Five years ago Richie Mullan lifted the Christy Ring trophy, as Kevin Lynch’s became the first Ulster club to win the All-Ireland Féile nÁ nGael division one title.  As he prepares for his Christy Ring Cup debut for Derry on Saturday, he sat down with Michael McMullan to chat Féile, goalkeeping and beating the odds…..

He may have only turned 19 in January and is in his first season out of the underage ranks, but Richie Mullan seems to have been hurling forever.

The past decade has been kind.  His pocket jingles louder than most of his age.  He has amassed 10 county hurling championships, back to back Ulster minor titles as well as a couple of All-Ireland Féile medals

Add in a Mageean Cup title, where he also picked up the man of the match award named after one of his esteemed Caoran Dubh neighbours, the late James O’Kane.

With the big ball, he picked up an U16 title with Dungiven during their biannual battles with Kilrea up through the ranks.

It perked the attention of Damian McErlain, who drafted him in as the puppet master in Derry’s run to the All-Ireland minor football final.

He failed to register a score on his NHL debut against this weekend’s opponents Down in Newry, but with 0-29 from the other five starts he is the team’s joint top scorer with Cormac O’Doherty.

They come from similar underage dynasties, have the same build, vision and wizardry.  That bit of magic that can unlock defences.  The type of player you would travel to watch.

Thankfully for Derry, they can play in the same attack.

It’s hard not to see John McEvoy handing Mullan his first championship start this weekend.

When we meet at our O’Cahan Park rendezvous, Mullan is bang on time.  He is as care free as his performances appear on the pitch.

It’s a welcome break from study for his Building Surveying exams.

Without seeing the Derry crest on the training top, under his retro Manchester City jacket, you wouldn’t point him out as one of the county’s most exciting hurling prospects.

But he is.  Comfortable at centre-back, or leading the attack.  Wherever Kevin Lynch’s needed his influence most.

Now after a taste of U21 action last season under Collie McGurk, he has graduated to the senior ranks.

McEvoy and his management team had been appointed late but threw down the gauntlet to whoever felt they had something to offer the county senior team.

“We had a trial game and it got a good response,” Mullan remembers.  “You were thinking there would be 28-30 people but there were 40 people there.”

He is one of seven players to have started all the competitive games this season.  Two of the others, brothers Sean and Conor Kelly, hurled with Mullan all through his younger days.

“I thought I will give this a go,” he explains of this decision to opt out of the U20 football panel, and throw his lot in with the senior hurlers.

“Instead of getting wee bits and pieces, I’d rather be fully committed to the one.”

Last weekend, Dungiven football manager unleashed him as a fresh option in the closing stages from the bench as they picked up their first point of the season.

A man for all occasions.

***
Two of Derry’s interested spectators in Ballycran will be Frances and John A Mullan.  They don’t miss many of Richie and their older son John’s games.

Frances is a sister of Derry All-Ireland winner Damian Barton.

“Play hard and don’t get sent off,” will be her parting words of advice this Saturday.  Like every other game.

“It’s as good advice as you are going to get,” Richie feels.  “Da doesn’t say much, he just lets us get on with it.”

When John A, who first hurled for Derry at the age of 15, and his brothers Hugh, Niall and Eoin get together there is no shortage of slagging.  Hurling is a common thread for discussion.

They have all won senior championships and have worn the Derry jersey.  The medal collections are called into question.

“It starts into banter, but you want to get your own back on them…shut these boys up,” Richie jokes.

When his older brother John captained Kevin Lynch’s to the 2012 All-Ireland Féile title, Richie – at just 12 years of age - was the goalkeeper on the team.

Sean Kelly, a year younger than him, was the first port of call but he turned it down, something Richie still doesn’t let him forget.

“I would’ve got playing outfield if you had played in nets,” Mullan still tells him.

Now the Derry senior goalkeeper, Kelly was put through his paces by goalkeeping coach Shane Elliott at a session before the team’s press night at Kevin Lynch Park.  His striking was sublime.

Mullan agrees.

“It is weird.  You could throw that man the number 11 jersey for this team and he would be as a good as he is for the club.

“It is mental the ability he has, with the speed of hurling that he brings to the table and his puck-outs are unbelievable.”

But back to the Kevin Lynch’s Féile story.  While Richie still plays down his role, his natural skills armed him with the qualities to pull the team out.

“I basically just stood in nets that year because they needed a man.  I enjoyed it,” Richie added of a season that saw them clinch their All-Ireland (division three) title with a 2-15 to 1-4 win over Kildare side Celbridge, at Croke Park.

“I was about 12 at the time and I remember just thinking ‘look at the size of this place and look how wee I am, standing in these nets.’

“It was all about the occasion and we took it in our stride that day.  It was the calibre of player we had.  Conor Kelly was playing at centre half-back, his striking of the ball, for an U14, was unbelievable.”

Two seasons later, Kevin Lynch’s had stepped up to the division one grade.  Richie now donned the number 11 jersey and captained the side.

Derry hosted the competition and in the final, came the first instalment of their four meetings with Dunloy…Kevin Lynch’s lead the way 3-1.

“We beat them by two points out at Owenbeg,” Richie outlines.  His facial expression doesn’t change but his tones does.  His excitement cannot be hidden.

“A couple of friends from Dunloy still reckon if we played that match again, they’d beat us.

“That day at Owenbeg is something nobody on that team will forgot for a while.  There were so many people from the town out at it….the occasion that it was, was unbelievable.”

The Antrim men maintained the Lynch’s won because of their physique and by minor level it would even itself out.

“There was motivation but we played Dunloy in the league in Dunloy and they beat us by 25 points…it was a bit worrying at the time.

“We thought if we are going to give anything any sort of rattle, we are going to have to go at the thing a bit more and thankfully we did.”

It saw Mullan end his underage career as a double Ulster champion.

***
Making the step to inter-county hurling, you would feel, was something Richie Mullan was always going to do.

The club U21 side was his first taster.  This followed by a senior championship debut last season under Geoffrey McGonigle, which Mullan referenced as giving him a ‘wee insight’ into what was to follow.

Having scored some breath-taking scores from various angles and distances, he missed a long-range free to take Slaughtneil to a replay.

“He is going to get more opportunities like that to win matches for us but that’s a day in the life of a free-taker and he will come back – he is some prospect,” were Geoffrey’s reassuring comments to the County Derry Post after the game.

“That game against Slaughtneil gave me a wake-up call that every wee bit matters,” Mullan now feels.  “Every tackle you put in, every score you put over and every wide the other team hits is going to be an advantage.

“No matter what the game is, a championship match, a friendly, every wee bit matters and at the minute we are trying to get it right.”

After being fast-tracked into the county scene, the 19 year-old has found the ‘physicality’ and the ‘speed of hurling’ as the differences he has had to acclimatise to.

He hasn’t been left to his own devices.

“I think because we have such a good squad with a range of youth and experience, it gave me a sense of what it was going to be like.  They all reassured me that I am up to this level.

“There are boys like Liam Óg (Hinphey) who are bringing boys on and they are playing well as leaders to develop us in any way they can, both physically and mentally.”

The indicators are pointing to an uber-competitive Christy Ring campaign.

Last season Derry were undone by a heroic Kildare goalkeeping performance in the semi-final.  Last year’s qualification came down to score difference and Cormac O’Doherty’s late free.

The final day of the league season this time around had Derry once again reaching for the calculators and frantically refreshing social media.

Among them were John A and Frances Mullan enquiring of the whereabouts of their sons’ next foray in county action.

It took them to Inniskeen for a league final, the scene of a gut-wrenching All-Ireland Schools’ final defeat, a game where Richie had, what looked like, a perfectly legitimate point chalked off.  Something later proven on the video of the game.

“I have bad memories and I remember seeing it coming up in the fixtures and I thought about that match,” Richie reveals.

The game was another tough battle.  Brian Óg McGilligan limped out of it with a hamstring injury and a wasteful Derry side were always chasing the game.

“Going into the final 10 minutes of that match,” Richie recalls.  “We were in with a good chance, then the (Wicklow) goal came at a bad time and swung it around.

“John told us it was disappointing but to forget about it and that we’d start a new phase for the championship and we’d see where it takes us.”

“We have more work to do, everyone knows it.  We will come back in the championship and see where we are at then.”

Like his manager, Mullan feels the bookies’ outsiders’ odds on Derry lifting the Christy Ring Cup are justified.

In the list of teams, Derry are ranked fifth behind Meath, London and Kildare, ahead of Wicklow and Down.

Mullan disagrees.

“I’d say we are ranked fifth but I think that gives us a bit of motivation to get up there and get us nearer to the top.

“I would put Wicklow above us on league form.  You can’t really say we are above them in any way.  Even Kildare, we scraped a result and were lucky to get out of there (Newbridge) with two points.”

He isn’t paying attention to being ‘fourth or even eighth’, it’s about the here and now.

Derry’s remaining games of this year’s campaign pit them against Donegal and Wicklow, in that order. Everything points to a deciding game, just like last year.

That’s for another day.  According to Mullan, Derry are treating Saturday’s opener as a final.  The leaders in the squad are driving home the ‘one game at a time’ message.

“We are trying to raise the standard of hurling in Derry,” Mullan adds.

“The U17s have gone unbeaten, so they are giving us a bit of momentum.  They are putting everything they can into it so we are trying to do the exact same – game by game.”

When the sides met in Newry back in January, it was John McEvoy’s first game in charge but a fortuitous Alan Grant goal and the luxury of an extra man saw Derry edge through by the puck of a ball.

“Going to Ballycran will be tougher again.  They weren’t at full strength and it was another lucky result,” Mullan assesses.

“After the game, John told us Down were nowhere near where they will be in the championship.

“But, we know we can beat them so we know it is matter of getting ourselves right and setting ourselves up for a real battle and there shouldn’t be much in it again.”

On Saturday, Richie Mullan is set for a debut in the Christy Ring Cup, five years after captaining his club to an All-Ireland Féile competition also named after the former legend of hurling.

Along with his brother John, before they leave the house, they will be told to play hard and to play fair.

The likes of Gerard ‘Fudge’ McGonigle and Kevin Hinphey, among those who coached them through their underage careers, will look on with pride when the squad is announced.  Seeing the Kevin Lynch’s name appearing again with regularity on the county roster.

“Hopefully I am interviewing you later in the year before the final and another run out at Croke Park,” I utter.

“We’ll see,” came the reply, as he headed back to books and the world of Building Surveying.

The Down game won’t define the season, but it will set the scene of what is to follow.

It is another game in Richie Mullan’s already illustrious hurling career.

Pic: Mary K Burke

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