As I follow IC GAC throughout their tour of Dublin, it is clear that their captain Andrew Lavery is taking on-field performance seriously and looks to establish Gaelic Football amongst the rugbies, footballs and the hockeys of Imperial’s sporting frontline.
Both the Mens’ and Ladies’ matches against Dublin’s premier university, Trinity College, showed they refused to lay down and get beaten in by players way beyond their own experience.
Two weeks prior to the departure to Dublin, I put myself amongst the rough and joined a weekly training session to get a feel of this budding sport at Imperial. Immediately, I see Lavery has long lost his ‘nice guy’ off-field manner and is leading the Ladies’ team with characteristic militancy. It is a trait which refuses to cease as I follow the team’s progress for the next month.
In a brief moment when he takes his eyes off a flowing practice match, he spots the men’s team arriving and is quick to remedy idle legs. He ‘suggests’ a warm up leg around Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake and IC GAC’s Chairman Edward O’Hare gladly agrees to lead the troops. There’s no waiting around and as soon as we have put our bags down, we commence on a demanding three kilometre exercise.
On completion of the warm-up that could have constituted my monthly work-out, it is explained that the team needs to reach ‘championship fitness’, and that these warm-ups should become less gruelling, and in time will eventually become standard practice.
By the time we jog back to the training pitch, the Ladies’ team are packing up and seem to be in good spirits about their upcoming match against vastly superior opponents in Trinity College.
As Edward O’Hare tries to explain the game of Gaelic football to me in three minutes, I experience Lavery’s determination and drive for the game first hand. He wants me to get stuck straight in at the deep end but O’Hare thinks otherwise. Lavery isn’t having any of it, but the situation is resolved when he notices the boys waiting behind him for further instruction.
A WOMAN’S TOUCH
Legs and heads rested, the team were in an upbeat mood upon their arrival in Dublin. There is a sense of trepidation as I talk to some of the girls, but they’re sure they can give a good account of themselves on the pitch the next day.
For the Irish members of the team, a sense of familiarity harboured, and there was a poignant feel in the Dublin air as these players came home to test themselves against some of Ireland’s best college-level football players with an essentially English team.
The Ladies’ team played first but there wasn’t much time for pleasantries before the match. Being ushered into their dressing room on their arrival to the ground, their march onto the pitch saw them meet their imposing opponents for the very first time. Trinity casually warmed up and it was immediately obvious that their evident physical strength would make Imperial’s day one of hard graft.
Imperial’s line up featured plenty of pace throughout the side. What they lacked in experience and technical ability, Imperial’s rapid progression up and down the field caused problems for Trinity all afternoon. Imperial’s pace nearly paid off shortly after kick-off when left half-back Jackie Fok started the first of many counter-attacks for the team, which nearly resulted in a shock lead. However, Trinity’s experience counted for more this time and stifled the attack on the goal line.
The game quickly settled down after this flurry of activity, and soon enough Trinity’s solid team struck three points and netted a goal in quick succession. As Ladies coach Phil Jakeman blew gaskets on the touchline, Imperial responded with a goal of their own. After a few minutes of solid defensive play led by centre-back and captain Katie Cullen, Imperial slowly pushed the equilibrium away from their own half, and eventually found themselves in the right half once again. Though messy in front of goal, some poor Trinity defending allowed a goalmouth scramble to end in the back of the net, with Chloe Mckeon claiming the final touch and making it 1-03 1-00 to Trinity early on in the half.
Trinity attempted to continue in an expected onslaught of points, but were regularly answered by their opponent minnows.
Despite going in at half time behind, Imperial took the positives out of their brave first half performance and pushed on in the second. A frustrated Fiona O’Connell voiced her concerns in no uncertain terms about the lack of defensive organisation, leaving her job as goalkeeper an impossible task for long periods of the first half.
Though not quite solid enough to counter Trinity’s strength in the centre of the park, the midfield pairing of Chloe McKeon and Carla Mulas proved fruitful in front of the posts. Man-of-the-match McKeon saw a second green flag raised for her when she found herself one-on-one with Trinity’s goalkeeper, who did well to get a leg to a powerful strike. McKeon, however, kept her composure and followed the looping deflection under the bar and into the back of the net. Mulas did Imperial an important service by striking three points, including one from a well-taken free kick, in a fashion that made it look like she’d be playing Gaelic football for years.
Half-forwards, Sophie McLaclan and Eileen Brandley, took on the unglamorous yet extremely effective role of mopping up IC’s desperate clearances from defence, and in turn, created several chances that could have evened out the scores.
Imperial’s forwards also benefitted greatly from their team’s speedy play on the wings as they added to Imperial’s score with points of their own. Xenia Snetkov, Catherine Parkinson and Scarlett Gillespie were especially able to move forward and try their luck on goal several times throughout the 60 minutes, yielding a combined five points between them.
The soloing pace of Sarah Jean and Jackie Fok out wide set up several attacks which resulted in points that Imperial desperately needed in the second half. Fok’s particularly impressive speed did her team many favours, allowing sporadic penetration of a well-ordered Trinity team. Afterwards, even the Trinity players conceded that during moments of the game, Imperial’s two quick wide players were a thorn in their side. Trinity never really ran away with the game despite being in command for most it. Imperial’s lack of experience transferred to periods of loss of concentration during the second half when Trinity glady notched the handful of points and few goals that won them the game. However, Imperial’s keeper in the second-half, Tabitha Skinner, had considerably less to do than O’Connell’s first- half, again thanks to Cullen’s individual unyielding performance keeping Trinity’s best County-level player in check.
For a team that was only established this year, winning against one of Ireland’s most respected Ladies’ university teams was always to be a very tall order. Despite the defeat, Imperial put up an energetic fight that saw them largely mitigate a game led by their Irish counterparts.
The Ladies’ 18-strong team is largely inexperienced in the game of football, with most of them taking up the sport as an entirely new experience. The next few months would concentrate on developing their game in time for February’s national championships held in Manchester; no doubt that the match in Dublin has taught them more than a term’s worth of training sessions could have.
BOYS IN BLUE
As for the men’s match, it was a much more even affair and resulted in a closely fought game either side could’ve won. The game started with an intense period of pressure from Trinity, with the Imperial defence and keeper being tested, but equal to almost every challenge. Jamie Sanders and Padhraic Comerford acquitted themselves well in this period and were responsible for many clearances down the left and right wings respectively. Nevertheless Trinity managed to nab themselves a goal and three points to the good in this prolonged period of possession.
The boys in blue were in no mood to lie down though with club talisman Danny Wilson providing the opener for Imperial after 20 minutes. Drawing on his soccer skills, Wilson half volleyed a loose ball straight into the back of the net, leaving the keeper no chance. The referee wasn’t as impressed however and overruled the legitimate score for an alleged foul moments before. The impetus was with Imperial now and the boys won two frees which Ruairi O’Neill ably converted from some distance. Halftime score 1-03 to 0-02 to Trinity.
The second half began with Imperial retaining much more of the possession, despite the hangover from last night really beginning to take it’s toll. Their profligacy in the next 15 minutes would come back to haunt them as all but one of several scoring chances drifted agonisingly wide. The defence held strong though and worked hard to create chances for the forwards, but were cruelly caught out when a speculative looping effort from the Trinity half forward caught the underside of the bar and dropped in giving them the ascendancy that would be difficult to catch in the remaining time. Imperial upped their game though and showed a will to win, knocking over another free and a fine score from play by Rob Fitzpatrick. Trinity responded again and the frenetic display of counter attacking football from both teams was cheering up the cold supporters on the sidelines. In the final minutes Imperial were rewarded with a goal of their own as their half-forward thundered a shot on goal which the keeper somehow managed to initially block, but could not prevent a calmly-taken rebound reaching the back of the net. The final score read 2-07 to 1-04 to Trinity, although it was remarked by the hosts that the score line did flatter them somewhat. Imperial’s display of character to fight back despite going down early in the match certainly bodes well for their upcoming BUSA Championships.
As I finish off this tour report, my inbox lights up and there is a new email from Andrew Lavery sent to all the players at IC GAC. He signs off in a manner that gives no indication that he plans to let up on his vision of making IC GAC one of Imperial’s most nationally successful teams. “Seriously lads, this is it. Last term was for messing about in the ‘League’ but this term is what playing Gaelic Football at IC is all about. 100% commitment and a Championship victory for the taking. It’s up to you now. See you at training, Lavery.”