Stage is set for Exiles' homecoming
THE Exiles are coming home.
Anybody walking around McHale Park in Castlebar tomorrow afternoon will hear a medley of accents from supporters gathering for the Connacht final, as London GAA make a first appearance in the Connacht Senior Football final.
Some 800 fans from the English capital are expected to make the journey west for the eagerly awaited game against Mayo.
Anticipation has been mounting around Ruislip in north-west London – the UK headquarters of Gaelic games – for the past few weeks, following the achievement of the team, which is made up of players who emigrated.
"I would expect 5,000 to 6,000 supporters in total. We get people from every corner of Ireland because the team is made up of 15 different counties," supporter Kevin Kelly said.
London secured their place in the final when they beat Leitrim almost three weeks ago. The team had their final training night on Wednesday and will travel to Mayo this morning in advance of tomorrow afternoon's game.
Captain Seamus Hannon, a former Longford county footballer, along with manager Paul Coggins, met President Michael D Higgins on Wednesday in London.
"I am not sure if I am expected to be neutral or not," joked the President at the time.
Mr Hannon, a civil engineer, said there was a special bond between the team that he has not experienced on other sides before. "The exile spirit is massive. We all upped and left and came over here for work, so we have that sort of bond. It pulls us together. There is no group, it is all just one big team, like a club team," he said.
Due to the spread of people around London and their five-day training schedule, the players used to break away and train in smaller groups depending on who lived close by, he said.
While London go into the game as underdogs, the fact that they have advanced so far has been lauded, considering the upheaval in the squad.
Mr Coggins said he lost four players during the year who returned home. Of the 30-strong panel at the end of the 2011 season, just 12 returned.
"There are a lot of counties at home which have been hit hard with emigration, but I don't think they have been hit as hard at the top level of county footballers."