Tyrone talisman left to wonder how quickly the glory days all slipped away
With his intercounty career now at an end, Owen ‘Mugsy’ Mulligan has an entertaining story to tell
Owen Mulligan with his long-time manager and mentor, Tyrone boss Mickey Harte. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho
If you leave out the fight with the paint scraper and the bar owner’s reproach at the smashed windows (‘I’m sorry Mugsy, I can’t stand by you this time. You’ve gone too far.’) or the occasional night held in Her Majesty’s quarters at Cookstown police station or that shimmering beauty of a goal against Dublin in the roaring summer of 2005 or the night with the Tyrone fan in Omagh police station, the Brian Dooher underwear fiasco ( ‘Jesus, lad who the hell wears these in this day and age?’).
If you exclude the failing-four-driving-tests-in-one- week saga, the night in the sex club in Frisco, the sneaky after-training pints, dodging Mickey Harte, revering Mickey Harte, mooning Mickey Harte, a full decade as one of the least predictable ball players in the game, a business going bust in the recession, the sledging with Dubs and Kerry men, hateful days with the Celebrity Fat Club, japes and practical jokes and buck-eejit-ery, too many laughs to remember and also those tears he spilled just last August in Croke Park when he watched Tyrone in the stands and understood that it really was over for him...if you leave stuff like that out, then the football life of Owen Mulligan has been fairly uneventful.
From the beginning, he was just Mugsy; the peroxide jester on an unusually solemn and possessed Ulster team touched by genuine tragedy as well as historic sporting triumph.
In the early days when he appeared on the Tyrone senior team, it was as if Mulligan was the personal project of Peter Canavan, his teacher at Holy Trinity in Cookstown and his mentor in the Tyrone forward line, there to train and ward him as he might an excitable pup.
All Mulligan knows is that it has gone by in a flash and, at 32, he is as surprised as anyone to have written an account of his life with the Tyrone team.
He sits in a hotel lobby on a grey December lunchtime in Omagh where a crowd is drifting up towards Healy Park for the Ulster club final. A copy of his book sits on the table and he has boxes of them in the back of his jeep for a signing later that afternoon. It is all in there: the glorious days on the pitch and the equally glorious failures.
“I enjoyed it,” he says simply of his time. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For a couple of years, he resisted invitations to put his story down on paper. For all the showmanship, there is a reticent side to Mulligan. Two prolonged seasons with Cookstown in the All-Ireland intermediate club championship coincided with the realisation that he no longer featured in Mickey Harte’s plans. When he met Orla Bannon, the sports journalist he has known through his sporting life, she pointed out that there are as many untrue Mugsy stories in circulation as there are true ones. So he decided to put the record straight.
“When you are pouring your life out over a Dictaphone for a year and a half, you have to trust the person. I wanted Orla to write the book in the way that I talk and she has done that.”
Because of that, Mugsy: My Story is laden with terrific quotes. Flick at random: Page 86: “After a few hours, we nearly got into a scuffle with a few boys wearing mini-skirts and stilettos.” Page 40: “The first time I met Ryan McMenamin he was hungover and throwing up on the pitch.” Page 204: “I laughed as I walked out the door a free man but I wondered how I was going to get home.” Page 133: “I headed off, stunned, to my next engagement, switching on the Christmas lights in a wee town two counties away and headed home that night with three grand in my pocket.”
But beneath the yarns and comic mishaps and sozzled nights, the book is essentially about Mulligan’s relationship with Mickey Harte. It opens with his remembered delight at hearing that the Errigal Ciarán man had taken over as senior coach after the 2002 season. It ends with him waiting in vain for a call to join the panel for the 2013 championship.
“Well, he was the boss of me since I was 15,” Mulligan says. “He was the man I needed to impress. I still have great respect for the man. I am not going to start slagging the man because of how things finished for me with Tyrone. We died for each other on the pitch and we died for the manager. It wasn’t that he was a father figure. All the other players would say that too. Like, he could have thrown me off the field for antics but he always had my back.
“He would say: ‘should you have been out last night? Do you really need to go to these places?’ It was never ‘Don’t do that’ with Mickey. He would allow us set our own drinking and we would say, ‘okay, we are allowed two pints Mickey’. And he would say ‘fine...do ye really need those two pints?’ And before we knew it we had slapped a month’s ban on ourselves. He had this brilliant way of letting ye talk yourselves into the way he wanted it.”