Aaron Kernan: Trip to London will be no city break for Slaughtneil
AS IF Slaughtneil haven’t already broken enough new ground this season, this weekend will see them make their first ever competitive trip across the Irish Sea to take on London champions St Kiernan’s in the All-Ireland Club SFC quarter-final.
While history shows that the match should be a formality for this all-conquering club, a closer inspection of recent scorelines, and my own knowledge of such trips, can paint an entirely different picture.
I was a young, wide-eyed spectator on Crossmaglen’s first trip to London in 1998, and later returned as a player for All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2004, '07 and '11.
I am well versed in what Slaughtneil can expect this weekend and I can safely say the only time I could truly relax on those trips was when the final whistle had blown and I was back in the changing room, victorious, injury-free and with no suspensions looming for anyone.
One certainty this weekend is that Slaughtneil players can expect to get hit hard and often. The level of physical contact allowed is much more than you would encounter at home and the London champs tend to play on that.
Another big leveller was always the playing surface at Ruislip, which at this time of the year was heavy to say the least. The fact Slaughtneil will play at London’s secondary ground at Greenford may not bode well for a decent surface.
My average winning margin during my three clashes as a player was only 4.6 points. When you factor in poor playing conditions, unfamiliar surroundings and the distractions that come with this unique fixture, Slaughtneil need to give their opponents and this fixture the respect it deserves.
I never had an issue remaining focused for this fixture. The fear of being the first provincial champions ever to lose at this stage was always embedded in my mind. But I’d say I was in a minority among my team-mates.
It’s alien for GAA players to fly to matches and something which can prove problematic for committee members. For instance, as we had only won our Ulster title the previous week against Mayobridge, we struggled to get flights to accommodate all our players, management and backroom staff for the 2004 clash with Kingdom Kerry Gaels. Those similar issues were outlined by Slaughtneil chairman Sean McGuigan in this paper last week.
We managed to charter one outbound flight, but our group had to return home on three separate flights, which were destined for three different locations - Belfast City, Belfast International and Dublin airports.
The logistics were a nightmare and a huge distraction for the entire week as players had to decide which flights and locations they were prepared to occupy.
Each management team had different ways to keep players occupied. On one trip Man United were in town to take on Tottenham at White Hart Lane, so a number of us United supporters sourced tickets and went along. Other trips saw us spend the day touring Wembley, the Emirates or going shopping.
In 2007, our management felt that it might be better to fly over on the Friday evening to allow the squad settle into our surroundings and get focused a day earlier than usual.
It had the opposite effect as a few of our lads found the temptation of sampling London’s Friday night club scene too hard to resist. The stories those boys tell seem much funnier now than they did at the time. But it’s safe to say the two-night stay for fixtures was knocked on the head.
Even travelling to the venue by bus on match day has its issues as everyone is looking out the windows scanning the London skyline to see who can be the first to spot a famous sporting stadium or landmark along the way. These are all distractions that we don’t encounter in our normal lives back home.
It was all part of the experience, and thankfully we always managed to take care of the job at hand, but it is without doubt a fixture that deserves respect from the travelling side.
I have no doubt that Slaughtneil will be sufficiently prepared to do a professional job and return home with another All-Ireland semi-final appearance booked into their already hectic calendar for 2017.
London teams are always fighting against the tide. Maintaining the same panel from one year to the next at both club and county level is difficult due to work opportunities and the lure of life back home.
There is also the issue of the substantial commutes many of their players encounter on a daily basis to make training sessions and games given the vast nature of London.
But the one aspect that has always struck me during each visit to Ruislip has been London GAA followers’ pride in our Association. They see the GAA as their individual identity, something that makes them stand out from the crowd in London’s multicultural society.
The first London football team to compete in the Connacht SFC did so in 1975. But drawing with Lavey in the 1991 All-Ireland Club SFC quarter-final and recording four inter-county Championship victories in 39 years does not show significant progress.
I feel there is more that could be done to help them in their quest to make London football more competitive. Just like the majority of counties across Ireland, the best way to seek improvement is from the bottom up.
While appearing in an All-Ireland Club SFC quarter-final may seem like a prestigious opportunity, the reality is that it is of no benefit to the club footballers from London.
As has become the norm for the London champions, St Kiernan’s will have been waiting on this Slaughtneil fixture for almost two months since their county final victory over Tir Chonaill Gaels on October 23. This only adds to what is already an almost impossible task.
Removing the London champions from the All-Ireland club series and annually placing them into the Connacht club championship would offer a more realistic opportunity for their club players to gain a victory, and would entice players to continue giving the commitment needed to be competitive on inter-county duty.
In turn, this should help promote our games to a wider audience and make their sacrifices worthwhile.