2 league title in earlier this year.

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“I went back managing my club Round Towers, they were in a bit of a sticky situation at the time and we’ve had a really good journey with them. We made them into a really strong senior club and we’ve won a few trophies along the way.”

Throughout his spell in English soccer, Maher and other GAA fanatics – principal Pat Winston, Tyrone’s Michael Donnelly, former Westmeath hurler Brian Smyth and McGrath – had created an unlikely Gaelic football culture at St Paul’s Academy, where he still works. 

DDKyoX2XcAAi3NV The South London Féile team in 2017.

A Catholic comprehensive school in Abbey Wood, it was filled with children of Irish immigrants in the past but the demographics of the local areas have changed since. The majority of the pupils come from African families, but the school’s Irish heritage remains strong. 

“It’s a real tough area,” explains Maher. “The kids come from some really deprived backgrounds a lot of them, and come from a lot of broken homes. So sport has really kept a lot those children on the straight and narrow without a shadow of a doubt.”

Gang crime is “massive” in the local area, admits Maher.

“There’s no two ways about that. There’s a huge problem with gangs in London as a whole at the moment.

“The way we see it is if they’re out playing football on the field with us two nights a week, a day at the weekend and are coming on trips to Ireland, all that time that we have them there, they’re off the street corner and they’re out of trouble and they can’t be drawn into it.

“We hope that by giving them those opportunities to actually do something really, really worthwhile in their lives and see different parts of the world, because a lot of those kids would never have left London. But we really open their eyes as to what they can achieve in life if they stay on the straight and narrow and that’s the other side of the program.

PS2A2996 The South London team in action at the 2014 Féile. Source: RTÉ

“When we go to Ireland a lot of the clubs say, ‘Jeez, our kids don’t know how lucky they are’ when they hear the story. And I guess that’s what we’re really trying to show our guys, that there is more to life than what is the typical street corner in south-east London.

“I think that is why the program for us is so successful, not just in terms of how well the boys do with their football it’s actually how many of the kids we transition into being good, young adults.” 

Asked if Gaelic football was a hard sell to the youngsters, Maher responds: “Not at all. They love it, they absolutely love it. The kids would be exposed to it at a young age within their primary school programs because we’re exposing it to them there.

“Then they come into St Paul’s and Gaelic football is just part of life at St Paul’s Academy. It’s one of the main summer sports there. The kids love it, look, anything with a football the boys and girls in the last number of years have really enjoyed.

“You wouldn’t believe the number you get out at the start of the year when you’re starting to train the teams and identify the lads for the age groups. The numbers are phenomenal and there really is a hunger there. It’s incredible to see their passion for the game.”

The vast majority of the St Paul’s players also line out for the South London GAA team that have enjoyed remarkable success at Féile level in recent years. 

South London’s All-Ireland Féile run

  • 2010 – Division 5 champions
  • 2013 – Division 4 champions
  • 2014 - Division 3 champions
  • 2016 – Division 3 champions
  • 2017 - Division 2 champions
  • 2018 - Division 2 champions
  • 2019 - Division 1 finalists

“We’ve won six times. We lost the Division 1 final this year to Kilmacud Crokes. It’s been unbelievable and it just goes to show when you’ve got a blueprint in place and you’ve got a group of people who want to achieve something both the staff and the players, and they train hard and commit hard, anything is possible.

“We beat teams like Corofin and Austin Stacks this year. It was madness on paper. Like, people were laughing when they said, ‘Jeez, you’re up against these teams – best of luck’ with a wry smile.

“But deep down, you know if the boys produce what they’re capable of producing, anything is possible. I think it just goes to show that no matter what you do in life, if you put your mind to it you’ve got a great chance of succeeding.”

That mindset will serve Maher well as he prepares for his debut campaign in charge of London’s senior football team, where he hopes to develop and bring through plenty of homegrown talent.

“I produced a presentation of my vision for London football as a whole, not just the senior team,” he says of his interview for the job.

“So I’ll be looking at a real holistic approach to the whole thing. If I can help the underage development squads put in structures and give them advice as to how I see it best fit to keep youngsters in the system and give them the best possible chance to represent the senior team, I’ll do that.

“I worked with underage squads for years and they’ll hopefully take on board the nuggets of advice I can throw their way. I definitely want to work with the London junior team manager (Stephen Lynch) to make sure those young lads that are coming up stay in the system at adult level and play for the London junior county team.

“Also lads that are in our panel that are eligible for the London juniors will be playing for them as well. So no man comes into the panel, trains for seven or eight months and has nothing to show at the end of it. I want to make sure that everyone has become a better footballer at the end of the county season.

“Any man that steps out with us, will either have played extensive minutes in the National League and championship with the seniors, or they’ve got minutes at a level that’s suitable to their development at that time. I’m really looking to bring the whole thing on another level from where Ciaran Deely has brought it to. 

ciaran-deely Former London manager Ciaran Deely. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“I can’t talk highly enough of what Ciaran did for London football. He put in a lot of good structures after Paul Coggins and he’s brought it to a great level and hopefully I can kick on now and continue his legacy.” 

Over the coming weeks, Maher will make calls to club managers in London to find out the availability of players for next season. 

“It is very important that the county gets the best players that are able to commit,” he says.

“There’s a number of good Irish-born players in London and it’s so important that we try and appeal to them and their clubs to come out and represent their county – because it is their county ultimately. 

“Certainly, I’ll be looking to make sure the London-born players continue their development because ultimately they’re the lads that will be here for life and the lads you can build a team around. 

“They’re crucial because more than likely they’ll be here for the duration of their playing career so if you’ve got lads there that are good enough that immerse themselves into the county set-up and give that level of commitment because you know from year to year that they’ll be here.”

Maher worked closely with the London defence in 2019 and they were proud to have conceded their lowest-ever tally in Division 4, before they held Galway to 0-16 in their narrow Connacht quarter-final defeat in May.

the-london-team-warming-up The London team warming up ahead of their clash with Galway earlier this year. Source: ©INPHOGerry McManus

The new boss is hoping to retain that defensive solidity in addition to having “a flair to us going forward”.

“I’m very, very hot on every player being confident on the ball and wanting the ball,” he adds. “I like every player to be comfortable attacking and every player to understand their role defending as well.

“We’ll see what players we’ll get together first. You can’t commit to exactly how you’re going to play until you know exactly what players you have.”

He admits he’s received the odd barb from the sidelines about his English accent during club games in recent seasons, but it’s not something that keeps him up at night. 

“Look, it’s water off a duck’s back at this stage. You end up almost taking it as a compliment when people throw it out because there’s a reason they’re saying it.

“I never think there’s anything too much behind it, sometimes it’s a complete joke to try and get a rise out of you.” 

It’ll take a lot more than that to stop him.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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