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Kilburn Gaels forward Stephen Lambert.
Kilburn Gaels forward Stephen Lambert.

Kilburn Gaels on the right road again

By Cian O’Connell

It is now 30 years since Tom Bergin left Moyne in Tipperary, but the GAA has remained a constant in his life in London. Kilburn Gaels and Irish hurlers in the English capital continue to benefit from Bergin’s time and guidance.

Kilburn Gaels make a welcome return to the London SHC Final at McGovern Park in Ruislip against three in a row chasing Robert Emmetts.

How Kilburn Gaels have rejuvenated themselves during the current campaign is a source of hope and comfort to Bergin. “It is nice to be back in a County Final, it is 2014 since we were there,” Bergin admits.

“We had two bad years really because we lost so many lads from the time we won the Championship in 2014. We got to the All Ireland Intermediate Final early in 2015, but we lost 12 of the starting team from then.”

That particular outfit broke up fairly quickly, but Bergin was there stitching a new team together, always carrying some hope on the journey. “It was great getting to the final, but I remember saying straight after it that it put everyone in the shop window for their clubs at home,” Bergin reflects.

“It is exactly the way it turned out with 12 of the starting team and the following year it was more or less starting with a whole new team again. It was a struggle to stay up then for the year, but we managed it and we are back in the final now so we will see how we get on.”

A string of that Kilburn Gaels panel returned to the green and white shirt, which was a significant boost according to Bergin. “Some of the guys that hurled with us in that final who transferred back to play with their clubs, they were still working in London, we have a couple of them back,” Bergin states.

“We have a few lads that have been with us for a while and we got a share of new lads at the start of this year. It can be a struggle to get lads because the way things are at home, it seems to be picking up a small bit.

“Fellas aren't coming to London as much as they were so there is a scramble then to get lads. Everyone is trying to get the same fellas. There seems to be lots of work for guys in Dublin and the money is in Dublin. It can be expensive enough for guys, most of our lads are from down the country.

“A few of our lads would go home to play for their clubs and some of them moved back then. It is what it is, you just have to go with the flow, and try to make hay when you get a chance.”

Bergin never lost sight of the importance of the GAA, how an Irish community can assist others trying to settle in a new place. While he will always be linked to the Kilburn Gaels story, he enjoyed operating for other clubs in London before they were founded.

“I'm here 30 years now, I came in 1987, Kilburn were only formed in 1997, so the club is just 20 years old,” Bergin says about his own career.

“When I came first I hurled with the Brians - Brian Borus, but they folded after that. I hurled with Glen Rovers, most of my hurling here was done with Glen Rovers.

“Then Glen Rovers and the Desmonds amalgamated in 1997 to form Kilburn Gaels. 1997 was the start of the Celtic Tiger at home so we decided to keep one good club going rather than to lose two. There were connections between the Desmonds and Glen Rovers. Different lads had hurled with one and went to the other so they decided to form one club rather than to lose two. That is how it came about.”

Kilburn Gaels were quickly competing for honours too. “It wasn't too bad, the hurling was still strong enough here at the time,” Bergin recalls.

“We hurled Intermediate for a couple of years and we won the Intermediate Championship, the League and one of the Cups in 2000. So we went up senior and we have been up senior since.”

Small, but significant steps were taken as Kilburn earned respect. “In 2003 we won our first senior competition, the Collins Cup, so that was another big boost to us. We have been knocking on the door ever since, we won a couple of Ryan Cups, Collins Cups and Leagues since and in 2010 that was our first Championship.

“2014 was the next one and we are in another final now so we have been building steadily. Once we got up in 2000 we have held our own after that.”

The turnover of players is simply the way it is in London Bergin accepts. The County Board are admirably trying to increase the amount of London born players youngsters in Gaelic Football, but that is difficult to achieve with hurling. Kilburn Gaels’ junior panel does feature several home grown players.

“We have a few London born fellas involved in our second team, our junior team,” Bergin remarks. “There is none of them involved in the senior squad. It is hard for them. It is easier with football because any lad that plays soccer or rugby can pick up the football, whereas hurling you have to be at it from when you are very young.

“Watch a club match at home, all the young lads and girls are pucking around beforehand. Then half-time comes they are out again, you'd see them all sizes. Lads 18 or 19 maybe not making their senior team, but still good down to four and five year olds. It is in the tradition, you have it in the schools at home, you obviously don't have it here. You'd like to think it could start off.

“Half of the junior team are second generation Irish, but a lot of them don't keep it going either because they get other interests.

“Lads go away to college and whatever. If a lad goes away in Ireland he can go home at the weekends, there is plenty of hurling for them. If you go to college in Sheffield or Liverpool there is very little hurling, there might be some football in Liverpool, but there is nothing to hold them playing.

“If they aren't there every weekend they lose out and they drift away from it here compared to at home.”

From all over London, hurlers flock to Highgate on Tuesday and Thursday evenings throughout the year, Bergin is there providing coaching and assistance. Returning to a County Final is a demanding task against Emmetts, who are the current standard bearers.

“They are going for three in a row and they will be hard beat,” Bergin acknowledges. “They have some new lads, but the backbone of the two in a row so far are there.

“They have experience of being in a final and everything else. We will give it a blast to see how we get on, but they'd be clear favourites for the title.” Regardless of the result Bergin’s work will continue, hurling and sport will always be relevant.

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