Gaelic football and hurling, more commonly known as GAA, is huge in Ireland. With over 80,000 regularly packing into Dublin’s Croke Park for the biggest games of the season, the Irish are every bit as passionate about GAA as the British are football. For Masters student Sean Casserly, he’s been balancing his MSc Sport Management degree with his time playing hurling for London, travelling between the capital and Ireland for fixtures. Here, Sean explains to us what GAA is and how his career has panned out so far…

To the uninitiated, please can you explain who and what GAA is and the sports it covers?

The GAA stands for The Gaelic Athletic Association, an Irish amateur organisation which covers Gaelic football, hurling, ladies Gaelic football, and camogie (ladies hurling). Officially it’s 135 years old but games were taking place long before it became an official organisation. These games would be largely unknown outside of Ireland, however with the recent Sky Sports broadcasting deal the game is beginning to grow abroad, particularly in the UK and no more so than here in London. As I have grown up with the sport I am probably not best to describe it to someone watching for the first time, however Gaelic football is somewhat a cross between rugby and football. Whereas Alan Shearer has previously described hurling as a cross between hockey and murder when watching the All-Ireland final!

Sean joined London GAA in November 2019.

Just how big are GAA Sports in Ireland?

GAA is by far the biggest and most popular sport in Ireland; it has the highest participation rate across the country, and despite its amateur status athletes compete at elite levels. This is reflected through the numerous AFL (Aussie Rules) clubs that scout GAA for potential athletes due to the many similar attributes needed for both sports. The GAA headquarters are based at Croke Park in Dublin, which holds a capacity of 84,000, further highlighting the demand for the sport.

Tell us you got into playing and how you career has developed.

I have played both Gaelic football and hurling since I was four years old. I joined my local GAA club Ballinteer St Johns, and played right up until last year prior to leaving for America, and then subsequently London. I also played for my school teams, and I played underage for Dublin. When I turned 18, I decided I would focus more on hurling and played for my club’s senior team who compete at quite a high level in the Dublin Championship.

Upon moving to London I joined St Gabriel’s hurling team who have been excellent with me. The manager Neil Rodgers gave me lifts to training and helped make my transfer as smooth as possible. Then, in November I was asked if I would be interested in joining up with London for the upcoming season, and I gladly accepted. As a kid, the dream was always to play inter-county hurling, and though unfortunately I had to accept that I wasn’t good enough to represent Dublin, I’m happy to be able to represent London! 

Sean in action for his former club Ballinteer St Johns in Dublin.

As one of few teams outside Ireland who play GAA sports, what’s it like playing for London?

Playing for London has its obvious challenges, with men playing from all over the city it can take up to two hours to get to training. Often I will leave the flat at 5:30pm and not get back until 10:30pm, but there are lads worse off than myself. Meanwhile, at home you might only be a 20-minute drive away from training. Another challenge is that away games take place in Ireland, which means we’re forced to travel over and stay in hotels. Although, this can actually be quite strange as you’re home, but you don’t get to see your friends or family.

However, the biggest challenge is the training facilities. Due to the lack of GAA pitches in London, we often train on muddy rugby pitches or small football astro-turf courts which isn’t an ideal preparation for game situations. But it’s all worth it really, you get to meet likeminded people and it’s nice to be around fellow Irishmen for a few hours a week and be reminded of home, while also keeping fit and healthy too. The group we have at the moment are a great bunch of lads and we all get on with each other despite only being part of a group for a relatively short time.

How is the campaign going so far and what are your expectations for the season?

The campaign hasn’t gone to plan as of yet, we’re down near the bottom of the league having had the disadvantage of no pre-season fixtures. We’re still working out our strongest team at the minute and despite some good performances, and close results, we find ourselves in a difficult position. However, while we would’ve liked to have had a strong league campaign, the focus now is the Championship which kicks off in May. The Championship is the big one and we’ll certainly be aiming to right a few wrongs and hopefully progress through the group and see where we go from there.

Personally, I was quite unfit when I joined up with the squad having not played for the best part of a year. I have regained that fitness now and the aim is to push and try gain a regular spot in the team, after making my debut recently. 

How have you found balancing your playing career alongside your degree studies?

Obviously studying my Masters alongside hurling has its challenges, not to mention the fact I’m working this semester too for Druid Sports Management, which of course is a big commitment in itself. But in fairness, both the hurling management team and Druid have been very understanding that my studies are important. The manager gave me the week off training leading up to my exams in January which definitely allowed me focus fully on excelling in those exams. My bosses at work are also big GAA fans and so understand my commitments with the hurling too, so I can’t really complain – they are all tying into each other nicely at the moment.