Beer tents and the smell of frying onions: games in Ruislip do as much for GAA as glamour days in Croker

Nathan McElwaine of London in action against Conor Reynolds, left, and Mark Plunkett of Leitrim at at Ruislip. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

London players dejected after their defeat in the Connacht SFC to Leitrim at Ruislip, London. Photo; Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Sean McGoldrick

This is a world apart from All-Ireland final day in Croke Park

My first ‘foreign’ assignment as a journalist was covering the Sligo v London Connacht championship match in Ruislip in 1983.

Memories of the day are sketchy, but I recall the visitors struggled for long periods before finally overcoming the home side by seven points.

My abiding memory of the trip is attempting to play snooker with a couple of Sligo players in the early hours of Monday morning in the residents’ lounge of the team hotel, which was situated bang in the middle of Soho.

I returned in 2000 – this time as a spectator. I was on a family trip to London on the weekend of the annual championship game between London and the visitors from Connacht. I went along with a friend.

I had no skin in the game and can’t remember a single thing about it. I had to look up the result to recall who London’s opponents were.

For the record, it was Roscommon – and they hammered the hosts 5-16 to 1-5.

The only reason the trip still resonates is because on the way out of the game I received a phone call from a very happy Dublin fan, who wanted to share the good news that defending All-Ireland champions Meath had just suffered a shock loss to Offaly in the Leinster championship.

The Royals were out of the championship on the first Sunday in June. Their exit seemed set to boost Dublin’s chances of not just winning Leinster, but having a crack at the All-Ireland.

But, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry – and Dublin’s championship campaign ran aground later that summer, when they lost to Kildare in the Leinster final replay.

Last Sunday I was back in Ruislip for the clash of my native Leitrim against the home side.

It was the hottest day of the year in the English capital, with the temperatures reaching 21 degrees.

The atmosphere at the championship game in Ruislip is unique.

The beer tents are situated close to the pitch and the aroma of frying onions from the hamburger vendors, lined up behind one of the goals, wafts over the crowd.

This is the fixture from hell for the visitors – they know their self-respect will be shredded if they lose, whereas a win will be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders.

Leitrim had been forewarned – they are the only county to have lost twice to London in the Connacht championship, both on Irish soil.

Furthermore, London effectively ended their promotion ambitions this season, when they beat them in the spring on a stormy afternoon in the Connacht Centre of Excellence in Bekan.

London players dejected after their defeat in the Connacht SFC to Leitrim at Ruislip, London. Photo; Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The only visible emotion Leitrim boss Andy Moran displayed during the match was when midfielder Donal Wrynn scored their second goal to extend their lead to eight points. With 12 minutes left, it looked game over. Moran’s fist pump meant he thought so, too.

But by the time the game ticked into injury time, he must have been feeling a sense of déjà vu. In 2011, he was the outstanding player on the Mayo team, which almost came a cropper in Ruislip in James Horan’s first championship match.

They trailed by two points late on before securing a draw, and they finally prevailed in extra time.

Having conceded two goals, and losing substitute Evan Sweeney to a black-card, Leitrim were hanging on grimly to a one-point lead, with six minutes of injury time to be played.

All the momentum was with London – and their failure to at least bring the game to extra time will haunt them for a long time.

They missed three gilt-edged chances to equalise – with their best player of a generation, Liam Gavaghan, squandering their best opportunity.

Missing their best player Keith Beirne, Leitrim deserve credit for not just holding their head, but fashioning the best move of the game which culminated in Ryan O’Rourke scoring a goal with the last kick of the match.

On his 101st appearance, Emlyn Mulligan was one of key link-players in the move.

When the final whistle sounded every Leitrim fan in the ground needed a drink to revive them.

The significance of the win cannot be overstated. It was Leitrim’s first championship win since beating Wicklow in the 2019 All-Ireland qualifiers, and their first win in the Connacht series since defeating New York in 2018. And that game went to extra time.

Nobody expects them to beat the winners of today’s Galway v Mayo showdown in the Connacht semi-final.

But, provided they avoid a thrashing on May 8, they have generated enough momentum to carry into the Tailteann Cup.

London are likely to carry the psychological scars of the loss for a while.

But the Tailteann Cup gives them a realistic chance of recording their first championship win since 2013. And nobody will fancy meeting them in Ruislip.

This is a world apart from All-Ireland final day in Croke Park.

But it is days like last Sunday in Ruislip which do more to sustain the GAA than the glamour occasions.

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