Tuesday 26 September 2017

The emigrants' tale

In the build-up to the Connacht SFC final Cliona Foley got exclusive access to the London footballers, flying home on the team plane ahead of the greatest day in their footballing lives

The London team before their Aer Lingus Regional flight from London Southend to Knock Airport for the historic Connacht Final
The London team before their Aer Lingus Regional flight from London Southend to Knock Airport for the historic Connacht Final
London boss Paul Coggins
The London GAA team boarding their specially chartered Aer Lingus Regional flight at London Southend Airport
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

NO ONE took any notice when London manager Paul Coggins arrived into a funky gastro-pub in West Hampstead last Friday lunchtime and ordered an orange juice.

The north London suburb is not far from Kilburn, Holloway and Cricklewood, where Coggins (45) socialised when he arrived in London 25 years ago; he's settled in High Barnet now with his Donegal wife Ann and their two little boys.

Back in 1988, despite being armed with a marketing degree, he was fleeing an ailing home economy and did any job available, including a few months as a postman, when the houses on his SW8 route included Sinead O'Connor's.

Now he is joint owner of JBM machines, a four-man operation (one of them is a first cousin of Mayo's Chris Barrett) that has a patent for computerised point-of-sale technology in the hospitality industry.

In restaurants like this, where they serve obscure cocktails like nettle daiquiris in retro-trendy jam jars, if Coggins is ever recognised it is by his business clients.

No one here knows he's about to manage the city's GAA team in the Connacht SFC final in 48 hours, but he's chuffed to hear that a young lad in a London jersey has just been spotted outside the local Tube station.

Immigrant

In February '88, Coggins was part of a new immigrant generation who no longer fitted the hod-carrying thick-Mick stereotype.

The young men who now populate his myth-demolishing team are furthest of all from it, mostly professionals with college educations.

As one local old-timer succinctly put it: "They arrive with their tool-boxes between their ears now."

In Coggins they've got an equally smart manager who knows, as a former Roscommon underage player and London senior, what it takes.

He played in five All-Ireland club quarter-finals with Tir Chonail Gaels and managed them in five more but never won one.

No surprise his choice of team song is Chumbawamba's 'Tubthumping' (refrain: 'I get knocked down, but I get up again').

When he took over as Exiles manager three years ago, he enrolled the help of Dublin-based sports psychologist Brian Ladden, who has been advising him since and met the players once this year.

That goes some way to explaining why London took Mayo to extra-time in 2011 and finally stormed Connacht's barricades this summer.

"The difference now is that these lads know what's required," Coggins stresses. "They don't want to waste their time, they're completely committed and, as they showed against Sligo and Leitrim the second day, they are very mentally strong, that's one of our biggest strengths."

Before yesterday's final, they had already proven they were one of Connacht's top two teams, yet still couldn't avoid some stereotypes.

Aer Lingus Regional (operated by Aer Arann) gave them a free charter plane, from their new regional hub in Southend, to fly over for the big match and understandably wanted to take some promotional shots when the players arrived at Southend airport at 8.30 on Saturday morning, some of them up before 6.0 to get there.

Cavan native Lorcan Mulvey was asked to bring a suit and handed a briefcase to pose with, to underline that London are now 'corporate footballers'.

His team-mates cracked up, not least at his green football socks peeking out underneath.

But many of them, Mulvey included, baulked when jester hats, wigs and other wacky Oirish paraphernalia were produced inside the plane.

"No wigs," one protested. "That's a load of boll***s, we're not clowns!"

A PR woman wisely stepped in to stuff the tat back into a bag, but they still had to endure 20 minutes of posing for a video until selector Tony Murphy intervened and firmly called a halt.

By flight's end they had received a nice gesture – a voucher for two return flights and a letter of support from the airline – but the quid pro quo underlined the unique logistical and cultural minefield that London still must negotiate.

Coggins, who had travelled separately with some family and officials from Stansted, had already vetoed the suggestion to put a Boris Johnson lookalike on board.

He was nervy about such promotional work so close to the Connacht final but rationalised "it's only a distraction if you let it become a distraction".

Stewardess Lorraine Doyle, from Malahide, knew nothing about London football but was soon won over.

"Apparently one of them travels up and down from Liverpool for training and one of them was working until 11.30 last night because he's a plumber and got an emergency call!" she exclaimed.

Once they had landed at noon and got on the team bus, Coggins was firmly back in control and their build-up was minutely planned.

He took them to the local basilica briefly for some spiritual succour and then it was straight to their hotel in Crossmolina before a light run-out on MacHale Park on Saturday afternoon.

He approaches the tricky issue of team spirit and identity with great pragmatism.

"There's no point in me telling a Kerryman or a Laois man that 'you're a London man', they are who they are," he reasons.

"I say we're all together in this. You're here for yourself and your family, you're not just happy to 'play football for London', you want to show you're a professional, progressive fella, just like you do in work."

Motivational

He had some new motivational tricks up his sleeve for their greatest day, including unsolicited texts of support from Robbie Keane, London Irish rugby club and a particularly thoughtful one from Harlequins boss and fellow emigrant Conor O'Shea.

But the ace card Coggins had secretly saved up was a surprise YouTube video he'd received from the newly formed Granlahan-London Supporters Club.

He was amazed and touched by this rewriting of British soccer anthem 'Three Lions' into 'Green Lines' with a video that expertly blended images of London landmarks, match footage and his home village of Granlahan, near Cloonfad, where he played for Michael Glaveys alongside his great buddy Paul Earley.

Both of Coggins' parents are from Mayo. He grew up on the Roscommon side of a delicate confluence of three counties and admits "Ballyhaunis would be our local town".

"My dad's not a huge football man but he's a very, very proud Mayo man. We're in Roscommon but the Mayo flag goes up outside our house every summer, but if you watch to the very end of this video, you'll see it passes right outside my house."

And the punchline? The flag at his family's gate now is the green and white of London.

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