"People don't realise it's a huge effort, it's not like home where you're two mile from the local field." - Greg McCartan on Fulham Irish's success
ON top of his two All-Irelands as a player, Greg McCartan won championship medals in Down, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Now as a manager, he’s added England’s capital city to that list.
Since picking up an intermediate title with his native Ballymartin in 1993, he’s had a storied career that took its latest turn for the better when he guided Fulham Irish to their first London SFC in six years with a win over Tír Chonaill Gaels on Sunday.
And the reality of sculpting such a victory was very different from the perception. Without a clubhouse of their own, the club train at the playing fields at Wormwood Scrubs, with the inmates of the famous prison often glaring out on them.
The players all journey by train from nearby areas like Willesden and Neasden, and in home-time traffic the journey for some can touch an hour each way. It can be as late as half 11 before some of them get back to wherever they're staying.
Fulham Irish are in the process of trying to acquire a bit of land on which to build a permanent base but that’s for another day. Right now, they’re just coming down from the celebrations that ran on into yesterday for some.
For McCartan they finished up on Monday evening, having the day with a handful of friends and family members from Castlewellan that had either travelled over or are based in London.
Football has been all-consuming for the past six weeks, during which time he hasn’t been back on these shores, so little surprise that he is itching for Friday and a four-day break back by the foot of the Mournes.
But the effort brought its rewards in dramatic fashion thanks to a late recovery from three down that was sealed by a match-winning Owen Mulligan free in stoppage time.
“People don’t realise, they think in London you’re only 5 or 10 minutes from training, but in the summer some of our lads are training 80 minutes back and forward for training.
“It’s a huge effort. It’s not like home, where you’re two mile up the road to the local field and you’re home again at half 9 at night.”
The first pre-season meeting at a pub in Earl’s Court gave McCartan an idea what he was working with in his second year in charge. There were as many incomings as there were outgoings.
“From our last championship game last year, we had about eight changes this year but we seemed to get a lot of high-quality players who were prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel.”
At the start of July he was joined by Galbally native Mickey Donaghy, whose first question was: “Jesus, why are these boys not training?”
“I knew from last year that August’s a funny time here,” said McCartan.
“It’s when English people take their holidays, building suppliers close down and the whole thing slows down. I was saying to Mickey not to panic.
“Our first match was the start of September so we had six weeks from about the middle of July where we ramped it up and took off.
“I put them through their paces with a lot of the work I’d done over the years that stood me in good stead. It wasn’t pretty at times but they stuck at it.
“The quality of football’s not a problem, it’s just giving that wee bit of commitment to the training sometimes. We had some great leaders in the team that kept driving on.”
And while he studies the game and keeps the counsel of men like London boss Ciaran Deely, who work in the sports science field is recognised, McCartan concedes that if he had a tag, it would still be “old school”.
But in a world away from home, there was still comfort and motivation for the players to perform in their adopted colours by virtue of a reminder of their roots.
Between captain Michael Murphy, spiritual leader Mulligan and the management, they came up with the idea of asking the players to hand in a jersey from their home club in the week before the game.
When they arrived to the changing room in Ruislip, there they were on the ground was a circle. 27 clubs, 14 counties, all four provinces represented.
“Mulligan had done something similar with Tyrone minors. It was a nice touch, it looked well.
“It definitely helped me in my talk before it. It brings you together. These are all boys in their late 20s or early 30s, they’re at football a long time.
“You’re in one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world, you don’t have to be going twice a week to run around Wormwood Scrubs to train.
“The fact they chose to be there was something we tried to emphasise and use psychologically.”
It’s a decision that none of them will have regretted in McGettigan’s on Sunday evening.