CJ Molloy is as quintessentially New York as a yellow cab or a slice of pizza pie, but there aren’t too many Big Apple natives who grew up idolising Maurice Fitzgerald.
I suppose they are pretty formidable, but if Iâ??m not mistaken the FBD League is a pre-season competition and their fortunes in the league havenâ??t been so hot.
Molloy is one of five New York-born players preparing for the Exiles' Connacht Championship opener against Leitrim at Gaelic Park in the Bronx on Sunday at 8pm Irish time (3pm local time).
The 24-year-old, who is studying for a Masters degree in business at Iona College while working part-time at a law firm, has Gaelic football in his blood. He’s the son of the New York manager, Connie, and a nephew of Donegal’s All-Ireland winning captain from 1992, Anthony Molloy (below).
Molloy has been playing football since he was five years of age, first with the New York Celtic club at underage level and then with Donegal and Kerry in the adult ranks.
He made his championship debut for New York against Leitrim as a 19-year-old back in 2008, but is yet to taste victory in an a competitive inter-county game.
Molloy is confident and quick-witted, the hallmarks of any self-respecting New Yorker. He’s also confident in his own football ability, and quick to put journalists armed with naïve questions about how he will cope when thrust into the fray against the mighty tourists on Sunday back in their place.
He played with Kerry in the notoriously competitive New York senior championship last summer – Donegal have only made it back to the senior ranks this year after winning the intermediate championship – and made it all the way to the final, where the Kingdom faced a Leitrim team featuring Armagh stars Jamie Clarke, Ciaran McKeever and Brendan Donaghy.
Kerry only lost after throwing away a seven-point lead with 15 minutes left, but did he feel overawed in such exalted company?
“I think Brendan Donaghy can answer that question for you,” he jokes. “Ask him about the two goals I scored off him in the final. That was just a standard day out in the park for me.”
Being an American-born Gaelic footballer, Molloy finds he has to work that little bit harder to convince the Irish lads that he is the genuine article. Watching him play for more than five minutes is usually enough to silence the doubters.
And what about his own friends from college and from his Hawthorne neighbourhood who haven’t grown up with pictures of the 1992 Donegal team on their living room walls or spent their summer Sundays down in Gaelic Park?
“I always found that it was a little tougher at first, being an American. They just don’t believe it at first. It’s all part of it and if you want to be involved in it that’s what it takes.
“My friends always ask me how soccer is going. It’s really lost on the general public out here what the game is.
“In Woodside and Woodlawn, the Irish hubs, the buzz is good but aside from that you won’t hear much talk out of it.”
In the past, New York teams have been cobbled together from year to year, varying greatly in standard and the level of commitment depending on which Irish players happen to fetch up in the city looking for work.
Molloy sees the development of homegrown talent such as his fellow New Yorkers Conor and Shane Hogan, Donnchadh O’Dwyer, Danny Lehane and Brian Cullinane as crucial to building a genuine team for the city.
“If you have the ability to be in the team then why shouldn’t you be there? I think a big problem for New York as to why we haven’t progressed in the championship is because we have lacked vision.
“In terms of player development, aside from the last few years, New York was always a case of put together teams based on what was coming out the previous summers. To have a bit of a plan and structured player development is key.”
Naturally, though, it is vital to have some marquee names in the team to make them competitive, and Conor Lynam (Westmeath) Jason Kelly (Offaly), Rory Woods (Monaghan) and Eoin Ward (Leitrim) fulfill that remit this year.
“The commitment from some of the boys is very impressive. Their days start at 6.30am in construction jobs and then after work it takes them an hour or an hour and a half to get out to training. They are not getting home until 10.30 at night.
“This year has been the most professional training I have ever been involved in with New York. We trained about three times a week but on top of that boys were going to the gym three or four times a week as well.
“This year we have played a lot of games amongst ourselves and the boys from outside the panel were good enough to give us some good games.”
Looking ahead to the Leitrim game, Molloy says there is no reason why his team-mates should feel in any way overawed despite the fact that New York have never won a game since entering the Connacht Championship in 1999 and they are facing the FBD champions.
“I suppose they are pretty formidable, but if I’m not mistaken the FBD League is a pre-season competition and their fortunes in the league haven’t been so hot. It’s a two-horse race and there is no reason why we can’t get the job done,” he says.
“I made my debut against Leitrim when I was 19 so I’ve been involved for the last five years. There was 10 points in that game. The quality and speed of that game was so intense compared to anything I had experienced before. I don’t have any fond memories from that game.”
His memories of last year’s 24-point defeat to Sligo are even worse.
“I can’t wait to get back out there and hopefully redeem myself. It was a cricket score. I don’t think anybody wearing a New York jersey was happy with their performance last year.
“We were struggling to get guys to training, it was a bit of a farce to be honest. This year has been a different story, we’ve had around 40 guys at training most nights and that’s what it takes. We needed an influx of talent with boys coming from all over because it really helps.
“Last year we all kinda knew that the preparations were sub par, but this year there is real belief in the squad and there is a bona fide squad here unlike last year when we were scraping a team together. When you are able to pick from 40 guys it’s a bit different so I think there is real belief.”
You point out to Molloy that he is playing in the very first game of the 2013 GAA Football Championship, the exact same competition that ended last year with Donegal captain Michael Murphy lifting Sam Maguire 20 years after his uncle, Anthony, became the first Donegal man to do so.
“I was on the Hill,” he says. “I think I might be waiting 20 years for it to happen again so anytime Donegal are in the All-Ireland final you have to be there. The whole family went, but I was on the Hill will all my buddies from Ardara.
“It was a great thing for anyone associated with Donegal. I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime to be honest. A couple of years ago things were very bad but McGuinness and the boys have turned it around.”
After losing by 24 points to Sligo last year, it would take an even more remarkable turnaround for New York to come close to causing an upset on Sunday.
With Molloy's confidence and the blue blood flowing in he veins, they might just have a chance though.