GAA fever takes root in heart of London

It’s nearly three years ago now but their memories of the trip remain vivid. Lots of things about Roscommon were different, the houses for a start. Some of the rooms were bigger than their homes in south London, some of the bathrooms were bigger than their bedrooms.

And the food, the fullness of the milk, the amount of space, and the fact these London boys were here to play GAA.

They knew the lore that went before them. On the school corridors, celebrated stories about one-time GAA player and former student turned global music star Tinie Tempa, still echo; about a culture that places meetings with Peter Canavan above meetings with Robert Pires in Valencia, Spain.

In this out of the way academic corner on the city’s edge the rule of sport has pitched GAA above soccer in terms of sporting success and most of the players carry not a hint of Irishness in their genes.

They were just getting their heads around the Roscommon surrounds when Tyrone manager Mickey Harte walked into their dressing room, all business. They were U14, living in a part of Britain often labelled as broken by government spin-doctors; many of African and North African origin, but they knew who Mickey was, they couldn’t but.

Pat Winston, the principal with Roscommon roots and Niall McCann from Fermanagh, had developed a GAA programme in the school so they’d seen replays of the Tyrone versus Kerry All-Ireland final in 2005 and the one in 2008. Mickey Harte occupied that rarefied atmosphere of superstardom, but here he was in Roscommon meeting them on their level, dishing out advice. And here they were, about to meet Clonmel Commercials in the final of the Féile.

South London didn’t have a chance. That’s how they saw it on the terraces. They’d be blown away. Only Mickey saw a different ending. He told them how it would go. And when you walk into the reception of St Paul’s Academy in Abbey Wood, south London, you can see how it played out. There’s a picture on the wall of captain Nathan Davies holding the cup over his head. Chigozie Orjih was playing as well that day, and Tolulope Olaganju and Kiaren McMahon — they’ve always played a bit but: “GAA in south London, well it’s different,” says Tolulope.

“In Ireland they are really passionate about it, they talk about the game all the time; talk about it so well. Going there made me understand how privileged I am to play the game — to be able to come to play their game. You ask who my favourite player is but I’d have to say it’s a manager — Mickey Harte. He came in and talked to the players before the throw-in, lifted the whole team to go and do well. Chigozie joins the conversation: “I was born in Italy, came here in 2005 and knew no English. I found a way to learn and started playing Gaelic football in year five and six. Mr Winston started coming to our school and talking about the sport. I joined the team, it was a good way to talk and play sport.”

They still talk about that trip. Not just the students but the locals in Roscommon. Most times Pat Winston is back in Castlerea someone stops him on the street and asks: “When are the lads coming back?” “The lads!” he replies. “Yeah, you know, the boys from south London?”

Trace that victory back and the journey reverses quickly through an Irish education system now responsible for exporting an increasing number of highly-qualified teachers to British schools — some with a passion for Gaelic games. So many in this particular school that they account for almost a quarter of the staff of 70.

“Mr Smyth [Brian] taught me to shoot properly,” says Chigozie. “Mr Smyth?” “Yeah, our head of year, used to be the captain of the Westmeath hurling team…it is Westmeath right,” he smiles.

Féile Dreams is a documentary focusing on the footballers from south London which airs on RTÉ One on Monday, December 30, 8pm.


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