Always a one-year plan for London boss Michael Maher

‘I do it because I want to get the best out of a group and enjoy the journey with them’

Michael Maher never considered quitting when London were sidelined for 23 months
Michael Maher's London take on Antrim at Corrigan Park on Sunday in the Tailteann Cup quarter-final preliminary tie

MICHAEL Maher listens intently to GAA managers with three and five-year plans – but for as long as he is London’s senior football manager his masterplan will rarely stretch beyond one year.

Every season, Maher is back at first base given the transient nature of London squads. Compounding the manager’s woes, he took the reins on the cusp of COVID when London weren’t able to play a League game for 23 months.

While the Exiles County Board works tirelessly to create a team with more London-born players, they have still some distance to travel to reach the magic number of a dozen senior footballers that have roots in the English capital.

“Our junior team became an all-London born team in 2021 and as a result of that we’ve got a few players graduating to the senior team.

“That wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t exposed to a level of inter-county football rather than going from club to county. So that’s been a real positive. For the first time ever, we’ve got an U17 team in the All-Ireland series and the U15s and U17s are spending a period of time in Ireland over the summer. All that helps.”

As Maher prepares his side for Sunday’s Tailteann Cup quarter-final preliminary round joust with Antrim at Corrigan Park, he knows the squad realities he faces on an annual basis.

Liam Gallagher, Shay Rafter, Josh Obahor, Aidan McLoughlin and Tighe Barry are the London-born players in Maher’s current panel and all of whom featured in the side’s dramatic upset win over Offaly in the group stages of the Tailteann Cup.

“Every November you’re starting again,” said Maher, who is in his fifth season as Exiles boss.

“If we had the 28 players we have now next season, you could actually move from Plan A to Plan B.

“But we spend seven months trying to make Plan A as good as possible. You don’t have the contact time [as other teams in Ireland do], you don’t have the continuity with the guys from year to year… people can talk about three-year and five-year plans. That’s fine.

“All we can think about is what we can do to be the very best we can this year. A guy might arrive in London in November and think he’ll be here for three or four years and a job offer comes up back home and he’s gone.

“Realistically, 95 per cent of the guys who come to London end up going back home at some stage in their careers. It’s very rare you get a guy coming to London and making it his home forever.

“That’s the tough thing but it’s something I’ve come to accept. It’s one thing I learned during COVID that you can only look at the calendar year and get the best out the group. There will always be a turnover, there’s no point being frustrated.”

The split season brings unique challenges for London too. They duly bowed out of the Connacht Championship in early April after being blitzed by Galway in Ruislip.

But it is only since that hammering that the London squad has been able to avail of full-sized pitches and prepare properly for the Tailteann Cup.

“It’s made a huge difference in terms of the uplift in tempo. Stuff like having ball catchers rather than chasing after balls when you’re shooting. Tiny things make a big difference when you’re asking players to really buy in to what you’re doing.

“But I love the journey year on year,” he said. “We’re coming towards the end of the season, we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, a few lads dropped off after the Connacht Championship match with Galway.

“We carry this stigma around that the Connacht Championship is the big game for London. It’s not the big game for us. It might have the biggest crowd but it’s not the biggest game.

“Our biggest games are against the Offalys, the Antrims, the Limericks, the Tipperarys – they’re the big games for us.

“You need characters who realise the big games are the wins in front of 150 people, teams of equal level. They are the games you’ll look back in 10 years’ time. We were four points down against Waterford with four minutes to go and ended up winning by five – I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.

“That’s why I do it – I do it because I want to get the best out of a group, enjoy the journey with them and the backroom team. And to be fair we’ve had some great moments.”

While the casual observer will perhaps judge them on losing to Galway by 27 points, Maher has been hugely encouraged with London’s performances either side of that predicted defeat.

Injuries, he feels, probably cost them another “one or two wins” in Division Four this season and their 14-point win over Offaly in the Tailteann – inspired by the driving force of Ciaran Diver - was another glowing highlight of a productive year.

Daire Rooney, Conor Cox and Conal Gallagher are London’s contingent from the Mourne County while Fiontan Eastwood of St Enda’s Glengormley has been having a fine season but won’t play against his native Antrim on Sunday due to a fractured ankle.

And Maher isn’t thinking their season will end in Corrigan Park this weekend - a venue he last visited as part of London’s backroom team in 2019.

“Andy McEntee has done a really good job. He has made Antrim very competitive, and they were similar to us in having an injury-ravaged League campaign.

“They were very competitive against Down in the Ulster Championship, they are very well organised and have score takers. We are very much up against it but when our backs are to the wall we come good in knock-out football. I’ve got massive faith in the boys.”