Becks takes a hint and follows Mugsy and O’Hara off centre stage
Three extravagant talents will be missed
I have scanned the wires in vain for David Beckham’s tribute to his fellow icons of style and substance, Mr Owen ‘Mugsy’ Mulligan of Tyrone and Mr Eamonn O’Hara of Sligo. It says something about the depressing provincialism of English football that there has been scant recognition of the fact that “Becks” has decided to follow the Tourlestrane man’s lead and get out of his game when the going is good.
The three men have much in common: they are exceptional footballers with striking fashion tastes and extravagant taste in goalscoring. And they have reached that thirtysomething point which brings all sportsmen to that inescapable moment where two roads diverge and they are faced with a moment of solemn contemplation.
For Becks the choice was whether to kick his heels in a luxury apartment in Paris for another year while further developing his global brand and for O’Hara, the choice came down to a 20th season with Sligo or spending his Sundays chin-wagging with Michael Lyster about the subtleties of the lobster bisque served in the Montrose canteen.
Mulligan, too, has been signed up by BBC in what has been an aggressive period in the television transfer market, which means that the venerable Sunday Game and the Beeb’s GAA coverage should be bit of craic this summer. O’Hara and Mulligan have both declared that they would love to have played on for their counties but they just weren’t picked. And so they move on.
Much like the departure of Becks, their absence will be felt. But the crucial difference between the three men is this: Mulligan and O’Hara will be remembered for far longer in their constituencies than Becks will in his.
This is hardly Beckham’s fault. It is difficult to think of a more courteous individual in the history of the Premier League. Yes, he wore his vanity on his sleeve and probably sealed his fate at Manchester United not so much because he took up with Posh but because he wore a sarong out to dinner one evening.
There is no way Alex Ferguson could tolerate that and still hold his head high around Scotland. For Ferguson, the photo of his midfielder in a sarong must have been like the moment in Zoolander when Jon Voight, drinking domestic and still sooty from the coalmines, looks up to see his son Derek starring in a fashion commercial on television: shame and disappointment.
Beckham was tough (the degree of abuse and ridicule he took from the English press and public down the years indicates ruthless mental discipline on his part) and imaginative and bright enough to reinvent his career several times over.
And unlike so many others, his career was not entirely defined by Ferguson. But he belongs to an entertainment culture: once the heroes disappear from the screen, they are quickly replaced and forgotten. Even Alex might find himself startled by how quickly he is dropped from the conversation.
It is different in the GAA. Donegal fans may have breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the Tyrone management have decided to pass on Mulligan this summer.
You can split Mulligan’s football life into two very distinct periods which are divided by the electrifying goal which put paid to Dublin in 2005.
He started quite literally as the student, the blond carefree score-getter and protégé of his former schoolteacher Peter Canavan. People felt Canavan’s presence and the distraction he provided enabled Mulligan to thrive. Maybe that was the case in his younger years. But in the summer when Tyrone went on to claim their second All-Ireland, Mulligan grew in stature. Remember the moment when he stood laughing with Canavan as they discussed which of them would take the free in the closing minutes of their riveting encounter with Armagh?
Or the pure bouldness after he scored a goal-on-the-turn in the drawn game against Dublin, standing there and giving a hard-chaw stare to the Hill?
Then the coup-de-grace; the double -dummy solo and the glorious goal followed a week later. Tyrone all but won that year’s All-Ireland championship there and then and after that season, Mulligan was a made man. But the late period Mugsy has always been the most fascinating: long-haired and chunkier and a couldn’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think attitude.
The pale blue shirts always seemed to do it for him and he turned it on against Dublin one last time in the league last year. Even this year, he was still kicking quality ball with Cookstown and many thought that Mickey Harte would include him in this year’s squad, if only as a talisman.
If Tyrone won’t forget Mulligan in a hurry, then they will remember Eamonn O’Hara for a long time as well. Did any one player ever heap as much misery on a county as the Sligo man did in 2002?
Recall, if you will, the bare bones of that qualifying game in Croke Park: Tyrone were 0-8 to 0-2 up after 20 minutes and looked odds-on to crush the Sligo men in yet another qualifier mismatch. But O’Hara simply refused to accept the logic. It is wrong to suggest that he beat Tyrone by himself – Dara McGarty actually scored more from play – but he did single-handedly turn the momentum of the match.
And the game also changed the direction of Gaelic football; a year later, Tyrone were back under Mickey Harte, ping-ponging famous Kerry men around the pitch and infuriating Pat Spillane and nothing has been the same since. It might be overstating it to suggest O’Hara forced Tyrone to coldly examine their place in Gaelic Games. Equally, it might not.
It took another five years for O’Hara to win a provincial medal – a game which he distinguished with another firebrand goal – and as he closed in on two decades of service for Sligo, he changed little in appearance and attitude, always dashing and often hot-tempered. In the many debates about where his Tyrone performance ranks in the all-time GAA individual displays, a friend – a Dub and an O’Hara apostle – sent this lament: “Now I will never see my dream pairing of Eamon O’Hara marking Ger Brennan as the two of them point at each other for 70 mins.”
O’Hara rarely allowed a break in play to pass without brandishing an erect index in the face of an opponent or a slacking team -mate or sometimes at the great sky above as he communicated with his goalkeeper.
It will be a miracle if viewers of The Sunday Game aren’t treated to a few direct to-camera finger wagging moments from the Sligo man during the headier moments of the championship.
Both O’Hara and Mulligan are reluctantly calling time on themselves because their respective counties have deemed them surplus to requirements. Will the All-Ireland championship be the same for Sligo people if O’Hara is not there to emerge from the dugout for a 47th minute introduction, tanned and immaculate and ready to rumble? And won’t Tyrone men be a little lost without the sight of their favourite peroxide blond trotting about in the helter-skelter warm-up?
It’s academic now: time has been called.
“You know how much we love the game,” Beckham told his old team-mate Gary Neville this week. “I just feel that . . I don’t know. It’s the right time. But I’ll always feel I can do more, that’s the problem.” Smart words from a smart lad.
And that is the problem: they will still be thinking that when they are 50.
Good luck to all three of ’em.