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

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:01

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.

Peroxide jester
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.”

Comic mishaps
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.”

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.

Muted season
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.”

“I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“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.”

King again
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.

Six quid
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.

For Mulligan, in his early 20s and to be celebrated as part of that team, it was magical. Cormac McAnallen, a man cut from a different cloth to Mulligan, features prominently in his thoughts here. On the night before the 2003 All-Ireland final, Mulligan couldn’t sleep and went roaming the hotel corridors. He found McAnallen in the same predicament and they talked about the game, McAnallen chatting about the challenges of marking Stevie McDonnell.

Then they said good night, went out the next day, won the match and disappeared into the unreality that falls over every county that wins the Sam Maguire for the first time. Mulligan lived it: ushered into night clubs, men putting cash in his pocket, invitations to this and that, fan mail, endorsements, champagne instead of beer.

Grim daze
Next thing it was March 2004 and the damp morning when Mulligan heard the shocking, unbelievable news that McAnallen had died in his sleep. It was 5.45am and he was heading out the door for a job in Belfast when Gerard Cavlan texted him. He sat in a chair for the entire day. The wake and funeral passed in a grim daze. He didn’t know what to say or how to sympathise and felt lost.

Afterwards, strangers walked up to Mulligan and challenged him for showing no emotion at the funeral. One guy told him he was a disgrace because he hadn’t cried. Mulligan knocked him out.

“People mourn in different ways,” he says in the book. “A few days after the funeral I walked the few short steps from our house to the Glenavon hotel and ended up getting sideroads drunk. I went back to the house, poured another drink and lay down on the sofa. I lifted my dog, Bob, up in my arms and the tears started to come. That’s when I did my crying for Cormac.”

“After McAnallen’s death, you wouldn’t let anyone say a word about anyone on the team,” Mulligan says now.

“You had each other’s back. We looked out for each other more. Cormac ... he was such a leader. The way he adapted to full back ... all the jotters he had and the ratings he gave himself, using his weak hand and foot at training. He was unbelievable. So when he died ... it was as if our team could have managed itself. Harte never talked about McAnallen directly. It was all: ‘You know what this means to people. They mightn’t be here.’ And that was it. It was never mentioned until we had the cup in the changing room in 2005. And there were a lot of tears that day.”

The seasons rolled on. After the family building and painting firm got chewed up in the recession, Mulligan found himself on the dole and thought about emigrating to Australia but instead raised enough capital to open a bar in Cookstown and hasn’t looked back. “Now I’m breaking up rows and boys are looking at me,” he laughs. “I say: ‘you have to grow up sometimes’. I ask them to come back and have a wee chat with me the next day.”

The 2012 season ended with a hammering in a qualifying game in Killarney: Kerry and Tyrone had defined the previous decade but there was something elegiac about the match. Mulligan mourned the defeat by going on a “three day bender in Killarney.” It turned out to be his last match for Tyrone.

When Mickey Harte didn’t call ahead of last season, he realised how much he wanted another day with the county. Suddenly, he wasn’t answerable to the Tyrone training schedule and he missed it.

Moving on
“Maybe it’s not as much crack hiding from Mickey and getting into mischief when he’s not looking for you,” he laughs.

But he struggled all through last season trying to accept the show was moving on without him. He still believes he could have made a difference for Tyrone in the league final against Dublin in April and came close to phoning Harte then. But something held him back.

“When Cookstown won the All-Ireland in 2010, Mickey rang and asked ‘When will you be back?’. This time when we won it, there was no call. I had to live with that.”

And there is no bitterness. He asked his manager to launch his book recently in Cookstown. Harte came and spoke about Mulligan’s talent for delivering on big days. The crowd loved it. Afterwards, Mickey had Mulligan autograph his book but he still didn’t ask his manager why he never called. Maybe it’s an answer he never wants to hear.

“I was going to write it down when I signed the book,” Mulligan laughs, joking if off as he scribbles an imaginary message to his former manager.

“To Mickey...What happened between me and you?”

Mugsy: My Story (Irish Sports Publishing) by Owen Mulligan (with Orla Bannon). Price €15.99