| 12°C Belfast

London lads out to bridge gap

It was among the most compelling pictures of the 2011 All-Ireland Championship. London had just won their first match in the qualifiers and in doing that, their first Championship game since that victory over Leitrim, way back in 1977.

Sean McVeigh was frozen in time at the centre of a team huddle. His torso was lean and he had a Fermanagh jersey — the spoils of victory — tucked into the waistband of his shorts. His finger was pointing while he was making a point. This wouldn’t be the end of London, he was saying.

When it came to Sportsfile’s annual collection of pictures they surprisingly never used that one, instead opting for a snap of London coach Paul Coggins rubbing the blond head of McVeigh with his left hand, while his right had his captain in a firm handshake.

Only a week later, it was all over when they lost to a Waterford side that were well forewarned.

One year on, and McVeigh is still leading the Exiles. Before Monday’s draw, he was telling his friends from his home club — Ballymena All Saints — that his ideal preference would be to play against Antrim, the team he once played for. Lo and behold, London were drawn to face Antrim in Ruislip, scene of last years’ shock result.

“I had a staff meeting and wasn’t able to tune in,” McVeigh recalled yesterday, “but my phone was vibrating like mad, my family and friends had been listening in and they were texting me.

“They were delighted. That’s what you want, to play against my former county.”

Of course, he is keenly aware of what he is up against.

“I have massive respect for Antrim, and I more than anybody else in the squad know of the qualities and talent in the team. They are probably one of the best teams in the qualifiers and that’s the teams you want to be playing against.”

In a further twist, McVeigh could be in with Antrim for the 2013 season. He began his county career under Mickey Culbert and played the two years of Jody Gormley’s tenure, appearing for Antrim in the Tommy Murphy Cup defeat at Croke Park in 2007.

A PGCE teacher training course took him over to London at the outset of Liam Bradley’s spell in charge of the Saffrons, but when he returns this July to take up a teaching post in Darragh Cross, McVeigh won’t turn down a request to hook up with Antrim again.

“Whether I’m asked to or not is a different story,” explains McVeigh, “but it’s definitely something that I would be aiming towards when I get home.”

In the meantime, he is seeing out his time at Langenhoe Community School in Colchester, where his pupils have enjoyed the new Gaelic sports that he has introduced into their curriculum.

At the start of this year, London were still waiting on the flood of new players into the county team. The death of the Celtic Tiger was supposed to trigger a London revolution but it never quite happened. For a time, Donegal’s Eamon McGee was over, but didn’t declare for London.

While all the best players in London still don’t all play for the county, the standard of club football has increased, as has the set-up put in place by Paul Coggins, according to McVeigh.

“He’s done everything in his power to make it as professional a set-up as I have ever been involved in. He has energy drinks, recovery drinks and caffeine tablets all ready for us, maybe he doesn’t get the support that counties back home would have, but Paul only wants the boys who are willing to put it in four nights a week.

“This side is ahead of any London team I have played on. More focussed, determined and we have a great quality of players and squad.”

Elsewhere, the qualifiers have thrown up a number of intriguing battles. The only all-Ulster tie is between Fermanagh and Cavan. It represents an opportunity though for Peter Canavan to halt Fermanagh’s dreadful record in the qualifiers, their last win coming in their home game against Wexford in 2006.

Encouraged by their performance against Tyrone, Armagh will look to get their season back on track with a win away to Roscommon, who were less than impressive against Galway in the Connacht Championship.

A shock could be on the cards though, when Derry visit Longford.

Belfast Telegraph