Emlyn Mulligan another buried treasure on the GAA wasteland

The county system gives the All-Ireland championship its appeal but also means some stars must dazzle in obscurity

Emlyn Mulligan takes to the field for Leitrim’s Connacht senior football championship game against London last year, which Mulligan’s long-suffering  county lost. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Emlyn Mulligan takes to the field for Leitrim’s Connacht senior football championship game against London last year, which Mulligan’s long-suffering county lost. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


“No, I’ve never played in Croke Park,” Emlyn Mulligan says wistfully on a day when the pleasure cruisers are moored for the winter along the boardwalk at Carrick-on-Shannon and the pitch in Páirc Seán McDiarmada awaits lining for the season ahead. “It will be a big regret if that never happens.”

GAA director general Páraic Duffy may not have had Mulligan specifically in mind when he voiced concern about the plight of teams in smaller counties but the Melvin Gaels man is a perfect example of how the All-Ireland championship can oppress talent.

Mulligan is probably the best player you won’t see on live television this summer.

On Tuesday, as the evening radio bulletins reported Duffy’s remarks, Mulligan finished his shift at Longford Garda station and drove north to Tyrone, where a Leitrim selection was playing the Tyrone Under-21 team.

Leitrim’s occasional brush with the imperious counties never fails to leave the players shaking their heads. “You have to admit to being envious, yeah,” Mulligan says of the opulence of the €8 million Tyrone training centre in Garvahey.

“I know in terms of the game, without being arrogant, I’m probably feel I’m as good as some of the Tyrone lads but they have that extra level that we will never have.

“Definitely, you would like to see the money spread because there is such a gap developing between the top five or six teams and the 15 below that.

“Like, we have a sponsorship deal with the Bush Hotel here and I don’t know . . . it may be for 30 or 35 grand a year. And we are grateful for that and it is a big commitment for a hotel. But that is what we get through our season on. Then you see what Dublin are getting in sponsorship and it is sort of a dream world.”

In 2008, his debut summer, Mulligan hit 0-10 against Galway. He missed 2009 and 2010 with a cruciate injury. In 2012, he played four games in the All-Ireland football championship and finished among the top 10 scorers with 0-24.

In the 2013 championship, he recorded the highest score in a single match, his 3-7 against New York eclipsing Cillian O’Connor and Bernard Brogan.

In theory, Mulligan plays in the same competition as the game’s elite forwards, and belongs in their company: as well as a lethal place-kicking range and playmaking skill, he has in common with his own hero, Pádraic Joyce, the most elusive of gifts: the ability to make time on the ball.

But it is highly unlikely Emlyn Mulligan will ever play a championship game in August, when the championship becomes an inferno of excitement.

Emotional appeal
The dilemma for the GAA is the “county” system which gives the All-Ireland championship its deathless romantic and emotional appeal also consigns gifted players to a lifetime of playing in the wasteland.

While at college in Sligo and when selected on Connacht teams, Mulligan played alongside those who had either won All-Irelands or held the realistic ambition of doing so. But he played Under 14 and Under 16 with Leitrim without winning a match, skipping minor and opting to play soccer with Sligo Rovers. County borders decide who will get the medals as much as talent.

By birth, he is from Donegal and lived in Brian McEniff’s town of Bundoran until he was seven.

“In 1992, when they won the All-Ireland, I was a proud Donegal man of about five,” he laughs. “And I do remember standing on the bridge across from the Holyrood there with my mother when the team bus went past.”

His father, a Longford man, was stationed in Kinlough, the fishing village on the Donegal/Leitrim border. It made sense to bring Emlyn to school there and later the family moved to the village.

But for that, it is not unreasonable to project he could have played football in Donegal and therefore won an All-Ireland medal in 2012.

“People say that,” he shrugs. “But who is to say I would have got on the Donegal team? And anyhow, I was practically raised in Leitrim and it felt natural to play there. Yeah, things could have been different.

“There is a strong connection between the counties. I know a lot of Kinlough people would head in to see Donegal play as well as Leitrim. But it gave me great pleasure to captain Leitrim last year. Of course you see the Donegal lads winning their All-Ireland and wonder.”

But why commit to the drudgery and discipline of the contemporary training schedule when it means losing more than winning and punishing days against Galway or Mayo in the Connacht championship?

“I know,” Mulligan says. “To get so little out of the game, yeah, I completely understand. The boys that are playing now: we are trying to change that mentality.

“You play because you just hope that if you get in a winning position you can take it some day. That maybe once in 20 years you can beat Mayo, say.

“I know people are calling for the end of the provincial championship. I wouldn’t agree with that. If I have a 10-year career and can beat Mayo or Galway once, I would be happy. I know that sounds strange. But the feeling we got after beating Sligo is what you play this for.”

Dreamiest football afternoon
That Sunday in Markievicz Park in May 2011 was a day of days for Leitrim people, probably their dreamiest football afternoon since the 1994 epoch. Mickey Moran, the Derry coach who with Eamon Coleman had coached Derry to an All-Ireland, was beatific: the win meant everything.

Leitrim beat Sligo in the Countess’s place with seven players making their debuts. That was Leitrim’s championship within the championship: a private crossing point of inestimable significance.

And, of course, reality came crashing in a fortnight later in the robust form of 15up-for-it Roscommon men.

Still. It was progress. Winning the FBD league last year was a small but solid achievement. They play in this season’s FBD final tomorrow against Roscommon, having beaten Galway along the way. And Mulligan has heard the jibes about Leitrim being invincible in January and laughs.

“I don’t care if it is FBD: we hadn’t beaten Galway in 20 years. And to match that being favourites against Sligo meant there was a bit of pressure in the next game. There is football quality in Leitrim. We have to learn how to win – and then to follow that with another big performance.

“We are learning how to do that. I think people exaggerate this “Leitrim love January” craic. Maybe our mentality is better at this time of year. We have three chances of winning silver. And our best chance is in January. Why not take the chance if you get it? We don’t get carried away with it either.”

In November, Mulligan went to Liverpool with a friend for the derby match. Séamus Coleman got them good tickets: Mulligan made his Rovers debut with the Killybegs man against UCD and they have stayed in touch.

Doppleganger for Luis Suarez
Mulligan is a Liverpool fan and, by coincidence, is a doppelganger for Luis Suarez and so spent an enjoyable afternoon ducking from the arrowed one-liners shot by Scousers who couldn’t believe their luck.

But when he speaks about Coleman, he couldn’t sound prouder.

“He is a good lad. He was always a level- headed lad and had a great attitude. He always had pace. He might not have been the most natural footballer back then, he was raw enough, but his pace would get him out of everything. His tackling and aggression and attitude were terrific.

“You could always have seen it happening for him but its amazing how quickly he has progressed. But to see him out there in the Liverpool derby and shrugging shoulders with the likes of Suarez . . . you’d be very proud of him.”

Mulligan showed sufficient promise to earn a debut for Sligo Rovers at 16. He was offered a full-time contract in 2008 but got called for the Garda Síochána in Templemore and decided to take that.

When he left, Coleman was a Donegal kid with a promising football career and his soaring reputation since is another indicator of the fine lines in sport. Mulligan remembers scouts watching games they played together and failing to notice what the Donegal man had.

“Rob McDonald came in to manage the club and told him he wasn’t part of his plans. Then Paul Cook came in and nine months later, Séamie was playing for Everton against Spurs. You need that break in and someone to show faith in you.”

In Leitrim, faith is largely confined to the dressingroom. The county has its hail-or-shine believers but Mulligan has lost count of the number of times well-meaning acquaintances tell him Leitrim would be “doing well to get out” of a championship game against Galway or Mayo with a five-point beating.

“I’d rather go play, have a cut and get beaten by 20. You need to try and express yourself in a game, whatever the result.”

In a way, you have to be contrary if you want to play for Leitrim. Defiance prevents them from being invisible. They can languish in Division Four for the next 40 years and nobody outside the county will care. They can trot out summer after summer only to find the hot words and dressingroom promises vaporised by Galway or Roscommon or Mayo teams in a mean mood.

Mulligan believes Leitrim train just as hard as Kerry or Mayo of Dublin.

He has being a Garda for six years and the shift rota is a killer, tearing down the road after training for a nine o’clock start, sometimes clocking off at 7am on Sunday morning and then getting up a few hours later for training or a match.

The world won’t listen but Mulligan and the rest frame their lives around Gaelic football. They hear the guys from Dublin or Kerry talk about the sacrifice and they know what that means.

But they wonder too: yes, it is a sacrifice even when you are winning medals and experiencing that unimaginable dopamine rush of running out on All-Ireland final days. But what does that say about the sacrifice it takes to train hard for months and months knowing you are going to lose and sometimes lose heavily?

That euphoric summer when John O’Mahony led Leitrim to their first Connacht title since 1927 is probably impossible to emulate. As Mulligan says, the elite have pushed on.

Occasionally, Leitrim teams inspire.

In 2005, they gave a visiting Dublin food for thought in the qualifiers. In 2006, they took Donegal to extra-time in Carrick. But both of those counties have soared since.

Leitrim are still Leitrim: small, tenacious and fighting impossible odds, fielding teams because of a love of the game that overwhelms all common sense. Mulligan is a realist and appreciates Páraic Duffy’s sentiments.

“We have to be realistic here. Money can’t increase the population in Leitrim. We are going to meet better teams because they have bigger populations to pick from.”

A more thorough school coaching system would help. Money to finish Leitrim’s new training ground in Annaduff would help. “It may not change results. But it would help the sense of wellbeing.”

So tomorrow, Leitrim play the FBD final. They aren’t delusional; they aren’t pretending it’s something it’s not. If you play for Leitrim, you live in this twilight world where you can outshoot every other player over a single game in the All-Ireland championship but remain virtually unnoticed.

Of course, you don’t do it for that: any glory is measured in small achievements seen only within the borders.

“We were the first Leitrim team to lift any trophy if 20 years, the first to win a qualifier,” Mulligan says.

“We try to bring it on, have a go. We are proud of playing for Leitrim and there is no point on dwelling on what we don’t have. You want to leave some sort of legacy.”

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