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Ulstermen are out to give the Big Apple plenty of bite

 

By Declan Bogue

It's possibly the oddest facet of one of the world's indigenous sports that the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship gets underway in The Bronx, New York, over 3,000 miles away from where it ends in Croke Park.

On the fringes of the local college, with a railway line ferrying often bemused passengers by what must seem an exotic field game, this multi-million pound generating competition - well over £10million in 2015 - begins under a Manhattan skyline.

If the setting is novel, the accents will be pure Sligo from the visitors, and a mix for the Exiles, but mainly a northern, Ulster burr.

New York released their team on Thursday evening for the preliminary round Connacht Championship clash against Niall Carew's Sligo. Managed by Cavan man Justin O'Halloran, he includes Peter Witherow of Creeslough and Donegal. Former Down star Keith Quinn. Ross Wherity, who broke onto Donegal's team for the 2013 season, Daniel 'Yankee' McKenna of Monaghan, and up top is Eugene McVerry of Mullaghban and Armagh.

On the bench are a number of Ulstermen including Darren Freeman of Clones, Fermanagh's Kevin Connolly and Errigal Ciaran's Ronan McGinley.

They will be captained by former Down and Burren player Gerard McCartan, lining out at wing-back in his fourth campaign with New York.

"It's a place I have fallen in love with," he readily admits.

"Especially up around Gaelic Park. It's like a home away from home. I live in Woodlawn, it's part of The Bronx, and it's like a 'Little Ireland'."

Most years the New York team breaks up but over the last couple of years, O'Halloran has been able to convince players to hang around for a longer term.

McCartan acquired a degree in Sports Studies, and followed it with a Masters in Nutrition during his time in Ulster University Jordanstown.

In New York, however, you can be whatever you wanna be. He works as a surveyor, explaining with a quip: "I studied it in the Aer Lingus departures lounge!"

When pressed, he is lukewarm about the idea of returning home to resume his inter-county career with Down. Right now, he has the thick end of a three-year Visa that he has no intention of cutting short.

"It's just the hustle and bustle of the city," that he likes. "It's all go and I like that pace. I like a crowd around me," he says.

"After all, it's just a six-hour flight away. It's not like you are on the other side of the world."

If he has half a day to himself, he has a round of golf.

"Whenever I have a bit longer," he continues, "I would go away on boat trips, on yacht trips and the like. Stuff that you wouldn't really be able to do at home, you can just do on a whim here."

And then there was the Big Apple-centric election of Donald Trump as the American President, which McCartan followed with close interest.

"It was crazy," he deadpans.

"It was nothing like at home, in New York there were a lot of protests and the like."

Asked if he joined in any protest or counter-protest and he shoots back instantly: "I'm too busy building the city!"

With two recent challenge matches against a touring Donegal side last month, they are possibly the best-prepared New York team to enter the Connacht Championship, very nicely priced at 5/2.

Take into account that Sligo will be without top scorer Niall Murphy with a hamstring tear and exam-tied students Kevin McDonnell and Gerard O'Kelly-Lynch, and this tricky fixture becomes treacherous.

Last year New York brought Roscommon to within a point in the ultimate moral victory, achieved after testing themselves in challenge matches against Cavan.

This year's double-date with Donegal was a "massive help" in their preparations, insists McCartan.

"This year we have been very lucky with the weather," he adds.

"The three years previous to this, the winters were harsher. This year we were out training more, earlier. Two years ago in particular we missed a good bit of training because of the snow. For a month it lay and we weren't able to do anything at all."

At Thursday's Ulster Championship launch, Donegal selector Maxi Curran told this writer how impressed he was with New York's appetite and organisation.

It's worth noting how the cross-section of Irish in New York are changing.

This wave of immigrant is no longer the Irishman not getting through customs with a hammer in his luggage. These players are more likely to be involved at the strategy end of construction, or in Information Technology.

As a result, they are overwhelmingly 'legal'.

Back in 2006, New York hurlers famously overturned Derry in an Ulster semi-final, but were unable to fly over to face Antrim for the final. Should New York pull off the impossible, fulfilling a quarter-final against Mayo would not be an issue this time.

"95% of the lads are eligible to travel. There are only a couple of the lads who would unfortunately not be able to go," McCartan explains.

After the 2013 Down county final in which Kilcoo began their present four in a row at the expense of Burren, McCartan caught the next plane to New York.

He may have the most illustrious of Down names, but his ambitions, his glory is all tied up in New York's strip of red white and blue, a tasteful homage of the stars and bars.

An American Dream. A Bronx Tale.

  • New York v Sligo, Connacht Championship: Gaelic Park, Sunday, 3.15 pm local time

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