David v Go­liath: Mul­li­nalaghta ready

Tiny Long­ford club face the gi­ants of Kil­macud Crokes in Sun­day’s fi­nal

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan:

Kil­macud Crokes v Mul­li­nalaghta O’Con­nor Park, to­mor­row, 1.30pm Live on TG4

The lo­cal pitch has been called The Lau­rels for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber. It’s a pleas­ant name with a prac­ti­cal ex­pla­na­tion. The bank of lau­rel trees across one end of the field dou­bled as a chang­ing room for decades. John Kee­gan, Mul­li­nalaghta’s chair­man, re­mem­bers the re­al­i­ties of games there be­fore the dress­ing room fa­cil­i­ties were built in the 1980s. “If you had a wet day, the clothes you took off were as wet as what you were wear­ing. So it was fairly prim­i­tive at that time.”

Mul­li­nalaghta are old foot­ball stock in Long­ford, with se­nior county cham­pi­onship ti­tles dat­ing back to 1948 and 1950. But the place is also a ge­o­graph­i­cal cu­rios­ity, for­merly part of the parish of Colm­cille which was re­struc­tured so that the east side was con­signed to Lough Gowna, in Co Ca­van while Mul­li­nalaghta stayed in Long­ford.

“We ended up as a half parish,” says Kee­gan. For GAA peo­ple in the lo­cal­ity, it meant two rad­i­cally dif­fer­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Gowna was part of Ca­van’s rich Ul­ster lin­eage and the club it­self be­came a force in the 1990s and early 2000s, with Ea­mon Cole­man among their coaches as six county cham­pi­onships were ac­cu­mu­lated. “There was a time,” Kee­gan says, “when Gowna would have been the envy of ev­ery­one in this part of the world. But like all ru­ral clubs, that faded af­ter a while. They are com­ing back now with some good new teams.”

Golden years

These past few years, how­ever, have been Mul­li­nalaghta’s golden pe­riod. Af­ter win­ning noth­ing since 1950, they have some­how bagged three Long­ford ti­tles in a row and now face Kil­macud Crokes in to­mor­row’s Le­in­ster fi­nal. It is, lit­er­ally, a fan­tas­tic story. But it’s no fairytale. It has come about through re­source­ful­ness and nim­ble think­ing and a re­fusal to ac­cept a pre-de­ter­mined role.

Tired of field­ing ju­ve­nile teams in­ca­pable of com­pet­ing with teams from Slash­ers or Clongish, the neigh­bour­ing clubs of Mul­li­nalaghta and Abbey­lara pooled their re­sources into an un­der­age club called North­ern Gaels. They got them play­ing seven-a-side games when there weren’t enough num­bers.

“It was a bril­liant com­pe­ti­tion be­cause it meant that ev­ery­one got a lot of touches,” ex­plains Dan McEl­lig­ott, who has five sons in the squad to­mor­row. “All we could do was to get them out play­ing foot­ball.”

It didn’t lead to au­to­matic suc­cess on the score­board. There were years when win­ning was some­thing the other crowd did. McEl­lig­ott re­mem­bers one kid in sixth class, Brian Buck­ley, march­ing into the dress­ing room one day, bag on his shoul­der, brac­ing him­self for an­other long day on the pitch. “Awwh Jay­sus,” he said to no­body in par­tic­u­lar. “If only we could win one bloody match.”

The phrase bounced around McEl­lig­ott’s mind for years. It was a rea­son­able am­bi­tion. And even­tu­ally, it started to hap­pen. McEl­lig­ott is an out-and-out Kerry man trans­ported to the mid­lands first to work as a psy­chi­atric nurse who stayed be­cause his wife, Bernie, was from Mul­li­nalaghta. McEl­lig­ott found a place just as im­mersed in Gaelic foot­ball as his own patch in Kerry, Bal­ly­ma­cel­lig­ott. But in Kerry, the em­pha­sis was al­ways on the next sea­son: the next achieve­ment. The ref­er­ences in Mul­li­nalaghta to the cham­pi­onship side of 1950 were fre­quent and rev­er­en­tial.

“They were nearly burned with his­tory. They were lis­ten­ing to sto­ries about the ‘48 and ‘50. It was al­most like Se­tanta and Fionn Mac Cumhaill: they we re lovely to hear but they didn’t res­onate as some­thing real.”

With coaches like John Reilly, they be­gan to look for­ward again. The North­ern Gaels al­liance was vi­tal for giv­ing young­sters con­fi­dence and a taste of win­ning. Seven of to­mor­row’s side were on the Gaels team that won the All-Ire­land Féile in Derry in 2010. James Car­roll, a teacher in Cnoc Mhuire in Gra­nard where the ma­jor­ity of Mullinlaghta stu­dents at­tended sec­ondary school, had be­gun to give se­ri­ous af­ter-school hours coach­ing. The 2013 side won the All-Ire­land vo­ca­tional fi­nal in 2013. You could feel the mo­men­tum among the young play­ers from Mul­li­nalaghta. Then, in 2014, the club reached a Long­ford se­nior fi­nal against Kil­loe St Em­mets.

“And lost it,” says Kee­gan. “It was in­ex­pe­ri­ence. It was a par­tic­u­larly windy day and we tried to play foot­ball into a gale rather than just de­fend and went in eight points down. The other team just played de­fen­sively in the sec­ond half and we couldn’t bridge it.”

When Kee­gan heard that Mickey Gra­ham was step­ping down af­ter spend­ing two years man­ag­ing Clongish, he got in touch. They met for a cup of cof­fee in Ca­van town. Gra­ham hadn’t planned on fur­ther man­age­ment in Long­ford but knew of Mul­li­nalaghta’s progress and agreed to take up the va­cant se­nior man­age­ment po­si­tion. For three suc­ces­sive years, they’ve been the best team in Long­ford. Gra­ham has been the per­fect fit for where the club and team is at.

‘Driv­ing and lead­ing’

“He is a very good peo­ple man­ager,” says Kee­gan. “Fel­las of a cer­tain age some­times need a bit of driv­ing and lead­ing. Mickey never raises his voice but ev­ery­one knows who the boss is. That’s a great art. He brings peo­ple with him. He has in­stilled, in my view two things: dis­ci­pline and con­fi­dence. If they spill a goal against the run of play, there is no panic or giv­ing out. Just: win the next ball.”

It’s hard to mea­sure the sense of lo­cal pride and en­ergy gen­er­ated by the suc­cess. In one way, it’s com­pletely locked into club pride and in an­other, it has noth­ing to do with it. Most of the play­ers live and work else­where. The car lights ap­pear at The Lau­rels each Wed­nes­day night when the play­ers ar­rive from Dublin, Gal­way, Lim­er­ick, Dun­dalk.

The play­ers travel at their own ex­pense. It would be eas­ier to trans­fer, to sign with a big ur­ban club. But no. “Peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate that ef­fort,” Kee­gan says. They held a small fundraiser ■

The Mul­li­nalaghta team take to the pitch. It’s hard to mea­sure the sense of lo­cal pride and en­ergy gen­er­ated by their suc­cess.

last Sun­day: just a 5km walk posted on Face­book. It rained cats and dogs. Still, they had two and a half grand at the end of it.

“That, to us, is ma­jor money. We don’t have a main street with shops to get spon­sors. We are pulling from the same peo­ple all the time.”

Mak­ing sounds

And when did the coun­try hear about Mul­l­li­nalaghta be­fore its foot­ball team be­gan mak­ing sounds? Two months ago, the lo­cal post of­fice closed. They made a pre­sen­ta­tion to the post mas­ter and ac­cepted that the com­mu­nity had lost one more so­cial out­let. It con­firmed a gen­eral feel­ing. “Peo­ple here be­lieve that ru­ral Ire­land is be­ing for­got­ten and that we don’t mat­ter to the peo­ple in Dublin,” says Kee­gan.

“And we don’t. The prob­lem is that we don’t have any in­dus­try and don’t have any­one fight­ing for in­dus­try. We have no TD in the Dail rep­re­sent­ing Long­ford. I am sure the lads in West­meath would say they are work­ing fer­vently but if you look at the level of em­ploy­ment in Athlone and Mullingar com­pared to Long­ford, it speaks for it­self. Cen­ter Parks is the only good news story Long­ford has had in a long time. The boom pe­riod hasn’t hap­pened here. There’s prob­a­bly not 10 houses be­ing built in the county here. Com­pare that to what is hap­pen­ing in Na­van or Naas or any of the satel­lite towns.”

There are 834 af­fil­i­ated GAA clubs in Le­in­ster. Al­most all of them are big­ger than Mul­li­nalaghta. In the peck­ing or­der, they should be un­seen and un­heard. And yet here they are: Mul­li­nalaghta, pop 440, the Long­ford cham­pi­ons, the half-parish, one of the last two teams stand­ing in the prov­ince.

In the peck­ing or­der, they should be un­seen and un­heard. And yet here they are: pop 440, Long­ford cham­pi­ons, the half-parish, one of the last two teams stand­ing in the prov­ince

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