John Greene

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN GREENE

Through it all there has been a re­sis­tance to get­ting car­ried away. It’s not the way in these parts. The mem­o­ries of al­most seven decades of hard­ship are vivid.

FRANK MULLIGAN will take his seat in the stand in Tul­lam­ore to­day and, for a mo­ment, be­fore the crazi­ness re­ally be­gins, won­der at it all. How did it come to this? The sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion has been build­ing all week and as much as he and oth­ers tried to go about their busi­ness, the thought was never far from any­one’s mind; a sin­gle, crazy thought: Mul­li­nalaghta are in the Le­in­ster fi­nal.

On Fri­day, Frank was in Sligo for his nephew’s wed­ding. His nephew is Em­lyn Mulligan, the Leitrim foot­baller, and there were many times over the years when Frank wished he could sneak him back over the county bound­ary to help Mul­li­nalaghta through some tough times. Now, on the same week­end Em­lyn is mar­ried, Frank’s sons Shane and Fran­cis play for their club — his club, their club — in a Le­in­ster fi­nal. It is, he says, a fairy­tale.

Af­ter years in the wilder­ness, Mul­li­nalaghta St Columba’s reached the Long­ford se­nior fi­nal in 2014 and lost to a fine Kil­loe team. Con­di­tioned by hard times, Frank feared the worst. He had seen other teams come from nowhere over the years to get their chance and not take it. They would dis­ap­pear again, and the years, maybe even decades, would drift by, and re­grets would soften to fond mem­o­ries of what might have been and the day they nearly won the Sean Con­nolly Cup.

But Mul­li­nalaghta didn’t dis­ap­pear, and two years later he could scarcely be­lieve it when they fi­nally won the cham­pi­onship. That night a neigh­bour looked to the heav­ens as he walked up the path to his mother’s house and said, ‘God, I’m ready, you can take me now’. It was just Mul­li­nalaghta’s third se­nior ti­tle, and a first since all the way back in 1950.

Things, though, only got bet­ter. The three-in-a-row was com­pleted in Oc­to­ber and steady pro­gres­sion in Le­in­ster over those three years has cul­mi­nated in Mul­li­nalaghta, the half-par­ish on the edge, be­com­ing the first Long­ford club to make it to the Le­in­ster fi­nal. It is David ver­sus Go­liath; Mul­li­nalaghta ver­sus Kil­macud Crokes . . . and the book­ies make David 5/1. “Three years ago,” says Frank, “if some­body had said we’d be in a Le­in­ster fi­nal I think you’d have got 1000/1.” The odds are nar­row­ing all the time.

Dur­ing this ex­tra­or­di­nary run of suc­cess, it has oc­curred to Frank that, in a way, some things never change in ru­ral Ire­land. The DNA of the last great Mul­li­nalaghta team, which reached five fi­nals in a row and won two (1948 and ’50), is strong in the cur­rent group. Frank’s sons are grand-neph­ews of the Reillys from that team, the McEl­lig­otts are con­nected to the Matthews, who also fea­tured. And the Rogers name is still there too.

Take a drive some day around the beau­ti­ful lake­lands and rolling drum­lins of the Long­ford-Ca­van bor­der and you might just stum­ble upon Mul­li­nalaghta, on the shore of Lough Gowna. On the road from Gra­nard to the vil­lage of Loch Gowna, on the north-eastern shore of the lake, you cross the Clooneen River and soon hit upon a vil­lage of sorts. There are two pubs, but only Keogh’s now opens its doors, a church, a com­mu­nity cen­tre and a farm; there’s no shop, no bank and the post of­fice closed re­cently. Round a bend and you pass the na­tional school and grave­yard be­fore a small bridge sig­nals an­other river — the Erne. From one river to the next you have trav­elled lit­tle more than three miles, but you have trav­elled the length of Mul­li­nalaghta.

“That small bridge, that’s the bor­der,” says Frank. “That is Le­in­ster and Ul­ster, Mul­li­nalaghta and Gowna, Ca­van and Long­ford.” Sea­mus Fitz­patrick, a for­mer club chair­man, reck­ons Mul­li­nalaghta “is fairly square”. Travel a mile or two in any di­rec­tion and you could be in Gowna, Mul­la­ho­ran, Abbey­lara or Gra­nard. “Our team eats in the [Piker’s] Lodge in Gowna af­ter all the games,” says Frank. “There is nowhere else. All our func­tions are in Gowna.”

And there have been more func­tions of late than any of the 440 res­i­dents could have imag­ined. Yet through it all there has been a re­sis­tance to get­ting car­ried away. It’s not the way in these parts. The mem­o­ries of al­most seven decades of hard­ship are vivid; no­body in this cor­ner of a small county will ever get too far ahead of them­selves. Ev­ery lit­tle thing is earned the hard way.

The club has come through some ex­tra­or­di­nary tough times. In one his­tory of GAA in the county, the dis­patch from Mul­li­nalaghta made for grim read­ing, hit­ting a nadir in the 1980s. “The beat­ing of a highly fan­cied Colm­cille 9pts to 5, in the first round in ’83, again with no train­ing, was the in­ter­me­di­ate per­for­mance of the eight­ies,” the club’s re­port stated. The fol­low­ing year, cham­pi­onship hopes were de­railed by a half-time dress­ing-room row, the af­ter-ef­fects of which lin­gered for sev­eral years. “Dur­ing the years of ’85, ’86, ’87 morale was at rock bot­tom with only a hand­ful of com­pet­i­tive games each year. The club made no progress in any com­pe­ti­tion ex­cept in ’86 when af­ter an easy first round cham­pi­onship draw, they found them­selves in the semi-fi­nal where they ran Colm­cille to two points. This de­spite no train­ing or prepa­ra­tion at all.”

Yet it was in those tur­bu­lent years that the seeds were sown for the club’s re­vival. In 1984, Mul­li­nalaghta and neigh­bours Abbey­lara joined forces at un­der­age to form a new club, North­ern Gaels. For years, they had strug­gled on with halfteams, en­ter­ing mostly nine-a-side competitions. It was dispir­it­ing and of lit­tle use in de­vel­op­ing play­ers, serv­ing only to feed the rot. North­ern Gaels changed ev­ery­thing. Over time, they started win­ning, and they got used to win­ning. Un­der 14, 16 and mi­nor cham­pi­onships; and a na­tional Féile ti­tle. The suc­cess trans­lated to schools, and an All-Ire­land ti­tle, and to county, with play­ers part of a Fr Man­ning Cup suc­cess and Le­in­ster mi­nor suc­cesses.

“So many play­ers fall away if they are play­ing un­der­age and they are not win­ning any­thing and then it just be­comes, ‘ah sure we never get any­where’, and they drift to other sports,” says club chair­man John Kee­gan. “North­ern Gaels seemed to be able to gel a group of play­ers that be­lieved they could beat any­thing in the county, which they did.”

“It was the cat­a­lyst, it’s what set us up,” says Frank.

The strength of some of these North­ern Gaels sides can be seen by the fact that Mul­li­nalaghta were beaten county fi­nal­ists in 2014, Abbey­lara beaten fi­nal­ists in 2015, and then for the last three years — the three-in-a-row — they have played against each other in the fi­nal. “It’s un­for­tu­nate that when it comes to se­nior ranks, that they are arch ri­vals,” John Kee­gan adds.

John’s son, also John, is on the team to­day. And se­lec­tor Paddy Brady’s son, Co­nan, trav­els home ev­ery week from Leeds, where he works as a civil en­gi­neer. “That’s an enor­mous com­mit­ment to come back here from Eng­land at his own ex­pense to play his part in the suc­cess,” says John.

Paddy chips in: “On the other side of the coin, he has three medals in his back pocket. I played until I was 40 and I’ve no se­nior medals. He’s to­tally committed, and he’s en­joy­ing it.” There’s an­other ben­e­fit too for the Bradys: “We’re see­ing him once ev­ery week now that we wouldn’t oth­er­wise.” All of the play­ers have put their lives on hold for the last three years, he says. John adds that the play­ers “travel here from Dublin, Gal­way, Lim­er­ick, Dun­dalk, Ash­bourne . . . they’re all over the place, in var­i­ous dif­fer­ent col­leges and in jobs. All those guys travel here at their own ex­pense. No­body gets trav­el­ling ex­penses be­cause we couldn’t af­ford to pay it.”

MUL­LI­NALAGHTA’S pic­turesque home is The Lau­rels, on the edge of Der­rycas­san Wood. Even this patch of ground has a story which some­how mir­rors the ad­ver­si­ties the club has over­come. It was orig­i­nally part of the Dop­ping-Hep­pen­stal Estate, and was later planted, but there was a dis­pute with the lo­cals, who sought to claim a small por­tion for use as a foot­ball field. Sea­mus says the dis­pute was set­tled defini­tively when the lo­cal priest “mo­bilised the peo­ple and in one night they pulled out about three acres . . . they pulled the trees and dumped them”. The Lau­rels had come into be­ing.

It has been painstak­ingly over the years, with dress­ing rooms, a play­ing pitch and a train­ing pitch, and a stand cur­rently un­der devel­op­ment. There is a play­ground along­side, as part of the amenity that is the woods, and a walk­ing track which is a real com­mu­nity fo­cal point.

“We tend to do things on a slow burn here in that we don’t get into debt and we don’t bite off more than we can chew,” says John. “We do things as we can af­ford them.

“We had a fundraiser here, two years ago, a lip sync and it did very well. We would be too small to take on that on our own so we did it in con­junc­tion with Bal­ly­machugh, a club in Ca­van. It worked out very well. They were pick­ing out of a dif­fer­ent group than we were and so on . . . we weren’t com­pet­ing with each other. We made about 60 grand each out of it, which was mas­sive for us. There was a lot of work in it. I’m not sure when we were propos­ing it and start­ing off that we knew the amount of work we were tak­ing on, but sure we were in it be­fore we re­alised what we were at. Ev­ery­one put their shoul­der to the wheel and it went very well.

“That was the big­gest fundraiser we had in a long, long time. That was used to pro­vide an elec­tronic score­board and we’re half-way through build­ing a stand now, and we’ll get that fin­ished there or there­abouts with­out hav­ing debt. We won’t have any money but we’ll still be debt free. That has been the motto here all the time. Over the years no­body wanted to bury the club in debt for some spec­tac­u­lar ground that we couldn’t af­ford.”

Keep­ing the club go­ing is ev­ery bit the grind you might ex­pect it to be, but it is not in their na­ture to cast en­vi­ous glances over their shoul­ders — even when it comes to to­day’s op­po­nents, Kil­macud Crokes.

“They have dif­fer­ent prob­lems than we have,” says John. “It takes a lot of man­age­ment and a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tional skills to man­age the an­i­mal that Kil­macud Crokes are — it takes an aw­ful lot of peo­ple with very good heads to keep the show on the road. We are at the op­po­site end of that scale — we can’t even con­tem­plate the coaches, and the un­der­age struc­tures and what have you that they have. We’ll never see that.

“The big­gest prob­lem, if that’s the word for it, that we face is keep­ing the guys that we have, the 30 peo­ple we have on the panel, keep­ing them here. Em­i­gra­tion is an is­sue; lack of em­ploy­ment is an is­sue . . . all of these things cre­ate is­sues. If we were to lose two or three of our play­ers, this team wouldn’t be what it is. We are very much de­pen­dant on the com­mit­ment of these guys to get back here ev­ery week.”

In the home dress­ing room at The Lau­rels, there’s a team pho­to­graph blown up and taped to the wall. In this pic­ture, lies the se­cret of this side’s suc­cess. Paddy points to it, and says: “You can see that ev­ery young lad in the par­ish, I think, apart from two, that’s be­tween the ages of 18 and, I don’t know what the old­est man there is, thirty-some­thing, is there in that pic­ture.”

They are, he says, a unit. They have got used to win­ning and em­braced it. They are dif­fi­cult to beat. And in man­ager Mickey Gra­ham they seem to have the per­fect foil for their tal­ent and am­bi­tion. “He has in­stilled self-be­lief and con­fi­dence into them . . . We are not de­pend­ing on one or two. You look at [the game] against Rhode, prob­a­bly our three top for­wards didn’t score, we’re not de­pend­ing on one man to carry the can. To­day some­body else will step up; the next day some­body else will step up. They are a nice bal­anced unit.

“Be­ing in­volved with them, and look­ing for­ward to the game, I see that for us it’s just an­other game. It’s the next game in this com­pe­ti­tion. Of course you ex­pect Kil­macud, with their house­hold names, to be strong, but you don’t fear it. The game is there to be won. That’s the way I see it.”

This group of play­ers has been de­ter­mined to break free from the chains of the past, not just for Mul­li­nalaghta but for Long­ford foot­ball. The mind­set is dif­fer­ent. They don’t look on them­selves as just be­ing from a small cor­ner of a small county. They have learned to­gether to see them­selves as more than that. They will take that with them to Tul­lam­ore to­day, and what­ever will be, will be.

“It’s a mam­moth task for them,” says John. “It’s a moun­tain for them to climb. But we’re aware if they per­form as they can they’ll give plenty of com­pe­ti­tion to Kil­macud. We recog­nise that Kil­macud is a big club, prob­a­bly one of the big­gest in Le­in­ster, while we’re at the other end of the scale, one of the small­est. But at the end of the day it’s 15 ver­sus 15 when you go out there and we’re de­lighted to be there and de­lighted to be part of this.

“It’s an enor­mous oc­ca­sion for us, and for the county. It’s the first time the county has been in a se­nior Le­in­ster fi­nal. Of course we are proud of them, of course we wish them well, but if they don’t suc­ceed there’s no shame be­cause they owe noth­ing to Mul­li­nalaghta foot­ball, they owe noth­ing to Long­ford foot­ball. It’s a win-win.”

No mat­ter what hap­pens, they will gather back in Mul­li­nalaghta tonight and savour ev­ery mo­ment. Ei­ther way, they are not fin­ished yet.

“We are proud of them; I am proud of them,” says Frank.

Yet through it all there has been a re­sis­tance to get­ting car­ried away

‘We can’t even con­tem­plate the coaches and the struc­tures that they have’

Mul­li­nalaghta man­ager Mickey Gra­ham and cap­tain Shane Mulligan

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