OUTSIDE rain is spilling furiously down from a grim grey sky. It is a bleak Thursday morning on the West End Road in South Ruislip, but at the Emerald GAA Grounds the mood and atmosphere is both bright and light.
Roscommon will be in town shortly so the planning and plotting continues. At this time every year with the annual Connacht Senior Football Championship clash imminent London brace themselves for a match and a party.
London GAA Logistics and Games Manager Mark Gottsche is well used to the drill now. It is the one day when a few thousand converge on the venue, and with it being the last inter-county match before the Ruislip redevelopment commences there is a quiet acceptance that this poignant event needs to hit the spot. “It is busy,”Gottsche admits. “Training is going well. Off the pitch everybody has their day job mine just happens to be involved with London. We have the Connacht Championship now, everything is being put in place so it is shaping up for a good day.”
Being a footballer and an administrator Gottsche knows all about potential and problems too. Gottsche's relationship with manager Paul Coggins remains strong. “There are times when there might be a bit of conflict with the manager in terms of spending on what we can or cannot do as a county,” Gottsche acknowledges. “I know when I got the job initially I spoke with Paul about it, I said there will be times at the start of conversations whether this is going to be a work call or a player call. We have worked things out. We've had arguments about different things. It is grand and we both know that I have a job to do and that he has a job to do.
“My job is to look after the best interests of the board and financially too being treasurer my role is important. He understands that, and the lads understand that too. They might give me a bit of stick the odd time, but that is more banter than anything else.”
While studying for a Masters in Sports Management at UUJ Gottsche enjoyed a productive placement with the Connacht GAA. “With London being involved with Connacht luckily enough Adrian Hassett, who is the Games Manager, he was the Development Officer in NUIG when I was there,” Gottsche explains. “When I did my Masters I did my placement with the Connacht Council. I know John Prenty and John Tobin and the guys in the office there. It is good to have that relationship. Then dealing with Croke Park there are meetings for which you'd have to go over and back to Ireland. That is just a matter of going to represent London, and to look after London's interests first and foremost.
“I never thought I would be in London. It was never something I really wanted to do. With my girlfriend at the time, we were in Belfast for the year when I did my Masters. Then she got accepted for one here. I wanted to work in sport after the Masters. In terms of sport in Ireland at a professional level I didn't think the opportunities were that great.
“It is a bit ironic that I end up working for an amateur organisation in London. When I came to London first I thought I'd be here for a year and gone again. It is just the way things panned out.”
Having shown real promise with Oranmore-Maree and Galway underage teams Gottsche seemed set to establish himself at the highest level with the maroons. Unfortunately it didn't fully materialise which sometimes has Gottsche cruelly wondering about what might have been. “When I was in Belfast I was asked to come down for an FBD game, but the management said we can't guarantee you a game so there is no point driving down four hours and back up the road to sit on the bench. That was the end of that. It was Joe Kernan's year in charge, Sean Og (de Paor) was on to me, but that is the way the Galway thing petered out.
“It was strange. I was in Belfast for a year, I had the ambition to still play for Galway. All I thought about through College and in my early 20s was playing for Galway and making the team. Looking back I probably do have a bit of regret that things didn't work out. I've had a great five years so far with London.
“I did things with London like winning a Player of The Month (May 2013) award that I mightn't have done with Galway. Life takes you different ways, plans change all of the time.
“I would have loved to have made it with Galway. Things changed. Lads put careers on hold even into their 30s, they bounce around from college course to college course. They have 10 to 12 years playing inter-county football, but you're left at square one then looking for a job.
I've been lucky enough, and same with a lot of London lads. We've been able to balance a career with playing inter-county football.
With Ruislip set to be refurbished Gottsche pays tribute to the volunteers and GAA activists, who continue to demonstrate the requisite drive and desire. “A lot of the work, though, to do with Ruislip - it is great that the volunteers in the association have the experience in construction and things like that. It is great to have them on board. For me I wouldn't know a whole lot about building and what is involved. It is great to have those guys and their experience. I just oversee it to ensure things are done right and how we present ourselves to the general public.”
London's thrilling summer voyage in 2013 which ended with the Exiles in the last 12 of the All Ireland Football Championship was 'bittersweet' for Gottsche. `'As a player it was bittersweet because I only lasted 20 minutes of the drawn game against Leitrim. A week later I was on the operating table so I missed the Connacht final and the game against Cavan. It was bittersweet, but it was great to be involved. I know from speaking with O'Neills that the London jersey is one of the most in demand on their website.
It is great that London has got to that level of respectability and acceptance throughout Ireland as a serious team. Even the hurlers are going well again in the Christy Ring, they've done well over the past five or six years. It isn't just the footballers who are bringing London to a different level compared to the previous 10 or 15 years.”
Coggins' character and unstinting service to the London cause has always impressed Gottsche. “Paul's passion for the game is infectious,” Gottsche says through a smile. “He is passionate. That rubs off on the players. Maybe previous managers no disrespect to them just weren't able to get that passion across to the players. Paul always tells a story when he was involved back in the day. He was asked to do linesman for a game, he had no problem, he did the job, but he was back training on the Tuesday night. It is that sort of attitude which he brings to the job. He doesn't take no for an answer.”
Coggins gets footballers to search within themselves to always have that special want to come back for more. “Some of the older guys will tell you who might be thinking of opting out at the end of a year, but Paul will convince them to come back. It is that type of attitude he brings to the table. He has a passion for the game, he is great to have around in training, and he is good with the odd one liner.
“The turnover of players every year is huge. It can be strange because twice in the last three years I've been involved with the club through to December. You miss the pre-season and then you're out in January looking around at lads three weeks before the League wondering. It is just part and parcel of London. It does happen in other counties, but it happens more regularly in London.”
When Gottsche crossed the Irish Sea he followed a path set down by former Oranmore-Maree colleagues when joining Tir Chonaill Gaels, who continue to set seriously high standards in London. “John McGrath, who I would have grown up with in Oranmore had joined them a couple of months beforehand,” Gottsche replies when asked why he opted for the Greenford based outfit. “It was natural. John Cullinane, who was from Oranmore too, he had played for the Gaels in the mid noughties so there was a bit of a connection there.”
So what can London GAA realistically achieve in the coming months and years? Overall it would be nice to see a continued improvement in underage hurling and football,” Gottsche reckons. “I know underage hurling is struggling a little bit at the minute. We need to push on past Feile age groups to get more teams involved at under 16s and minors.
“We want to keep the level of competitiveness and consistency we've reached at senior inter-county level. It would be a shame to have had competitive teams for the last five or six years and then to go back to getting back to being bet by 20 or 30 points. We did suffer a heavy beating to Longford in the League, but other than that we were competitive.
“We need to improve playing facilities throughout the county. It is a massive challenge, but we need to move past relying on councils. If it means the board buying venues apart from Ruislip or helping clubs get long term leases we need to explore it. We know it isn't an overnight thing, it will take a lot of work. The County Board should be striving for things like that. If we didn't have the Gaels at Greenford we would struggle to host fixtures. We cannot be relying on that. We need to control things ourselves more.”