All-Ireland winner Adrian Hanlon is intent on bringing the glory days back to Neasden Gaels
By Damian Dolan
Relegated after just one season the last time Neasden Gaels rubbed shoulders with London’s elite, one might forgive the club for wanting to just solidify its place back at the top table this year.
Not new coach Adrian Hanlon, who has instead set his, and the players, sights on delivering a first senior title since 2010.
But then Hanlon was present at Jim McGuinness’ first meeting as Donegal manager in 2011 when he told the players they’d win the All-Ireland that year. McGuinness was wrong, of course. They won it the following year.
Like McGuinness, Hanlon isn’t wasting any time.
“I’m not here to coach a team just for the fun of it,” he told the Irish World. “We’ll be aiming to win it.
“I know it’s a big ask, but I don’t see why we can’t. Especially with the forwards we have.”
The “biggest threat” says Hanlon will come from his former club, Tir Chonaill Gaels, with whom he won senior titles in 2018 and 2015.
“They’ve a county set-up in their backroom team, but if we can compete with them then there’s no reason why we can’t go on and win it,” he added.
Intermediate champions in 2016, Neasden’s relegation the following year was sealed with a resounding 4-11 to 1-9 defeat to Parnells in a relegation play-off.
They returned with a vengeance last year, however – beating St Joseph’s in the intermediate final by 2-13 to 0-13 thanks to a brace of Ciaran O’Hare penalties. They went on to reach the All-Britain final, only to lose out to Edinburgh’s Dunedin Connolly’s.
And it’s not that long ago that Neasden were consistently among the top two or three clubs in London. Senior runners up in 2008 and 2009, they finally delivered the club’s second senior title at the third time of asking, in 2010. The first had come in 1999.
Only Paul Geraghty remains from the side which defeated Parnells in the 2010 final by 1-7 to 0-7. Geraghty scoring the crucial goal and Stephen Lynch five frees. Ironically, Lynch was on the Josephs sideline for last year’s intermediate final.
Hanlon’s remit is to bring those heady days back, and with a forward line boasting the O’Hares and Dorans – and he hopes Down star Connaire Harrison – he’s confident the club can return to its former glories.
“We’ve got some good forwards and they’re starting to come together well,” he said.
“We’ve spoken to him [Connaire Harrison] but at the moment he’s committed to Down, so we didn’t want to push it any further. We’re just leaving it with him.”
And he hasn’t drawn a line under his own playing days just yet – he’ll “see how things go” on that front he says.
Having given Roscommon champions Clann na nGael a tough afternoon at Dr Hyde Park in November, Hanlon would certainly add to an already potent Neasden attack.
Hanlon had already made his mind up that 2018 would be his last with Tir Chonaill Gaels – a senior title and a Connacht Club quarter-final wasn’t a bad way to sign off.
With his partner expecting a baby, the 32-year-old felt he wouldn’t be able to commit to TCG this time around.
He started the year as part of Ciaran Deely’s London set-up – Hanlon helping the Exiles to victory over Wexford. But then stepped away at his own volition after the Round 4 defeat in Antrim.
With no plans to transfer to another club, he was playing soccer for Old Salvatorians in Harrow Weald, when he got a phone call from Frank Kane – Neasden’s chairperson, manager and goalkeeper.
The link was the club’s wing back David Crawford, who was part of Jim McGuinness’ Donegal U21 team which reached the 2010 All-Ireland final.
“When I met Frank he talked a lot about the history of the club. He wanted someone who could reassure the players that they can take that challenge on,” said Hanlon, who certainly knows exactly what it takes to win a senior title in London.
Although Frank is still “the boss”, Hanlon has the “run of things”.
His previous managerial experience came at minor level, when he guided an amalgamation team – his home club, Dungloe, and Na Rossa – to a county final in 2014.
They were beaten by Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), who last year enjoyed Ulster and Donegal success at senior level. But he got a good tutorage under McGuinness.
It was John Joe Doherty who brought Hanlon into the Donegal set-up in 2009 – they went on to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals that year, with Hanlon getting an appearance off the bench against Cork and making the scoresheet.
McGuinness arrived on the back of an abject 2010 campaign. Dumped out of Ulster in the quarter-finals by Down, Armagh put paid to Donegal in Round 1 of the qualifiers. Donegal looked anything but an All-Ireland winning team.
But McGuinness made an immediate impact at his first meeting with the players, telling them they’d be All-Ireland winners before the year was out.
“He had his team picked and there were boys dropped off the panel from the year before – there were maybe 15 new men at that meeting that day. It was a big shake-up,” recalls Hanlon.
“We were there from 8am until 5:30pm. We had to sign legal forms and everything. We didn’t know what was going on.”
But McGuinness’ onus on ‘the system’ above that of the individual player immediately delivered a Division 2 league title.
“We were doing nine sessions a week, between the gym and pitch sessions. It was a total revamp,” said Hanlon.
“You had to be fit to run up and down the pitch all day. Even if you were a full forward, you still had to track back past the half way line.
“You were like a robot; if you couldn’t do what he asked you to do, you were told to go.”
Donegal beat Laois in the Div 2 final at Croke Park by 2-11 to 0-16 despite losing Hanlon to a second yellow card in 39th minute.
“We started believing then that we could win Ulster, and it kicked on from there,” he said.
Ulster remained the “big one”. Hanlon was back to start McGuinness’ first championship game in charge, contributing a point as Donegal beat Antrim to end their barren run.
“We hadn’t won a provincial game for four or five years,” said Hanlon.
They went on to beat Derry in the final by 1-11 to 0-8 – their first Ulster title since 1992. But Donegal’s smothering defensive screen was beginning to provoke much debate.
“The press went mental; Joe Brolly called it the ‘horrible game’. There was no attacking play really. They wouldn’t pick a man of the match. McGuinness had a meeting with the press then and went bananas,” said Hanlon.
Their run would end in the semi-finals – Dublin edging them out by 0-8 to 0-6.
Hanlon, though, missed the team’s Ulster success and run to the All-Ireland semi-finals, having been dropped off the panel by McGuinness after Antrim for a breach of discipline. By his own admission he was “away partying”.
He’s brutally honest about the episode and how he believes it cost him a chance of playing a bigger role in the team’s Sam Maguire win the following year.
“He told me he had to make an example [of me] because there was a big drinking culture at the time in Donegal,” said Hanlon.
“But he did say he’d have a look at me next year if I kept in shape, so I kept doing the training sessions with Neil McGee (Donegal full back).”
Later in the year, Donegal played Crossmaglen in a challenge game. McGuinness extended an olive branch to Hanlon.
“I scored 1-5 and he said ‘right, you’re back on the panel’,” he recalled.
Hanlon repaid McGuinness’ faith by helping to preserve Donegal’s Division 1 status – chipping in with a point in their Round 7 clash with Armagh. Effectively a relegation play-off, Donegal won by 0-13 to 0-10
But with Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and the emerging Patrick McBrearty ahead of him, Donegal was now a hard team to break in to.
“It definitely cost me; if I’d behaved myself I’d probably have got a lot more game time in 2012. I don’t mind saying it – there’s no getting around it,” he said.
“But it was still a good time, going around with the cup. Donegal was a bit mad at the time.
“And it’s good to have it [an All-Ireland’s winners medal]. There’s not too many in this town that have it anyway.”
Fulham Irish won’t be the only senior team in London to have an All-Ireland winner at the helm this year.