Brian Mullins at Derry's golf day in 2018 (Pic: Mary K Burke)
On Saturday, Derry were supposed to lock horns with Armagh in the opening round of the Ulster championship, hoping to end a 22-year gap. Brian Mullins was at the helm when the Anglo Celt Cup last returned to the Oakleaf County in 1998 and Michael McMullan spoke to him about his three years in charge.
Reigning champions Dublin led the 1975 All-Ireland semi-final by four points when a loose ball plodded around the middle of Croke Park.
Brian Mullins ghosted from behind a ruck. He pulled on the ball with a measured conviction. The Dublin midfielder's dink hovered towards Pat Gogarty, under the shadow of the Hogan Stand. His diagonal pass found the unmarked Tony Hanahoe with the Canal End goal in his sights. After dodging two token Derry tackles, Hanahoe roofed the ball unceremoniously to the top corner. John Sommers didn't have a prayer.
It was Mullins' first taste of Derry. Anthony McGurk was in the opposing corner, on a team managed by the late Frankie Kearney. The three men would unite 11 years later to take charge of a turbulent Oakleaf ship, following the sacking of Eamonn Coleman and the player strikes that followed Mickey Moran's appointment in 1995.
Brian tiptoed onto the management circuit, like he did into Dublin's team of the seventies. As an 18-year-old, a son of Kerry and Clare parents, he was selling programmes at the 1973 All-Ireland final, before being called in by supremo Kevin Heffernan the following season, by chance almost.
In a bid to bolster his midfield options, 'Heffo' got tipped off about an upcoming Fran Ryder and headed to Belfast for a Thomond College's Sigerson Cup clash against the Ranch. It was, however, Ryder's colleague and the manager's clubmate Mullins who caught the eye.
He brought his selectors to watch Brian in action for St Vincent's in an U21 championship clash, where he battered through the opposition defence before scoring a last gasp winning goal. That was it, Mullins was in.
There was still a hiccup and he almost missed the All-Ireland final win over Galway. A chipped bone in his foot, sustained in Dublin U21 action, had Mullins laid up in the Mater hospital, with less than a month to the September showpiece. Heffernan and the chief surgeon had a difference of opinion on Mullins' fitness, before the Dubs' boss got his way.
“A decade in medical school didn't please Kevin,” commented Dublin player Dr Pat O'Neill, who was also working in the Mater at the time, in Tom Humphries' Dublin v Kerry book.
Mullins secured the first of four Celtic Crosses, matching his uncle Bill Casey of Kerry. His career also saw him lose five further finals – all to the Kingdom – and coast to club All-Ireland glory.
'Heffo', according to Mullins, was a 'big influence' on their squad during that era.
“I would have learned a lot from him and hopefully carried those lessons into my own operation,” he offers. “I have been lucky during my late teens and early 20s...I picked up a lot of what he was about.”
In the summer of 1980, Mullins' career and life flashed before him in a car crash, on his way from a holiday in Wexford to training in Dublin. He broke his leg and suffered severe head injuries.
A testament to his toughness was shaking off a career-threatening injury, thanks to help from Irish Olympian Eamon Coghlan. Mullins restored the muscle in his legs and played in a further three All-Ireland finals, winning one in 1983, a game where he was one of three Dublin players dismissed.
Brian was made captain for the 1985 season, but could only look on as Páidí Ó Sé delivered a rousing acceptance speech 'as Gaeilge' (Mullins is also an Irish speaker) after lifting the Sam.
It was his last time in the Dublin jersey and when Kevin Heffernan stepped away, he joined Sean Doherty and Robbie Kelleher as a three-man management team to succeed him.
Mullins, currently the Director of Sport at UCD, was a qualified PE Teacher from University of Limerick, but never felt management would be something he would have tried his hand at. The trio left the post after a defeat by an emerging Meath team.
“There were many other things going on in my life, between owning a business and teaching. Then I moved to Donegal in 1991,” Mullins points out.
He had been running a fitness centre business with another 'Vins' man, Mickey Whelan, he was playing with the club and teaching in Dublin.
Mullins was appointed as Principal of Carndonagh Community School, where he lived for nine years and played a bit of club football for the local club.
“It was the biggest school in Ireland,” he says. “The school used to compete in all levels at Ulster Schools competitions. There were clubs in all the town on the peninsula, there was a big catchment area.”
His next county involvement would come from an unlikely corner.
He can't put it down to an exact moment, when Derry came calling. Mullins was now rooted in Donegal and managing all aspects of school life was 'all-consuming'.
“When the Derry opportunity came up in 1996, it wasn't something I was necessarily thinking of doing,” he recalls.
“Managing a county team is something I wasn't preoccupied with,” he added, before giving it some consideration.
“I ended up doing the job for three years,” Mullins added. “The squad was already in place, which included most, if not all of the All-Ireland squad of 1993.”
Brian McGilligan and Tony Scullion would step away during his tenure, with Danny Quinn later taking on a coaching role after helping Harry Gribbin (along with McGilligan and Eugene Kelly) with the U21 team.
Enda Gormley did begin the 1997/98 as a trainer. He felt a lethargy, which later transpired to be a blood problem. Once it cleared, Mullins coaxed Enda back to the playing panel.
In the early days, Eugene Young trained the team, with Frankie Kearney and Anthony McGurk as selectors.
“Anthony lived in Derry City, so I got in touch with him,” Mullins points out. “We were about the same age. I knew he had been heavily involved with Lavey and that (his brother) Johnny was playing.
“I wouldn't have spoken to Anthony for 20 years before I got in contact. I wouldn't necessarily have kept in contact with players I had played against.”
With his appointment 'two or three' weeks before the start of the league, Mullins hadn't attended the club championship, having still been playing in Donegal with Carndonagh that summer.
“Training went well all through the league. The players enjoyed the games and particularly the win over Donegal in the final,” came his early memories of his first season. Did he feel retaining the league title was a priority?
“They had ambition,” he said of the squad. “They wanted to do well and they wanted to win the league in 1996. It was indicative of their ability and their motivation to try and follow on from 1993.
“Some of them felt they took their eye off the ball in 1994 and 1995 and they wanted to pick up again.”
During our phone conversation, Mullins comes across as a thinker. Every sentence is calm, to the point and absent of background noise.
“Fergal McCusker, Anthony Tohill, Henry (Downey) and Kieran McKeever were there and any amount of them were in their mid-20s and felt they had a lot of football in them,” he adds.
Reflecting on the litany of names, and with hindsight, winning the league was no surprise. The championship was a 'different kettle of fish' he states. After a facile win over Armagh at home, they bowed out to Tyrone in Clones.
“The wheels came off...from the high of winning the league final, to two months later being out of the championship and your effort to win an All-Ireland - which is what most teams set out for - was derailed.”
Only the front door was in vogue back then, it was another year away from Sam and Derry were no closer. Mullins' felt there were no mental scars from a second defeat to their rivals in as many years.
“There is no difficulty when you are at that level,” Mullins points out, with a firm tone of voice.
“You don't dwell on defeats...apart from aspects you can learn from. It is another effort and another year of doing better than the previous year.”
After the 1995 championship defeat, to Tyrone's 13 men, Mullins went at the league in his first season with conviction. Restoring the winning habit was important.
“There was some thinking that we peaked too early. In 1997, we tried to put more into the championship.”
They didn't qualify for the latter stages of the league and it took a comfortable replay win to see off Monaghan in the first round, to set up Derry versus Tyrone – for the third year in a row.
Noel Donnelly thumped home an early goal but it was a false dawn. Joe Cassidy and Joe Brolly notched 1-8 between them, with the latter blowing kisses after he slid home his goal and Seamus Downey grabbed a second goal in a hammering of sorts.
“We fell foul of Cavan in the final,” Mullins remembers.
“In some ways, we thought we got some things right but, on the day, Cavan...they were that little bit ahead of us in terms of delivering on the pitch. We didn't do it.”
Jason Reilly did 'a Ravenelli' by pulling his jersey over his head in celebration to mark his 60th minute goal. Cavan were now ahead. Seconds later Gary McGill had the goal chance, but his shot went straight at goalkeeper Paul O'Dowd.
In the end, Cavan prevailed by the narrowest of margins. Controversy surrounded the victory. They were given a 'point' in the first half that should never have stood. Raymond Cunningham's shot went a foot to the right of the posts. It was something Mullins, surprisingly, didn't and doesn't buy into.
“When you are on the sideline and you are involved in a match - if the umpire puts up his flag and the referee tots it as a score, that's it, it is a point.
“I don't dwell on it. You dwell on the fact you were beaten by a point and wonder where you might have missed scores yourself.
“There was a point on the scoreboard, the record shows that and that would've been our view coming out of it. On any given day, anything can happen with the opposition that puts them that little bit ahead.
"It is only learning what you didn't do or what you didn't do enough of, to make sure you made up for it in some way.”
If Brian Mullins' first season was a rushed start, going into 1997 offered more time to scour the county for new players. Clubs were sounded out and 'recommendations' were gathered of the young and emerging talent.
“You went with the management team to matches,” he points out. “You looked to see who you could take into the panel. I am thinking of the likes of Enda Muldoon.”
The Ballinderry man was one of six players from the U21 All-Ireland winning squad to come into the senior scene under the Dublin man.
He had handed Sean Marty Lockhart his debut against Kerry at Ballinascreen in the Dublin man's first season. David O'Neill and Paul McFlynn came into the defence for 1997, with Joe Cassidy up front and Johnny McBride playing in a number of roles across the middle third.
“We would go into each year believing that if we did all we could and put our best foot forward, the Derry squad would believe they were equal to or better than most in Ulster and 1998, was no different” Mullins outlined of this third season.
“We were beat by Tyrone in 1996 and by Cavan in 1997, by a very close score, so going into 1998 – why wouldn't you believe. We were happy enough where we were.”
Derry lost the league final to Offaly, before hitting three goals in a double scores win over Monaghan in the championship. A semi-final win over Armagh took Derry through to another final, this time a low-scoring scrap with Donegal.
“It was fine margins and we were close to losing again in '98 but we managed to get over the line,” came Mullins' initial thoughts of the game.
Captain Kieran McKeever didn't give Manus Boyle a sniff and Lockhart's masterclass on Tony Boyle put him on his way to an all-star later in the year. Even with a man of the match performance from wing-back Paul McFlynn, it looked like a game that was going to squirm away from Derry once again.
With 23 seconds of stoppage time gone and the sides level, McFlynn pounced on a shanked Eoin McCloskey kick-out. As the Loup man scrambled on the ground, Anthony Tohill came in support, before drilling a thunderous delivery over midfield.
Substitute Geoffrey McGonigle gained possession. With two Donegal defenders converging, 'Geoff' flicked the ball across to Joe Brolly, who sidestepped Tony Blake before finishing the winning goal.
“The fact that Geoffrey was involved in the goal makes it look like a good a decision,” Mullins ponders. “But these things can be seen as going horribly wrong and they can go right.”
He was only on the pitch five minutes, but it wasn't a premeditated substitution.
“In any circumstances, when you pick your starting 15, a lot of the time you have subs and decisions to have them as subs or in the starting 15 is a narrow decision.
“We knew Geoffrey had the ability and he would've been very close to starting the game and putting him in, we were hopeful and knew he was capable of making a contribution – it's as simple as that.”
In the semi-final, Derry were convincingly beaten by a Galway team who would again beat them at the penultimate stage in 2001.
“That was the end of my three years,” Mullins conceded, while heaping praise on the players, the board and the 'GAA families' during his three seasons.
“It was about motivating the players, which wasn't a really difficult thing. They were a great bunch of lads and I would have nothing but praise for them.
“That is the thing about sport, there is no guarantee that just because you put in a big effort you are going to end up winning. It is swings and roundabouts, you take the defeats on the chin and you head on into the rest of your life.
“I just felt it was time for a change of voice and a change of energy and a change of direction,” he states of his decision to step down.
“I had other things, in terms of my work and family, that I needed to put a priority on, and I felt the Derry job needed somebody different,” he concluded.
Mullins still has family in north Donegal and would 'sometimes' catch up with some of the Derry players of that era. He was in Moyola for Derry's golf day in 2018, to mark 25 years since winning Sam.
And 22 years on, Mullins remains the last manager to deliver championship silver. The wait continues.
- Mullins surprised at Derry's 22-year gap without an Ulster title. More...
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