By Michael Dorgan
There’s something fresh and invigorating about entering a dressing room filled with a vast array of Irish accents juxtaposed with some native US tongue.
The New York dressing room is a unique blend of Irishmen bundled together for one common cause, one game, one chance at history – to become the first ever New York side to win a Connacht Senior Football Championship match.
After 20 attempts, everyone before us has failed and the challenge this year is even more formidable.
Mayo, a seasoned team with an array of All-Stars have contested two of the last three All-Ireland Finals and coming off the back of a National League Division 1 title are taking on a New York outfit winless since first entering the competition in 1999.
It can take some of us 90 minutes to get to training, three times per week. Training kicks off at around 7:45pm and its closer to 11pm by the time I make it home to Queens from The Bronx.
The make-up of the team changes considerably every year but we are all one community now, embracing our immigrant status and going into battle as a conglomerate of Irish exiles alongside our first generation Irish American cousins.
Unfortunately the new Gaelic Park clubhouse, which was supposed to be open last March, will only begin construction after the game.
The lack of a clubhouse facility has robbed us of a crucial meeting point, a place to sit down to get to know fellas a bit more after training or to have team meetings and unfortunately we have been restricted to a dressing room at the subway end for all off-field undertakings including meals.
Naturally it would have been a great showcase, especially with the extra hype surrounding this year’s game but for me, in a way, I’m glad.
There’s something exciting about constructing anew and it evokes memories of when my home club Nemo Rangers in Cork were building our magnificent complex in Trabeg back in the early noughties. There’s that renewed sense of hope, anticipation and togetherness about building for the future and as a new immigrant, it’s fantastic to latch onto and embrace the wider community of Gaelic Park.
The artificial 4G surface at Gaelic Park has its pros and cons, not trudging through the pre-season winter mud is hardly missed but I’m not convinced of the long term benefits. Having had several knee operations down through the years, the old knee has been hopping with pain coming off that pitch especially in my first two weeks back. Although it’s a lot safer than some of the older models, plenty of lads have been limping around with gashed knees or burns up their sides, and once you cut yourself, that wound will open up over and over again.
That being said it’s a wonderful utility for New York GAA, as it’s our only playing pitch and you could spend a weekend at Gaelic Park consuming games from all levels. It’s a real hub and without the surface that just would not be possible.
While this is an inter-county team it has the feel of a club setup. We lack the huge backroom structure that Irish county teams (and some clubs) now have.
Even still, from playing with Nemo I know that at this stage of the season clubs have already prepped for their opening round championship games with preseason competitions, league and challenge games. For New York, none of that is possible. It is undoubtedly the single biggest problem we face as there are virtually no teams we can play against.
In the past few seasons, All-Ireland club champions Corofin, Donegal and Cavan have travelled to Gaelic Park to play. For whatever reason, that hasn’t materialised this year and I’m not sure how it can be rectified going forward. Games are an invaluable component, no matter what level, especially at inter-county.
We’ve played plenty in-house but you can’t beat competitive matches, particularly games against opposition you don’t know. While manager Justin O Halloran and his backroom team have visions on how they want to play, trying to implement tactics is hard, nigh on impossible going into championship games not knowing how or if they will work. You can have all the ideas in the world but unless you have the opportunity to put them into practice and see what works, you are swimming against the tide.
London, whose situation would be similar to ours, play in Division 4 of the National League and have seven games under their belts going into their clash with Galway on Sunday, picking up one vital win along the way which will do wonders to their confidence.
Entering the League would be ground-breaking if not a logistical nightmare and the costs would be excessive – but not unfeasible. With the (Trump) economy roaring some counties, like Mayo this weekend, are tapping into the US market for fundraising and perhaps this could be an avenue to coax other teams to visit.
The county have been going so close the last few years – losing by a single point to both Leitrim in 2018 and Roscommon in 2016 – and who knows the levels of improvement extra games would bring about and the additional interest it would generate in the team and New York GAA in general stateside.
Sunday is a challenge every player is viewing as a fantastic opportunity with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Boxers Micky Conlan and Paddy Barnes popped up to us a few weeks ago and just last week Tommy Bowe and a film crew, (overhead drone n’ all) followed us around.
Bowe compared our task to Ireland’s 111 year struggle in beating the All-Blacks. That feat was finally accomplished on the 29th attempt in 2016 but while Bowe was retired by then he knew that the lessons learned from previous defeats were critical learning curves to the eventual win – especially the 2013 decider when Ireland were ahead and in control.
The same goes for New York on Sunday. Win, lose or draw the lessons learned will be another building block and it’s only a matter of time before we get that much sought after first win.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on May 4th, 2019.