CHRISTMAS is a time when candles, snowmen and Santa figurines are clearly visible in windows. But in one small north Mayo town, they didn’t have to go as far as the North Pole to find heroes worth celebrating. Killala are preparing for the All-Ireland Junior Football Club Championship quarter-final, and the men responsible for getting them there were feted in the window of Mary H’s shop. Alongside photographs of the team and other graphics, the four cups the club won in 2006 took pride of place.
And they’re not done yet. Next Saturday afternoon, they make the trip to Fr O’Hara Memorial Park, Charlestown, where they welcome British champions Fulham Irish. At stake is a place in the last four of the competition and the competition has caught the imagination of locals and exiles alike.
“It’s been great for people who left the club and went away,” explains selector Eddie Walsh. “A lot of them were home for Christmas and they saw what was going on. It’s been a long season, but it’s been a great year.”
Declan O’Dea’s side lost only one of the five finals they qualified for in the last 12 months, but the defeat to Crossmolina’s B team in the county junior final temporarily knocked them back on their heels. However, they regrouped, won the Division 3 title, and then got the better of Fuerty (Roscommon) and Galway champions Clifden to take the Connacht club crown.
Substitute Pat Bilbow scored Killala’s only goal in the provincial decider, an amazing effort during the second half of extra-time. It was, Seán Rice noted in his match report, “a match that had us spinning with excitement from the opening minute, a match full of heart-stopping moments”. Marcus Hannick finished with seven points. His brother Rory lent a hand at midfield. Full back Karl Dooher was awesome. Corner forward Kevin White landed three scores. It was, according to Walsh, only after the final and reading the subsequent coverage in the local papers that it “hit home” to a team with more than its fair share of under-21s.
“We had a week off after the Connacht final but we’re putting in a big effort since,” explains Walsh, who is also club PRO. “Hopefully we’ve left no stone unturned. It’s not easy but they’re a good group and they’re enjoying themselves.”
Intensive preparations meant little time for indulging in the festive season’s many vices. Killala trained the Tuesday before Christmas, on St Stephen’s Day, and again on December 29. Their opponents too are hard at work. The Fulham area once had a reputation for debauchery, becoming a Las Vegas-style retreat for the wealthy of London during the 18th century. But it’s clear from the GAA club’s website that it’s no longer all fun and frolics. Challenge games were organised for many weekends since their victory two months ago, and Fulham Irish have been training every Wednesday night and at weekends during the winter months. Their opponents represent “a step into the unknown”, Walsh observes.
“All we know about them is that they’re one of the best prepared teams ever to come out of England. They’re only a year in existence, but we’ve heard a lot about them. They’ve got a lot of backing, a lot of support.”
Fulham Irish enjoyed some historic victories during their first year in existence. None was more memorable than the day in November when they defeated Manchester club Oisin’s to be crowned All-Britain champions. The club had earlier accounted for the likes of Glasgow Gaels, Moindearg (in the London Intermediate final) and North London Shamrocks. The club’s proximity to the city make them an attractive option in a place where travelling to training can be as arduous as the running which follows.
It’s unlikely that Chris Coleman will be in Fr O’Hara Park on Saturday, as the ‘other’ football team in Fulham have a 3pm date with West Ham. The Sex Pistols, Harry Potter or Dirty Den will hardly make it either, although John Lydon, Daniel Radcliffe and Leslie Grantham are all residents of Fulham. Still, you never know. After all, Johnny Rotten’s parents were both Irish. And flights to Knock are cheap nowadays.