'This team have real chance to become story of the summer'
A scoring forward on the Exiles team that shocked Leitrim in 1977, Padraig Carney says it's time London rose again
Just a few weeks ago, Padraig Carney stood on the grassy bank in Ruislip watching London beat Sligo in the Connacht SFC quarter-final. He travelled down on his own, nodded to a few familiar faces in the Emerald Grounds then took up position beside a group of Sligo supporters.
He clenched his fist when Cavan's Lorcan Mulvey hit London's opening goal, marvelled at the work-rate of Mark Gottsche and Caolan Doyle in the Exile's midfield and roared when Mayo's Sean Kelly struck a crucial late point.
And when the final whistle blew, Carney felt the hand of history move to the shoulders of a group of players who weren't even born the last time London won in Connacht. It felt like the baton had been passed, finally.
He stood and watched the joy of their celebrations then turned to the group from Sligo and said: "You know what, I was playing for London the last day they won in Connacht, in 1977, I was a corner-forward, kicked a point."
"They looked at me as if to say: 'Jaysus you've put on a bit of weight since'."
Padraig Carney laughs out loud then sits back into the chair of his home in Kingsbury, North London. He flicks open an old London v Leitrim programme from 1982, calls his granddaughter across and begins to put names to the faces in a black and white photograph. It's the '77 team:
"That's Kevin Maguire, strong as an ox, Kevin was Kildare;" he says.
"Mick McGovern, English born, was playing for QPR around the same time; Gerry O'Mahoney was Kerry, one of the best midfielders London ever saw; Brian Greenaway from Cork, he had a famous kick-out, would drive it out past the midfield easy; Norman McCarthy, Mayo, a very good player; Sean Harte, Leitrim, brilliant on his day, if you kept him in the mood."
He looks up: "Course, London were in the mood the last day."
He gets back talking about the Sligo match, about the journey home from Ruislip that Sunday evening, walking through the front door of 223 Salmon Road and telling his Mayo-born wife that London had won.
"They what?" she challenged.
"It's been a lot of summers since she asked me that," he smiles. "But not in a million years did I think it would take this long, no way – London have improved a lot in the last 10 years.
"They have been very unlucky not to win at times, because there were matches that they could have won; and there have been refereeing decisions I thought they could have won too. But 36 years... I never thought it would be so long."
Time has passed quickly then as London teams changed from year to year.
Things have been different with the current set-up, though. They've been together three years and many within the squad tasted championship success against Fermanagh in the qualifiers in 2011.
Padraig Carney doesn't know any of the players on the current London panel, but they've a shared experience embossed by the stamp of emigration. Like them, he left Ireland for life in London and ended up playing Gaelic football for the Exiles. Significantly, he tasted success in the green of the county. "That makes us rare breed, even if I am a lot older," he jokes.
He grew up in Elphin, Roscommon, close to the Leitrim border and left when he was 16.
He was mad for football when he arrived in London, but couldn't find a club for the first three months: "Then I met a lad from Taughmaconnell down Quex Road in Kilburn one night and asked him if there was any football in this town? He told me there was loads of football and brought me out to New Eltham. That's how I got started with the Tara's."
Those early months he lined out for the club's minor team, an amalgamation called St Agnes. He doesn't remember too many players from that side, but he'll never forget one, the late Tony Grealish who would go on to win 45 caps for the Republic of Ireland soccer team.
"The best performing English-born Gaelic player I ever saw here. He was steeped in GAA through his parents. I even worked for Tony's dad when I came here first. I was a labouring man and he was a bit of a subbie."
Carney worked his way into the Tara senior team too and later, a full-time job with London Transport.
"It was all track work and rerailing," he says. "Talk about Leitrim connections, there was a load of Leitrim lads on that job and that's how I got the start. I had strong connections in Mohill and every Leitrim lad in this town gave me a shout for work at one time or another."
He jokes that he left his best work for the pitch and by the time '77 rolled around he was fixture at corner-forward for his adopted county and Leitrim was the fix of his focus.
"Oh God, we trained very hard for that game," he says, sipping on a cup of tea.
"We were down in Gladstone Park the Thursday night before we went. They were picking the team and we were still training hard. It wouldn't be county style the same as Ireland, but the Kerry lads were very fit, fierce fit.
"We went back on the coach. I was sitting beside Billy O'Connell. Billy was a great player, one of the best I've seen in London in my time. I ended up getting off in Elphin. I decided to stay with my mum that night. Sure it's only eight mile from Carrick. The boys went to a hotel and I went home.
"Later, I went up to the local to have a drink with my mother. There was a big crowd up there, some of my friends too. I said: 'I'll see you down in Carrick tomorrow, I'm playing against Leitrim'. They looked at me as if to say: 'Ah yeah, that's the end of your story anyway'."
Carney slept in his old bed that night, woke up in the morning and made the short journey to Carrick alone. He thought about the game, about his new life in London, about playing for his 'new county' beside new friends like Billy O'Connell.
He always had ambitions to compete at senior county championship level, but never did he imagine the opportunity would come in the green of London.
He was still only 21. He felt the nervous energy that knots your stomach before a big game. But Padraig Carney figured that as big as it was going to be, the crowd wouldn't come close to the 50,000 he played in front of in Wembley three years earlier.
"We made history that day too," he says. "Playing for the London minors against New York. The London County Board used to hire out the stadium every Easter Monday then. There would be crowds of 50,000 plus."
But Carrick was primed. Connections between Leitrim and London were strong and many returned from Britain for the game.
"It was a fine day and the ball was as dry as snuff," he says. "And there was a feeling in the dressing-room before the game, well, we knew we had it in us. There were some great players on that team and a big Kerry influence.
"Our type of game didn't suit Leitrim at all because we were catch and kick. No passing, all long ball, very direct football and we were very powerful in a lot of positions."
London defeated the hosts 0-9 to 0-6, Carney kicked a score. The next time he went home on holidays "they were all shaking hands with me and saying how well I'd done," he laughs.
"It was only as the years passed and it wasn't followed up that we realised the achievement it was, because it's fierce hard to put a county team together in London and make it gel.
"But we celebrated that win and it was a double celebration for me because I was getting married a few weeks later. That counted me out for the semi-final when we got a bash against Mayo. The next year the team was changed and over the years the lads went home.
"But this London team now have a great chance to go one better and if they got to a Connacht final, it would be huge thing, the story of the summer, a pinnacle even."
He looks down at the team photograph again...
"Yeah, Frank Cousins, Clare a brilliant player; John O'Mahoney , Kerry, strong as an ox too.
"In the front row, Gerry Keegan, Leitrim, they knew all about him anyway; Gerry Mallon, Tyrone, very fit, very versatile; Flavin the captain from Kerry; Timmy Shanahan, Kerry too; myself, fair to middling; Billy O'Connell, Kerry.
"I'd say no one has ever played in London better than Billy and Eamonn Brett of Mayo. We had Pat Griffin and Martin Diggins and Packie Hughes as management.
"That was the famous London team that beat Leitrim in '77 and it's a pleasure to have met and played with them."