Tuesday 19 September 2017

Sinead Kissane: The London football captain who won't let terrorism stop him living a normal life

Gavaghan made his debut for London against his mother’s home county, Mayo, in 2011, and has gone on to become, in the opinion of London GAA assistant secretary John Doyle, “the top Englishborn player that’s ever come through in London”. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Gavaghan made his debut for London against his mother’s home county, Mayo, in 2011, and has gone on to become, in the opinion of London GAA assistant secretary John Doyle, “the top Englishborn player that’s ever come through in London”. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

After the terror attack in Westminster in March, commuters using the Underground would have passed by messages of solidarity written on boards in various stations around London.

One message in Oval Tube station read: "You have to be at your strongest when you're feeling at your weakest. Our Condolences, our City, our diversity, our strength".

The captain of the London Gaelic football team, Liam Gavaghan, works in the London Underground. London and Manchester have been hit by terror attacks since Westminster but, despite any uncertainty or fear, Gavaghan says he refuses to allow the threat of terrorism stop him from living his life in the city he loves and was born in.

"You can't let these terrorists, or whatever they are, defeat you. You've still got to live your life as normal and get on with it," he says.

Gavaghan's life involves playing Gaelic football and working the night shift as an engineer on the Tube. "I do signal engineering, which is basically like an electronic computer system. It's a safety system to basically stop trains from crashing, to keep trains apart," he explains.

He's been working the night shift in his job for the past five years. With London playing Carlow in Ruislip in the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers tomorrow, Gavaghan, as usual, had to try to get sleep when most of London was awake.

On Thursday, for example, after training finished at 10pm he went straight to work for 11pm and worked through the night until 6.30am yesterday morning before finally getting to bed around 7am.

This year Gavaghan became the first English-born player to captain London in the championship. His parents Liam and Margaret, who're from Sligo and Mayo respectively, moved their family of three children from Kilkenny in 1988 to London where he and his twin sister were born.

Gavaghan made his debut for London against his mother's home county, Mayo, in 2011, and has gone on to become, in the opinion of London GAA assistant secretary John Doyle, "the top English-born player that's ever come through in London".

London GAA is facing its own challenges with falling numbers of Irish players joining clubs to play in their championship.

"There are eight senior football clubs in London, seven intermediate and eight junior clubs. One intermediate club, Heston Gaels, closed down at the start of this year," Doyle points out.

"A few of the junior clubs seem to be struggling as well and you just don't know how it's going to work out for them next year. The senior clubs are struggling too. A lot of people don't stay in London that long. We find that there's not as many people coming to London over the last couple of years because it's too expensive to live here now."

This reduction in player numbers has hit Doyle's own club, Fulham Irish. In 2015, their ladies football team won everything going in London. By 2016, there were only four players left from that team.

Earlier this year, the ladies team had to be shut down because of a lack of players. "We don't struggle for sponsorship. Our club structure is really good. Where we're struggling at the moment is on the field," Doyle admits.

If London GAA was set up for the Irish there, it seems the stability of its championship team will only improve if it attracts more second-generation Irish and English-born players.

Gavaghan believes they must get more London-born people playing to offset the high turnover of Irish players who come and go.

"The London panel is mostly Irish lads and you would have four or five English-born lads in amongst it.

"If we can get more English-born players then it's only going to benefit London long term because Irish lads are here primarily for work and they could only be here for one or two years," Gavaghan says.

"But with English-born lads you know you're going to have them for eight to 10 years so if you can build a core structure around that and then the Irish lads can come in and build on that."

St Kiernans won the London senior football championship last year for the first time and it was a team which had a strong base of English players.

"The core of their team was English-born players. They've had a huge investment in the underage in north-west London. A lot of those players who're at the core of that team are in their mid to late 20s. But it's not a conveyor belt that you can see all these young players coming through," Doyle adds.

While GAA clubs offer support systems like finding accommodation for players who are moving to London, the absence of a different kind of support system (which we can take for granted at home) can be exposed when young players move away from home.

Doyle tells the story of one talented former underage inter-county player who moved to London but who couldn't stick with the football: "He came over here when he was 20 and he didn't last playing football for four months. His mother used to be ringing me saying what's wrong with her son.

"'I tell you what's wrong, it's because you're not there driving him to training, driving him to the match, (or) his granddad telling him he has to go training, (or) his dad telling him to go training. He's here on his own and he can't be arsed with it.' You see that an awful lot."

For some of Gavaghan's London team-mates, it could take them nearly two-and-a-half hours to cross the city on the Tube or the motorway to get to Ruislip for training in the evenings.

Gavaghan lives in Ealing which is only ten minutes away from training. But it's hard to imagine distance stopping him from playing.

When I spoke to him this week he said something I don't think I had ever heard before from a Gaelic footballer - he said he "dreamed of playing for London some day" when he was a kid.

Gavaghan and his dreams are just what London GAA needs.

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