Shane Mulligan’s long commute brings a Connacht final at the end of the line

It can be a slog with 18-hour days and treks across the city but London’s centre back is happy to keep going

Sat, Jul 20, 2013, 01:00

Putney Leisure Centre, 5.50am
The 337 bus is late. Why this should be so is a mystery beyond the foggy workings of the mind at such an appalling hour. It can’t be traffic, for there is none. Not at this time of the morning, when the nearest you’ll come to being run over is a game of Chicken with a street-sweeper. Yet here we are and here it isn’t.

Shane Mulligan steps back and cranes his neck to check the digitised board again. It dutifully fills him in – 337 to CLAPHAM JUNCTION: 8 MINS. All very well, but it’s been saying that for quite the amount of mins already. Time isn’t exactly tight just yet. It isn’t overly loose either.

“You always have to give yourself a bit extra,” he says. “You aim for the earlier one so if it’s a few minutes late, you can make the next one and still be okay. It’s when one late one starts feeding into the next late one that you get in trouble.”

In a city of nearly eight and a half million people, getting by depends on getting around. Mulligan is an engineer for a construction company and has to be on site in Woolwich for shortly after seven. It means the alarm elbowing its way into his REM at 5.15 each morning. It means a bus and two trains across south London, platform-stand coffee cooling as he goes.

Or at least it will, just as soon as the 337 arrives.

Clapham Junction, 6.19am
He came to London the long way round. Went to college to do construction studies in 2005 when everybody was building and nobody thought to consider an end. Stayed until 2010 and came out into a capsized world. A whole industry staring at the waterline, most of it from below.

So he had no choice in the matter. If he did, it was a choice of where rather than whether. He had relations in Birmingham so it called him first but within a couple of months he got word of a job at Heathrow. A friend of his played football for Fulham Irish and he had a friend who knew a guy who knew of a job. That’s how it started.

One life bled into the other. He started playing for Fulham Irish mostly to fill out a social circle and when they won their first county title in October 2011, he was a rock at centre-back. By the following spring, Paul Coggins was asking him to do the same for London.

“It was really tough starting off,” he says. “I was working long hours in Heathrow and then I was commuting out to Ruislip and Greenford for games and training a couple of nights a week. Getting home at 11.30, the alarm going at 5.15 in the morning. It was a complete culture shock really. But it was good fun and I met great people. There must have been something right about it to keep me coming back. Either that or thick wit, I don’t know what it was.”

Waterloo East, 6.42am
He’s 28-years-old and if the planets had aligned just a little differently down the years he’d be in Clones tomorrow. When tides were high and Banty McEnaney had Monaghan scaring the life out of Kerry in 2007 and 2008, Mulligan was there in the background. A fringe player, a panel guy.

Not that there was any shame in it. You needed to go some back then to break into a Monaghan defence that housed All Star nominees in Dessie Mone, Gary McQuaid and Damien Freeman. As well as that, injuries nipped at him right when he didn’t need them.

A torn quad kept him out of the league in 2007 and his haste to get back did nothing only slow the recovery. The following year wasn’t much better and his playing opportunities were few.

“In 2009, I was heading back up to college in Jordanstown and I had to ask myself could I really keep doing this. Could I really keep the commitment going without getting any real game time? Have I got the appetite for it? Banty rang me one night and we had a chat about it and we decided I wouldn’t go again in ’09.

“I just played club football and I tried to get my form back. Like, it’s a hard situation to be in, whenever you weren’t getting games consistently for the county yet you were part of the county set-up and not allowed to play in club matches.

“It’s nearly the worst situation to be in because you’re on the fringes but you’re no good to anybody really. It was frustrating because I was going back to the club and I wasn’t playing well. I’m sure plenty of men have been in the same Catch 22.”

So he moved on and left some tight friends behind, the likes of Darren Hughes and Dick Clerkin and the rest. He had a go and didn’t make it – no regrets, no excuses. His intercounty days were done. As far as he knew.

l l l

Woolwich Arsenal
Station, 5.34pm

London has baked under a nuclear sun all day. In Woolwich Market, the stalls are selling shades at £2 a pair but there’s hardly any business to be done. Instead there’s a semi-permanent police presence, a legacy of the dark day earlier in the summer when the young soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in the street a just a couple of hundred yards away. Mulligan left work with his head down that evening, as 50-odd members of the right-wing English Defence League gathered to crank an already tense atmosphere up to 11.

His second trek of the day involves three different trains that take him diagonally across the city. Woolwich is literally the end of the line on the south east of the map and Ruislip hasn’t very much beyond it in the north west.

Again it’s a matter of hunting time at the start in case he needs to gather it later. He grabs a strap on the DLR to Canning Town just a minute before the door closes.

Football with London was never going to be a marriage that needed a pre-nup. There are no hidden riches, no life of luxury to which you’d be in danger of becoming accustomed. His first match was against Limerick in the 2012 league and they lost by six points.

Then it was Carlow by eight, Fermanagh by 12, Leitrim and Clare by five. Their only win was against Kilkenny, their only close game a draw against Waterford on the last day. Summer came and they lost to Leitrim by a point and Antrim by two and that was that. The year done on the last day of June.

“That’s something that took me a little while to adjust to. No doubt the rest of the lads too. I had been very lucky up to that point in that I’d played with fairly successful teams. We mightn’t have won an awful lot of trophies but we’d won plenty of games.

“When you’re used to winning, it’s very hard to get to terms with defeat after defeat after defeat. It’s not something that comes easy and I knew from talking to the rest of the lads that were there before me that it didn’t sit easy with them either. But when you’re playing for London, it’s just one more hurdle you have to overcome. We knew we would eventually if we kept at it.”

Canning Town, 6.04pm
Down into the city’s lower intestines. Whereas the heat above ground at least has somewhere to go, below stairs the tube system traps it in a miasma of sweat and irritation. Two stops along the Jubilee line, Canary Wharf floods the carriage with office workers as the city’s teatime commute kicks in.

This is the really wearing bit. Early mornings, he can handle. If a pre-dawn alarm clock was going to be any more than a passing annoyance, he’d have picked a different career. But the sweatbox tango involved in criss-crossing the city to get to training each night is a killer. “All you want to do is get to the dressingroom and peel off the jeans,” he says.

It’s the slog of it all. Plenty of intercounty players go a long way to get to training but they’re not doing it like this. They’re not constantly calculating whether they need to hustle to make the connecting train. They’re not stuffed into armpits or wedged into laps. They’re not being careful of how much they drink from their water bottle for fear their bladder won’t make it to the clubhouse.

“There was one stage earlier in the year where I said, ‘Look, I can’t do this anymore.’ I think maybe it was just a bad week at work or whatever. Everything seemed to be getting on top of me. I rang Paul and said I was done, that I was going to be no good to him going on like this. And he said to have a think about it. He was more or less telling me to cop myself on really. There’s always a way if you want to find it.

“It’s funny, I had a weekend to myself and I basically realised it was only a speed wobble. As soon as I’d done it, I regretted it. The boys were away playing a game and I was sitting at home on the Saturday not really knowing what to do with myself. I was watching TV and thinking, ‘Right, I’m at the wrong thing here. I have to back playing with the lads.’”

Especially since now it felt like there might be something to play for.

Bond Street, 6.34pm
Service is good on the Central line. That wouldn’t always be the case, mind. There was one time a few weeks ago where it was delayed by about 20 minutes and arrived at Bond Street stuffed to the door.

By no sane measurement was there room for him and his gear-bag but he was already late for training and he couldn’t not get on. He wouldn’t say he’s proud of it but there was an Indian guy who got introduced to the concept of the fair shoulder that day.

How far is it to Ruislip? Put it this way – on his first visit out there, he smiled as the familiar smell of slurry greeted him from the next field over. He grew up in Aghabog, which is exactly as rural as it sounds. Ruislip isn’t quite on that scale but when there are cattle watching through the ditch you know you’re a world away from Woolwich.

On he goes, through Shepherd’s Bush and White City, past Greenford where they train through the winter. The train pulls into South Ruislip at 7.10 and he spots three of his team-mates getting off another carriage. They walk the rest of the way together, hopping craic off each other as they go.

“I had a journalist onto me today,” says Lorcan Mulvey, the big Cavan full-forward. “You know what he asked me? He said I presume all London footballers work on building sites and that yis all go on the beer the whole time. I didn’t want to disappoint the fella.”

By the time they walk through the gates, it’s an hour and 50 minutes since he left Woolwich. Straight away he’s delighted when he sees the work van of one of the other players. “Deadly, there’s a lift home,” he smiles. It’ll save him the guts of 40 minutes later on.

This is the life. This is what it takes. Days that last 18 hours door-to-door, nights when the mind and body are still buzzing from training even though he needs to sleep ahead of the next 5.15 alarm. Most of his team-mates have much the same story.

They are the glitch in the system, the splodge of colour outside the lines. They fight every battle with one arm tied behind their back and yet they’re in a Connacht final while Sligo and Leitrim burn.

However it ends, it’s some achievement. If Mayo put a cricket score on them tomorrow, so what? That’s what’s supposed to happen. And anyway, the journey always means more than the destination.

Nobody knows that better than the London footballers