Against the surreal backdrop of a pitch beside Wormwood Scrubs prison, Naomh Padraig, made up of players from the Irish Guards regiment, played the Tir Chonaill Gaels junior footballers in the McArdle Cup.
The pre-season fixture was made all the more intriguing by an all English-born Gaels side coached by former London manager Paul Coggins. Coggins who guided the Exiles to a Connacht final in 2012 described the occasion as “historic”.
He has recently taken charge of this group of London-born footballers who have been nurtured by the TCG club since underage.
This in itself was significant, but all eyes were on the opposition and in unusual twist, the Irish accents on the pitch hailed from counties like Waterford, Dublin and Fermanagh, playing under the banner of the Irish Guards.
Tom, 28 from Waterford who manages Naomh Padraig said the idea to create the team was formed among Irish-born soldiers when the regiment was on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But away from the desert heat,Naomh Padraig lost 1-7 to 0-6 after a close contest.
“I can’t express how much this means to us today,” said the manager in an emotional address to the Tir Chonaill players after the final whistle. “We worked really hard to get to where we are and listen I hope to meet you in the Championship and beat you.”
Speaking to theafter the match, the Waterford native said: “To be honest it’s the best day we’ve had since we moved to England. I’m really proud to see us go out in own colours and we’ve gotten a great reception from Tir Chonaill Gaels. I can’t express enough what good people they are and it’s like the cut throat at home as well with the cut and thrust if the Championship. It’s just fantastic to be out here today.”
As well as Irish-born soldiers a number of players born in the UK lined out for Naomh Padraig.
For York-born goalkeeper David Bates the the landmark contest was his first experience of Gaelic football.
“The coach walked past my room and he was like ‘do you want to play Gaelic football’ and I said yeah, why not. So I rocked up and went in goal. It’s probably where I belong. I’m immensely proud. You know 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are living in each others pockets know each others strengths and weaknesses and all. I think we probably have the tightest team in the world in terms of team cohesion.”
The team has been at the centre of controversy since it was accepted into the London JFC in September. The Irish Guards have since survived a proposal for their removal from the JFC from city hurling club Granuaile and in recent days the team has changed it’s name from Gardaí Éireannach to Naomh Padraig.
“We’re living in a world of sport and as soon as you walk out into that pitch it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Bates. “This is 2016. It’s a new world.”