Michael Maher is thoroughly enjoying his role as the manager of London GAA coaching Gaelic football, with the sport having played a major role in his life and career.
Maher was appointed manager of London, who will compete in All-Ireland Senior Football Championship this summer, in late 2019, the pinnacle of a storied career that began in the early 2000s.
He started in a community scheme ran by Fulham FC before going on to work at the club’s development centre.
He then started coaching at Tooting and Mitcham FC before his first foray into Gaelic football at Round Towers.
He combined both that and football for a time before taking on a youth role at Redhill FC.
He soon assumed duties at first team level and led Redhill FC to the last qualifying round of the FA Cup before going back to Gaelic football and Round Towers, taking control at senior level and reaching a couple of London SFC semi-finals. He also helped to set up the ladies’ team.
Asked whether Gaelic football is of much interest to many young people in London, Maher is buoyant in his reply.
He said: “There’s a huge push on the school initiative and Round Towers welcomes boys and girls from the age of five upwards and coaching is going on actively in schools.
“I do a day a week myself in local primary schools. There’s a huge hunger for the game, it’s a great summer sport and it doesn’t clash with the more traditional sports here like football or rugby.”
Maher believes he has witnessed a rise in popularity of the sport, and that has led to a pathway for more London-born players to be given an opportunity to play at county level.
He said: “We’ve got a squad of 36 and about five or six London-born guys on there which is a great number – if you rewind the clock back 10 or 11 years ago, you might get one on a random year.”
The London GAA manager said the players who manage to break through have to be of considerable quality in order to mix with the Irish-born, where the level of coaching is of a different level.
He added: “It’s a priority sport for the Irish lads and there is a level and depth of coaching that can’t be offered here.
“Their level of understanding of the game is unrivalled.
“When you do get five or six lads who are at the London senior squad, you have to tip your hat to them because they’ve probably not had anywhere near the amount of games or coaching hours that the guys from Ireland have had so to make that level and make that step up is a huge testament to them.”
Maher also believes there has to be a great deal of sacrifice for someone to commit to the sport, alluding to personnel in his own side, who play their home games at McGovern Park in South Ruislip.
He said: “The guys we have, they do a collective gym session, a remote gym session plus either three pitch sessions or two pitch sessions and a game. That’s five things a week that these guys have to say yes to.
“When we’ve got away games, that’s a whole weekend. Some of the guys we have get up for work at 5:30am or 5:45am and by the time they get back from wherever we’ve been training around London, it’s 10:30pm or 11pm. And then they’re up again in only a few hours.
“It’s incredible what they commit and it’s a privilege to be involved with them.
“You must be hugely, hugely dedicated and understand that when you sign up to play inter-county football, you’re signing yourself up to live and breathe as a professional athlete.”
Maher had made a tentative start to his new job in early 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and scuppered a lot of his plans.
He said: “You don’t have a pre-season in Gaelic football so the first four or five games are all about trying to implement new ideas and that in itself takes time. The pandemic really hit us in all sorts of ways.”
He had to wait 23 months in total for London GAA to resume, with the team being forced to withdraw from competition in 2020 and 2021 due to financial constraints.
Normal service returned last year, and the manager was delighted with the effort shown by his team throughout last season and during the beginning of this one.
Maher said: “We had a successful season in that we competed in 10 out of 11 games that we played last year in terms of fielding players.
“We had minimal injuries and suspensions which sadly has not been the case right now, but we’ve only conceded 13 points in total.
“We’re a little bit lightweight going forward but we have bodies coming back and we can’t wait for the championship which is around the corner.”
London GAA, led by the stewardship of Maher, will compete in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship later this year as one of two foreign-based teams, alongside New York.
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