CONNACHT SFC FINAL:
Mayo v London
For once, winning doesn’t matter.
It’s not that we’ve gone all soft and would ever suggest that at this level it’s the taking part that counts. In fact we shudder at the thought. It’s just that Paul Coggins’ side are already victorious. In becoming the 33rd county to reach a provincial final, London have provided a shard of light in a dark, predictable and largely boring championship thus far. As well as that, they’ve injected some fun and openness into an increasing cold and closeted world.
Here’s one for you. Just last week, Coggins went into a newsagents in north London, threw a paper on the counter and was counting up his shillings. Wearing a London jersey, he thought no more of his attire but it struck a chord with the Indian cashier.
“‘Best team, best team,’ he started saying to me,” laughs Coggins. “That’ll show you. I suppose having ITV and Sky and these people watch us helps, people watch these channels and see the progress we’re making.”
You consider him a manager of the year candidate already, such is the magnitude of what he’s done. Ask yourself this, if Jim Gavin or Jimmy McGuinness bring home the bacon, will that be any greater than Coggins taking London to a Connacht final? You might say Sligo and Leitrim are no great shakes, but these things are all relative and cross-channel, they’ve had to overcome more than most.
The Seánie Johnston rule meant they had their championship back when the ground was still frozen. They were denied the chance to play warm-up games here because it went against the foreign training camp rule. They played Leitrim in Leitrim, drew, so played them 20 miles down the road.
“Has it been hard? Not at all. You just get stronger. We’ve been breaking down walls all the time. There’s a fair turnover of players here all the time too, and even from the start of the league I’ve lost four or five lads, they’ve gone back to Ireland. People talk of emigration over here but it’s two ways,” Coggins said.
“And as for the warm-up games, we had opposition in ourselves. Mickey Harte was never a fan of those challenge games so if he thinks like that, then it can’t do us any harm. As we say in the song, you get knocked down but you keep getting up again.”
In a treacle-thick western accent, you reckon he’s close enough to the Chumbawamba lyrics to let him away with it. It just makes him all the more endearing as does his personal story. Leaving home in 1988, he’s told his players on a few occasions how he nearly jumped off the bus as it drove through Ballinlough. But work was more important than sentiment and homesickness, and for a while he was Sinead O’Connor’s postman while football was a saviour of sorts. Not that it was glamorous. As an example, he remembers on more than one occasion training in Parnells’ old pitch in Kingsbury with his London team-mates in darkness, as car lights failed to slice through the gloom.
“Stuff like that makes you all the more grateful,” he continues. “It’s been pretty wild now of late. Maybe it’s a bit different to a county back home but at the same time, it’s very exciting. There’s a great community here and within the London clubs. We’ve a lot of support coming over with us. I know my own club at home have put up green and white and the same with some of the lads. I think on ITV, it showed a young fella who was going over and he was saying his grandfather was from Mayo but he was going to be shouting for London, and his granddad wouldn’t know. That’s great.”
You can tell Coggins is all about the positivity. Most likely he had to be to hang onto his sanity. When he took the role three seasons back, he told the squad it takes three years to mould an inter-county footballer and in the meantime they couldn’t judge the team on results or they’d never win. Granted, there have been some huge results in that time like taking Mayo to extra-time and beating Fermanagh in the qualifiers, but this year was always about the extra mile. As far back as winter, reports emerged of the gym work being done in Winston Churchill’s old school in Harrow and how they were going at this season faster and harder than ever before.
“When I took the job, I felt the quality of London players was sufficient to have a go. We just tried to better it. But this year, I give the credit to the players because they got stronger and they needed to be. The lads are committed and it can be difficult. For instance, the Tube can be very, very hot. To be going on those trains before training isn’t ideal so you’re trying to get lads to drink the right drink and eat before they get to training. So, all these things have to be taken into account. Look it, there are difficulties there, but you get over them if you want to be an inter-county footballer. If the Tube stops, you get off, get on another one or get on a bus. You do what you have to.”
As for the reward, it’s been mostly on the pitch thus far. After all their games, there’s been a dash to the airport and while many will stay tomorrow, the likes of Caolán Doyle has to head back to the English capital as he has his last day of teaching on Monday. But all that only adds to the sense of achievement. Indeed on Wednesday, Coggins even met with Michael D Higgins.
“The lad said he was proud of our achievement and to keep it going. He said he’s to stay neutral for the moment, but sure look it, he’s a Galway man and there aren’t going to be many of them shouting for Mayo.”
There won’t be many others shouting for Mayo either. All because of their victory, and all because of Coggins.
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