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Offaly close - Niall Mullan on the day Derry almost topped the Leinster giants

The Oakleafers' defender bowed out of inter-county hurling on the big stage

Offaly close - Niall Mullan on the day Derry almost topped the Leinster giants

After 17 years of senior hurling with Derry, Niall Mullan signed off his career on the greatest stage of all. Twenty years ago this year, Derry pushed Offaly every step of the way and won the respect of a nation. The former Oak Leaf defender spoke to Michael McMullan….

"It's your job to enhance the legacy so when you finish playing you have to return the jersey to a better place than what you got it in." - Dan Carter

Dan Carter's words are both romantic and sincere, painting a picture of a career that ended with the Webb Ellis Cup in his clutches.

Not everybody gets the perfect send off. Some stay too long and others don't achieve, both leaving a sense of regret.

Niall Mullan is one of the lucky ones. The Kevin Lynch's man, from a family steeped in hurling, saw his 17-year senior career with Derry come to a conclusion under the spine-tingling, rapturous applause of a standing ovation at Croke Park.

The Oakleafers, after winning Ulster for the first time in 92 years, pushed Offaly to the brink. The electrifying realisation that – barring Offaly's fans – the entire stadium was willing them on, allowed Derry to play with real purpose.

But it was Offaly who found enough to win the game. Boy did they earn it. They did benefit from Ollie Collins' Achilles injury after 40 minutes. It was a huge loss to Derry who, in the final analysis, had no answer to Johnny Dooley. The Seir Kieran man had his sniper's vision finely tuned and contributed 12 points. It was enough for the 1998 champions.

Niall Mullan's final chapter in the red and white of Derry came in the most gallant of defeats. The rest of Ireland were forced to stand up and take notice.

One of his opponents that day certainly did. Joe Dooley entered the fray after 40 minutes. Seconds later a sliotar flashed across his path.

Goalkeeper Kieran Stevenson was always grateful for the positional sense of his defence.

“They always seemed to know where the ball would land,” he said of Mullan, Collie McGurk and Conor Murray in front of him.

For once, Mullan admits to having lost his bearings and Joe Dooley got a 'right introduction'.

“I took a wild swing rather than trying to catch it,” Mullan recalls. Without taking control of the ball he, lashed on it and his hurl broke across Dooley.

It was all part of the battle for supremacy. No quarter was asked and none was given, with the duo swapping jerseys at the final whistle. The competitive respect we all drool over. As Mullan said farewell to inter-county hurling, he walked down the dressing room tunnel with Dooley's jersey in his grasp.

“It's still my pride and joy,” he said.

***

Sport was never going to be far away from Niall Mullan's life. His father John, better known as 'Ginge', played both football and hurling. He gave plenty back in return. He was Chairman of the football club and, until the recent lock-down, has been taking Irish language classes at Kevin Lynch Park.  Sadly, his mother Anne passed away in recent years.

Niall has two sisters, Anne and Maria and has three brothers John A, Hugh Pearse and Eoin, who have all been involved in the GAA.

After his underage club career, he continued to represent St Canice's and Kevin Lynch's with distinction. It's thought he has two senior football medals and won five titles with the hurlers. At the time of our interview, Mullan is unsure. For someone who has achieved so much, the silverware is over-rated.

“I don't know, I am not joking,” came Mullan's response to how many county titles he had amassed. “I got a thing for my 40th birthday from one of my brothers. My medals are up on the wall, but I wouldn't even count them.”

Mullan holds the memories closer to his heart.

“The people who were foes then, that are good friends now. The likes of Declan Cassidy and Collie McGurk. There was Conor Murray too, who was playing on the Derry hurling team from the start.”

That's what he takes from it.

Since making his debut when he was '17 or 18', Mullan was pretty much an ever-present in Derry's defence until calling it a day at the age of 35.

“I think there was one of the years, I didn't go to the hurling as I was in the football panel. Hinphey (Liam senior) stropped speaking to me because of it,” he laughs.

Hinphey arrived in Dungiven from Kilkenny, along with the input of Lavey's Tom Magill, left an unquantifiable imprint on the hurling landscape of the county.

With the big ball, Mullan won two MacRory Cups with St Patrick's Maghera and was on Derry's All-Ireland minor winning team of 1983. He played U21 football for the county and was on the panel for the 1985 senior final defeat by Monaghan, but missed out on the Ulster title in 1987.

In hurling, under the guidance of Joe McGurk, he was midfield on the first team from the school to land the Mageean Cup, 1983.

Niall Mullan in action against St Louis Ballymena in the 1983 Mageean Cup final

“An experienced hurler, Niall's calmness and nerve rubbed off on the other players of lesser experience,” read an extract from the 1984 school magazine, the Patrician. “His long-range pointing was an invaluable asset to the team.”

The team was captained by McGurk's brother Johnny and included future All-Ireland senior football winners Henry and Seamus Downey, who was the team's goalkeeper. Enda Gormley and Damian Cassidy, not from hurling clubs were on the team. Cassidy was the competition's top scorer and bagged 3-3 in the final against St Louis Ballymena at Bellaghy.

For Mullan, the 'experienced' hurler, he was only starting.

***

It all began miles away from 2000 and what it represented. Derry hurling had made a habit of languishing in Division Three, when Mullan joined during the mid-1980s. He is the only player to have played in all four divisions of the league. He recalls how they would always lose as many games as they won. But it began to gradually change. Block by block, the building process began.

In 1996, after winning the All-Ireland B championship, Derry went to play New York in Gaelic Park. It was the era of Hugo McOscar and Pat Joe McKenna's management. After arriving a day late and having to play in a searing 103 degrees heat in a dust bowl, they got 'slaughtered' in the game, Mullan remembers.

“After that, we had four or five days as a get together, as a team, and we enjoyed ourselves. On the flight home, I remember Declan Cassidy and a few of us talking,” he added.

“We had grown close as a group, we knew the hurlers were there. We were talking that we could do 'a wee bit' with this group.”

The following year, Derry won promotion to Division Two and went on to contest the 1998 and 1999 Ulster senior finals.

Mullan remembers ex-Down manager Sean McGuinness telling them how close they were getting. To make the final push they would need to be playing top level hurling in the league. A win over Wicklow, in Portlaoise, saw Derry promoted to Division One as champions.

“Before we went into the (2000) Ulster championship, we played Kerry in a play-off match in Parnell Park and we beat them well to stay up,” Mullan recalls of their first season dining with the big boys.

“It gave us a lot of confidence. We played well that day and if we had played like that in some of the other games, we could've beaten one of the bigger teams.

“I remember playing Wexford, up in Slaughtneil, and it was a dirty, wet day. We held them for a long time and they pulled away in the second half with the wind.”

A lot had a changed since their return from New York. Collie McGurk had committed solely to hurling and Kieran McKeever's return to the hurling panel in 2000, rubber-stamped its attraction. Before that, players just came and went. There was no continuity. Now it was different.

“You ask the likes of Co McEldowney, or anyone playing at that time, it was really enjoyable to play and we had plenty of craic on the way home on the bus. You could just see everybody that was there...wanted to be there.”

Away from the fun, there was also an appetite for work. Manager Kevin McNaughton had enlisted fitness coach Malcolm McCausland. No longer was it running laps 'til you boked'.

“He would take us up to do sprints and he gave us a programme of what to do ourselves,” Mullan points out.

Going into the Ulster final, Derry were perfectly poised. They had ran Antrim to three points two years previously, had a strong league campaign under their belt and were convincing semi-final winners over Down.

Their win over Antrim in the final was all the more notable, with the absence of Geoffrey McGonigle and Emmett McKeever due to suspension.

“Emmett was captain and he never missed a night of training right through and he never got his suspension lifted...he just drove the thing on another notch.

“Kevin was the manager, but Tom (Magill) did a lot of the training,” Mullan reveals. With an Ulster title in the bag, the duo ramped up the preparations even more.

“Training would've involved a lot of shorter games...they had everything speeded up and closed in. The training matches were faster, there was no time - you just got the ball and got it away.

“I remember that everybody's hurling was good at that time and you got used to the speed the big boys played at, that's what they concentrated on.”

It was time to take their hurling to the biggest stage of all.

***

Adrian Logan was deployed to Derry to get a taste of the new hurling revolution and arrived at Younger Homes in Maghera. It was the week of the new Ulster champions' baptism against All-Ireland contenders Offaly in the Croker cauldron and Niall Mullan was the interviewee.

“I remember telling him that they (Offaly) knew absolutely nothing about us and we knew who they were. I thought that was an advantage and we were going to throw the kitchen sink at them.”

Derry travelled south the day before the game and stayed out of Dublin. Everything was relaxed. During the week, the squad were 'flying' at training. The scene was set.

Sitting in the dressing room, Niall Mullan was conscious it could be his last game with the famous Oakleaf badge on his chest.

“Collie McGurk was 33, Conor Murray was 34 and I was 35,” Mullan now jokes. “So that's over 102 combined years, so there were no speed merchants.”

As the team togged out, Mullan noticed the usual nerves weren't present. He was taking it all in his stride.

“I was walking about...thinking I'll be (taken) off after 10 minutes or I will play well. That's just how I felt.”

“Collie would always talk in the changing room and he was telling us 'let's get wired into these b******s', there would always be some of the players chipping in.”

From the win over Antrim, the management had some reshuffling to do. Declan Cassidy was on his honeymoon and missed the game. Mickey Conway dropped back from midfield to plug the vacancy at wing back. Ronan McCloskey reverted to midfield and Geoffrey McGonigle returned to the attack after his suspension.

Derry took to Offaly with every sinew they could offer.

“Ten minutes into the first half, your lungs were bursting because Offaly were going at a pace we weren't used to, but they never pulled away from us,” said Mullan of his memory from the game.

By half-time, some of Offaly's key players hadn't scored. John Troy got little change out of Colin McEldowney before being replaced by Joe Errity and the towering Gary Hanniffy was brought closer to midfield.

“Co (McEldowney) was brilliant and then they brought out a big boy (Hanniffy) on to him and Co was only up to his waist, just swinging away...he had a brilliant game that day.”

Derry lost Ollie Collins to injury and Johnny Dooley began to exert an interference on the game. And still Derry kept coming back. A second McGonigle goal was followed by a Mickey Collins point to level matters, 1-18 to 2-15.

“I remember the hairs standing on the back of my neck. Everybody in Croke Park was roaring for us. You could hear the atmosphere building because we were so close to them. You were going on adrenaline and we did think we could beat them.”

The story didn't have a total fairytale ending. A second Brendan Murphy goal helped Offaly crawl past Derry's tectonic efforts. But after 17 years of hurling, Niall Mullan bowed out at the top.

Like Dan Carter, 'Nelly' left a legacy and Derry hurling was in a much better place.

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