After being ‘left out in the cold’ in 1993, London’s hurling team embarked on its first-ever National League campaign in 1994-95 and came agonisingly close to winning promotion
If London’s footballers blazed a trail when they were omitted into the Church and General National League for the first time in 1993, then the county’s hurlers weren’t too far behind them in their slipstream.
At London GAA’s Convention in January 1993, Tir Chonaill Gaels’ Motion for the inclusion of both its county teams into the league was “overwhelmingly carried”.
The Motion read; “That London seek entry to the National Hurling and Football League for an initial period of two years”.
Entrance to the league had a dual purpose. It would help to make London’s county teams “more competitive” and, it was hoped, “pay a rich financial dividend to the cash starved county board”.
The status of being a National League team would create commercial and sponsorship opportunities, as well as lead to the formation of a supporters club, all of which would add to the board’s coffers.
With the board already in serious debt, reservations were expressed about the “financial viability” of such an undertaking.
In May 1993, London’s footballers were accepted into the league by Central Council on a one-year probationary period. The Irish World described it as a “historic move”.
London’s hurlers, though, would have to wait a little longer. The expense involved and “a reluctance by London to go into Division Four of the hurling league” were the reported reasons.
However, if all went well with the footballers, the hurlers could also be accepted “as soon as the autumn of 1994”.
While London football manager PJ McGinley was understandably elated, a disappointed hurling boss Sean Reid said the hurlers had been “left out in the cold”.
But not for long. McGinley’s footballers had a successful first campaign – two wins and two draws – and by April 1994, the Irish World was reporting the hurlers as “near certainties” to be part of the league come October.
Congress referred the London hurlers proposed entrance to Central Council, but the “feeling on the ground” was that the team would “almost certainly get the thumbs up”.
That came after what was regarded as “one of the worst” London championships in “living memory”. A special hurling committee was set up at Convention to “examine and plan the future of the game in the county”.
The committee oversaw the abolition of the ‘B’ Championship and ‘B’ League, as well as developments at underage.
But those were changes for the future. In the immediate term, entrance into the National League was seen as the “much needed fillip’ hurling in London badly needed.
Any dissenting voices, talking about the additional cost of funding two county teams in the league, should be firmly “kicked into touch”. Entrance into the league would represent a “huge step forward” for the game of hurling in the county.
The situation facing the London hurling manager was an unenviable one – building and preparing a team for what might be just one game a year.
A situation the Irish World described as nothing short of an “outrage”.
When Sean Reid’s London lost to Meath in the 1993 All Ireland Senior ‘B’ final at Ruislip in July, it was the team’s first game for 12 months since losing to Carlow in the corresponding fixture in 1992.
And that was the norm, rather than the exception. The 1992 final versus Carlow was London’s first game since the 1991 final defeat to Westmeath. And so on.
Reid had, of course, been there for most, if not all, of London’s four previous All Ireland ‘B’ titles wins in 1990, 1988, 1987 and 1985.
Of the 1994 London panel, JJ Shiels (St Gabriels), Dan McKenna, Noel Hanley, Liam Long (Sean Treacys), Liam Weir (Brothers Pearse), Stan O’Leary (Fr Murphys) and Jamsie O’Donoghue (Desmonds) were among a handful of survivors from the 1992 loss to Carlow.
One of the jewels in London’s crown was ex-Cashel Kingcormacks and Tipperary Minor captain Timmy Maloney.
In 1992, Maloney skippered Kingcormacks in an All Ireland Club final. He went on to win two senior London titles with Sean Treacys.
By the end of London’s inaugural league campaign, he was named London Hurler of the Year by the county’s supporters club.
In June 1994, word filtered through that it was official – London’s hurlers would compete in the National League for the first time.
They were placed in Division Three, and thereby avoided the lowest tier of the league, as had been their want.
County board secretary Tommy Harrell had taken over the reins from Sean Reid as manager, and opened his tenure on 26 June by beating New York by 1-18 to 2-9 in the All Senior ‘B’ Championship semi-final at Ruislip.
A week later, however, the Exiles lost to Roscommon by a point in the Senior ‘B’ final at Ruislip, after leading 1-3 to 0-2 at the break. Fifteen wides did little to help London’s cause.
And so then to the National League. London’s hurlers made their debut on 23 October at Ruislip, and just like their footballing counterparts 12 months earlier, made a winning start as they crushed Derry by 2-10 to 0-6.
Both London goals came midway through the second half from Murphy’s star man Stan O’Leary.
The Exiles followed that with a fine defensive display to hold off Kildare at Newbridge on 6 November. London finished strongly to win by 1-9 to 0-6, having trailed at the break by two points.
The only downside was the loss of Clare native Damien Power, who broke a bone in his hand.
Two wins from two, and London had marked themselves out as “genuine, if outside, contenders for promotion to Division Two”.
Manager Tommy Harrell was keen to play down such talk, and struck a note of caution in the lead up.
Big improvements were needed if the Exiles were to topple Wicklow in the sides’ top of the table clash in Arklow.
The London boss pointed to 18 wides in Newbridge and warned that his forwards could ill afford to be so “careless” against Wicklow.
But Harrell was also confident that London had “every chance of beating Wicklow”.
“While going on other results is never a reliable method of assessing your chances, it is interesting to note that they (Wicklow) had nine points to spare over Kildare and we had six, which would suggest that it should be an evenly balanced game.”
And evenly balanced it was, but goals from Pat Maloney (1-1) and Declan Spelman (1-2) helped London emerge as 2-10 to 1-8 winners. Timmy Maloney scored 0-3 and Martin Baker 0-4.
The Exiles were now officially serious challengers. London’s hurlers were “hooked on the winning habit” Harrell told the Irish World.
“There is a growing belief among the players that they can go all the way now,” he said. “…..if we can maintain this kind of progress promotion to Division Two cannot be ruled out.”
Harrell’s charges closed out 1994 with a 3-10 to 1-7 win over Antrim at Ruislip on 4 December.
Debutant Eamonn Healy, who was on the Clare senior panel the previous year, scored 1-3 and Martin Baker 1-2, with Spelman claiming London’s other goal.
London’s long awaited and new-found “love affair” with the league showed no signs of abating.
A 22-year-old Andy Comerford, who would go on to captain Kilkenny to All Ireland success, chipped in with two points. As did Tipperary native Michael Cunningham.
Damien Power made a welcome return to the team from his hand injury, while at the other end Tony Lohan was “magnificent” at full back.
Tony’s brother Willie would later join the team. From Arravale Rovers in Tipperary, they both became St Gabriel’s stalwarts.
Their younger cousins, Brian and Frank Lohan, went on to win two All-Ireland titles with Clare.
London’s progress had been such that Harrell could afford to be “happy with the result, but not the performance”.
The Exiles boss could even afford to give his sub ‘keeper, and former Limerick and Sean Treacys wing back, Dan McKenna, a run out in place of Brian Boru’s John Farrell – another Tipperary native.
The Exiles ended 1994 well placed to push for promotion to Division Two in the New Year.
For London’s Sean Treacys contingent of Dan McKenna, Noel Hanley, Liam Long, Timmy Maloney and Martin Carroll, one final act to play out – the small matter of an All Ireland senior club quarter-final.
Treacys took a four-point half-time lead against Munster champions Kilmallock at Ruislip, only to eventually go down by 1-16 to 0-10.
The team’s exploits had clearly caught the imagination. In a poll conducted to decide the top hurling team for the first part of the league, London came second to Division One pacesetters Clare.
Off the pitch, the London Board signed a three-year deal with Setanta worth £10,000 – the hurlers’ performances no doubt helping.
On the pitch, Harrell’s preference for a small panel had helped to forge a club-like team spirit amongst the players.
Despite promises of a few new faces to the panel, the players that had seen London this far would backbone the team’s bid for promotion, and its Senior ‘B’ campaign.
There would be no wholesale changes. “Harrell’s hurling family plays together, stays together”, wrote the Irish World.
Expectations were rising and commitment levels were high – the team fitted in nine training sessions following the Christmas break in preparation for their 12 February top of the table clash with Westmeath in Athlone.
Billed as ‘promotion decider’ London travelled to Castletowngeoghegan to face a side they’d never previously beaten.
Minus Fr Murphy’s Declan O’Hanlon (virus), who had been in excellent form, London’s promotion hopes were severely dented as they suffered a 1-10 to 1-6 defeat.
‘End of a Dream’ screamed the Irish World’s back page.
For London, it was a painful day of missed chances. With a strong wind at their backs, the Exiles hit five wides before Martin Baker opened the scoring in the 11th minute.
And then twice in the final three minutes, Eamon Healy and Paul Butler were both denied by the Westmeath goalkeeper.
The scores had been level at the break, 1-3 to 0-6. Michael Cunningham with London’s goal in the 17th minute.
Facing into a strong breeze, the visitors battled bravely and were still on level terms with 12 minutes to go, thanks to the performances of John Farrell, Liam Long, Noel Hanley and JJ Shiels.
But it was then that Westmeath struck the fatal blow – Lorcan Coll flicking to the net following a side-line puck into the London square.
“We left it behind us,” reflected a rueful Harrell the day after the game. “We had 60 per cent of the play, but if you don’t take your chances at this level then you have to expect to pay the price.
“We looked like a team that didn’t have a game for eight weeks,” he added.
Unlike London, Westmeath had had the benefit of a Keogh Cup game with Carlow the previous weekend.
The Exiles’ promotion hopes were now out of their own hands – they instead rested on London winning their remaining three games, and hoping Roscommon did them a favour by beating Westmeath.
And London’s prayers were answered by the hurling Gods, as Roscommon duly beat Westmeath 2-6 to 1-6 in Athleague.
London’s game with Monaghan that same weekend had fallen victim to a waterlogged pitch in Carrickmacross.
“We are thrilled,” Harrell told the Irish World. “….we had all our fingers crossed, but we were more hopeful than confident that Roscommon would do us a favour.”
Win all three of their remaining games against Louth, Roscommon and Monaghan, which was rescheduled for 9 April at Carrickmacross, and the Exiles could contemplate a play-off with Westmeath for the title, and promotion.
Reinvigorated, Harrell’s men made light work of Louth at Ruislip on 12 March, winning by 3-13 to 2-4.
Stan O’Leary burst through the Louth defence in the 15th minute to crash the ball to the net, and that settled the Exiles who went on to lead by 1-7 to 2-3 at half-time.
The introduction of Declan O’Hanlon added some bite to London’s attack, and Jamesie O’Donoghue applied the finish. The Desmonds man striking two sweetly taken goals.
To ‘London’s Date with Destiny’ then and the visit of Roscommon to Ruislip on 26 March.
The Irish World wrote in its preview that while victory would not automatically guarantee London a play-off, “the fact their remaining game is against Monaghan who are pointless at the bottom of Division Three, would suggest that a win over the Ulster side on 9 March at Carrickmacross is a certainty”.
“This is a real crunch game for us….it is one we simply must win because it will open a lot of doors for this team,” said Harrell.
Instead, London’s hurlers endured a “heartbreaking day” as Roscommon won 1-10 to 0-12 to leave Exiles supporters huddled round “transistor radios”, hoping for news of another Westmeath slip-up, this time against Armagh.
Lightening was not about to strike twice however – London’s first-ever National League campaign was over.
The Exiles had looked well-placed when they wiped out a five-point half-time deficit (1-6 to 0-4), to take a one-point lead 12 minutes into the second half.
Timmy Moloney (3), Jamesie O’Donoghue (Desmonds, Clare), Andy Comerford (Brothers Pearse) and Declan O’Hanlon were all on target as London threatened to steamroll the visitors. The Exiles now led 0-10 to 1-6.
Word had also filtered through that Armagh were leading Westmeath at the break. All was looking good.
But the Westerners, “possessing resolve in abundance” refused “to lie down and play dead”, despite their promotion hopes having already gone.
They responded, inspired by freetaker Brendan Boyle, who scored 0-9 (6f) of his side’s points on the day.
London’s early second half confidence and swagger had long since deserted them by the time Boyle’s late free edged Roscommon into a 1-10 to 0-12 lead.
Try as they frantically might in the three minutes that remained, the Exiles couldn’t fashion the goal that would have saved them.
For the second time in nine months Roscommon had come to Ruislip and “snatched victory from the jaws of defeat”.
There was to be no reprieve from Keady; Westmeath had turned it around to beat Armagh 1-12 to 1-6 to seal the Division Three title, and promotion.
London dotted the I’s and crossed the t’s on their inaugural league campaign by beating Monaghan 4-14 to 1-5 in the sides’ outstanding fixture.
The game was notable for Clareman Martin Baker, playing his last game for London, signing off with a brace of goals.
Star midfielder Timmy Maloney had already departed home to Tipperary.
Despite the disappointment, it had been “remarkably successful” venture into the league for London’s “small group of players”, which manager Tommy Harrell had “knitted into a formidable outfit”.
A team that should be capable of going on to win the All Ireland Senior ‘B’ Championship that summer.
“The players have a lot of be proud of, and they know where they left the opportunity behind them,” summarised Harrell.
They would go into the All Ireland Senior ‘B’ determined to put that right.