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
When Mulligan started out and lived by the whims of his tearaway spirit, he had Chris Lawn and Canavan to unceremoniously enlighten him as to the error of his ways. Even so, he admits that Harte turned a blind eye to his misdemeanours several times. Few adults have made as much of an impression on Mulligan as Harte.
When Mulligan scored his era-defining goal against Dublin in 2005, he had been having a muted season, struggling to break into Harte’s plans. The goal, vividly explained in the book, occurred as if he was in a trance. After the match, he hightailed it out of Croke Park and didn’t bother answering his phone even though Harte – and half the country – was trying to reach him (Page 117: “... he was melting my phone but I wouldn’t answer.”).
Instead, he got back to Cookstown and headed to an old man’s bar near his house where he watched The Sunday Game. “Because he didn’t ring me for a few months before when I wasn’t getting on,” he says now of his actions that day.
“And journalists didn’t want to talk to me either. Maybe I was being headstrong. But I didn’t understand the fuss over the goal at the time. I got a voicemail from Mickey asking where I was. I just went over to my local and I saw the goal there. Then as the days went on, people were phoning and shaking hands with me on the street. So I went to training on the Tuesday night. I got that there from Mickey,” he says, curling his finger.
“I thought: ‘fuck, I’m getting dropped here’. That’s the usual routine. If he calls you over, you are getting dropped. I says: ‘Well.’
“You didn’t answer your phone.”
“Well, you didn’t ring me too much for the past while. Why would you talk to me now?”
“Because you didn’t do that two months ago!”
He says: “You don’t know what you have done here.”
“I says: ‘what are you talking about?”
He says, “Can you not see how people are talking about this? You have probably scored one of the best goals ever scored in Croke Park. If that doesn’t catapult your season, I don’t know what will.”
And I could just feel a weight lifting off me. And I thought: right. Let’s bring this game on.
“People thought it was the goal that did it for me ... but it was the wee talk at the start of training. Mickey...people say he is a great one-to-one manager and he is but I always felt he could do more for the substitutes. It was as if there was a wee barrier there. But that day, I was on the fringes and it gave me a lift.”
Mulligan finished the year with a man of the match performance in the All-Ireland final and an All Star – which he claims should have gone to Brian McGuigan. Just like that, he was king again.
He can’t hide his loathing for life on the substitutes’ bench. He understands that any successful team needs a panel but could never be content with life in the chorus line. He acknowledges he often pushed it to the edge, choosing to sabotage his chances of starting in 2008 with a few ill-advised benders and pretending to himself that it would all work out. He came in as a substitute for Tyrone’s third successful All-Ireland final and felt hollow afterwards.
“Yeah, I couldn’t wait for the following year. I felt I was never going to let this happen again. I had a lump in my throat. I knew I was good enough but didn’t put the effort in. And, look, I was a complete dickhead to mess my own chances up. So I just wanted to put the head down. I have no idea where my All-Ireland jersey is from 2008.”
What bothered him more was that he felt he had guided Raymond Mulgrew, a nonchalantly brilliant young footballer from his own club, down the wrong road. “I take the blame for that year – not for Raymie’s career because I don’t think he wants it the way I did. But in 2003 and 2005, Chris Lawn and Canavan were there for me in a way I wasn’t for Mulgrew.”
And that’s the contradictory thing about Mulligan. The couldn’t-care-less pose was just that. Kicking ball for Tyrone was his life and his persona and he worked hard at it. The effortless free-taking, the fly dummy-solos and fakes and trickery and the flamboyant goals spoke of hours of solitary practice. Flick through the photos in the autobiography and it’s easy to source Mulligan: a 1980s Catholic Northern Irish kid.
His first pair of football boots were Mitre and they cost six quid. Watching ‘Scotchy’ Conway kick a free to keep Tyrone in the Ulster final of 1989 made a deep impression of him. The ball hit the post and crossbar. He wanted to do that. So he practiced. All his life, he practiced. If serendipity sat him in Peter Canavan’s classroom, he made the most of it. He wanted it – the competition and prestige which came with playing for Tyrone – badly.
He was 16 and watching the Tyrone minors playing Armagh in Healy park when Paul McGirr died tragically after an accidental collision. Shortly afterwards, Mickey Harte phoned and invited him to join the panel. The following year, he was on the Tyrone minor side that won the All-Ireland championship just weeks after the Omagh bombing. Under-21 and senior All-Irelands followed and through its Gaelic team, Tyrone found its voice as a county.