Many might spend this week reminscing on Leitrim’s greatest ever escape in Ruislip 15 years ago but for Lonodn manager Paul Coggins, 1997 is all in the past as he plots to record the Exiles second ever victory in the Conancht Championship.
If London do happen to record a first Connacht Championship win in 35 years this Sunday, it would be quite fitting that Leitrim provides the opposition. The Exiles have had some close scrapes down through the years but none is remembered quite so vividly as Leitrim’s visit to Ruislip in 1997, when they escaped with an extra-time win.
Paul Coggins normally prefers to leave the past where it is. “It’s in the history books now,” he said but even he cannot help looking back on a day where London were left to rue a dubious last-minute penalty.
Not much was expected of the home side on June 1, 1997. Leitrim were 10-point winners on their last championship visit in ‘92, and a similar result was anticipated. Little did anyone realise that they were in for a rollercoaster contest, which ended 1-9 apiece after 70 minutes and 2-18 to 1-13 in favour of the visitors after extra-time.
“It was a great and extremely tough game of football,” recalled Coggins, who played at wing-forward for London. “I remember it was a pretty windy day. London had a lot of very good footballers that year, such as Tommy Maguire, Timmy Connolly, Senan and Paul Hehir. I think Paul was only 18 at the time and that was his first championship game. He was fantastic.
“We’d a great build-up. We believed we were going to win, or at least give the best we could possibly give, which we certainly did. “
Playing with the wind in the first half, London held a 0-6 to 0-1 interval lead that should have been even more substantial. London extended their lead early after the restart but the remainder of the second half belonged to Leitrim who took the lead for the first time with just nine minutes remaining.
Paul Hehir quickly leveled things up but even better was to come. Coggins linked up with Darren Gaffney, who sent a low ball across goal, and defensive indecision allowed substitute Frank Hussey to net.
Leitrim were rattled. Three years after winning the Connacht Championship, they were about to crash out at the hands of lowly London but they were let out of jail by a highly-controversial decision by Galway referee Des Joyce.
“The ball was kicked into the square, and Adrian Cullen went up for it with our full-back Diarmuid Gordon, who wouldn’t hold back on anything. Both of them went up for the ball, which is what you’re supposed to do, and they were basically half-and-half with the ball. The worst possible thing it could have been was a throw-up, but for some reason the referee gave a penalty. It was an extremely dubious decision.
“The ref blew for full-time soon afterwards and there was a lot of frustration with the extra-time. Tommy McDermott didn’t really want to play it. There was a lot of talk afterwards from people like Eugene McGee, who were saying it shouldn’t have been played. But the Connacht Council had made the decision prior to the game.”
Leitrim grasped their second chance with both hands in extra-time. ‘Thank God for Declan Darcy’ was the headline on the Leitrim Observer. Gaels in London weren’t inclined to agree. Exiles forward and Aughnasheelin native Aidan Creamer said London ‘were robbed’, and labeled the penalty decision ‘disgusting’.
“It can’t all be blamed on the penalty decision. At the end of the day, we had enough chances in the first half to win the game,” said Coggins. “As a youngish footballer at the time, I took it quite hard, as most of us did. But that’s in the past.”
Now it’s time for the present, and Coggins and his London team have been working hard to ensure they don’t suffer similar heartbreak. There have been stumbling blocks along the way, from the passing of the ‘Seanie Johnston rule’ to the bringing forward of the first round of club championship games to last weekend, but Coggins has managed to keep the players focused on the job at hand.
“On the field of play, and the ways the players and management have gone about their business, you couldn’t ask for any more. We wanted to make sure that we put in the best effort possible.
“We had a good get together in Dublin last month; that was extremely important for the squad. We’ve put in improved performances throughout the league, and kept that going in the challenge game against Wicklow.
“If we can put in another improved performance against Leitrim, then we have a chance. It’s going to be an extremely tough game of football, but we’ll be ready for that. We’re in good shape.”
Coggins gathered his panel on Sunday night to refocus their minds on inter-county matters. Over five months of preparation is almost complete.
“I’ve huge respect for all the players in this squad,” he said. “They’ve put in a huge effort this year. The same was put in in 1997 but in this day and age in London, it is an even bigger challenge for guys to play inter-county football.”