FOOTBALL according to Gary Lineker, is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans always win.
The gag touches on the eternal truth that, however much the trappings might change, the essence of the sport remains the same. Yet, the past in football, as in life, can also seem like a very different country, especially in the company of a guide as forthright and entertaining as Paddy Mulligan.
Paddy, who turns 70 on his saintly namesake's day on Tuesday, starred for Shamrock Rovers at the height of their success in the 1960s, turned out for Chelsea when they were one of English football's most glamorous sides in the ‘70s and earned 50 caps for Ireland in a period when, though the big breakthrough continued to elude the national side, there were still some memorable days and nights when it felt like they could be a match for almost anyone.
Now, as he watches his old club in west London push for another Premier League title in what, from the perspective of his playing days, must seem like an era of almost unimaginable sophistication and excess in the sport, the Dubliner is phlegmatic about it all.
“Money has certainly changed the game,” he concedes, “but what I would say to the modern player is: go and earn as much as you can. Now, at the top end, I do happen to think that paying three hundred thousand a week to a player is immoral, it's crazy stuff. But I'm very lucky. I would never envy those lads because, in my mind, I had the best time in the era that I played in.
“And that's because of the camaraderie with the people that I played with. I mean, the lads that I played with for Shamrock Rovers in the 60s – we're still pals. From Chelsea, I'd still be in touch with lads like Bobby Tambling, John Hollins and Peter Bonetti. And the lads from the Irish team as well. And I wouldn't change any of it because, for all the money the players have now, they didn't have the times that we had.”
Born in Drumcondra in 1945, Paddy Mulligan was the only child of parents who both worked as nurses in St Brendan’s in Grangegorman, the long hours they put in as they saved up to buy their own home meaning that, as a youngster, Paddy also spent a lot of time with his grandparents and extended family in Tuam, an exposure to the west which has left the Dubliner with a life-long interest in Galway hurling and gaelic football.
But it was back in the capital, as the family settled into a new home in Beaumont, that he developed his passion for soccer, cutting his competitive teeth in the city's famous but unforgiving street leagues of the 1950s. “I was 12 and sometimes you'd be playing against men of 35 or even 40,” he says. “A great way to toughen you up because they were not going to pull out of tackles. And you couldn't show any sign of weakness, nobody wanted to be called a coward”.
Honing his talents at Dublin's celebrated football nursery, Home Farm, he was spotted by Bohemians and selected to make his League of Ireland debut against Drumcondra in 1963. But he didn’t during a brief spell at Dalymount Park and was back playing for Home Farm when, in December of that year, Shamrock Rovers came calling.
“I signed the contract at four pounds a week, in the back of (owner) Joe Cunningham’s Jaguar car,” Paddy recalls. “And they handed this 17-year-old £500 in an envelope in cash. This was my signing on fee. Unbelievable. No agents in those days (laughs). Was it the norm? I don’t know. You never discussed what other people got in those days. You never knew and you didn’t want to know. But I certainly thought it was an awful lot of money to give to me. But I wasn’t daft. I wasn’t going to refuse it. And the main reason I wasn’t refusing it, was that I wanted to give the money to my mum so she could stop working.”
Not that, as a rising semi-pro, he was left short himself.
“I was earning £3 pounds a week in the Irish National Insurance Company, where I worked in the accountancy department, and I was earning £4 a week playing football for Rovers,” he explains. “And I had money left at the end of the week. It was incredible.”
Senior international recognition arrived in 1966 when he was called up to the Irish squad for a week-long trip to play friendlies in Austria and Belgium. Thrilled beyond measure, he went to his employers to tell them the good news and ask for a week's leave in order to make the trip – only to be stunned by the frosty response.
“They told me I couldn’t have the time off,” he says, the shock still evident in his voice nearly forty years on. “Here I am, I'm going to be making my debut for Ireland – and they’re saying no. I spoke to the union rep and he couldn't believe it. He said, 'you’re working for an Irish company and you’re representing your country – there’s no contest, just go'.”
And so he did but, immediately upon his return, he was hauled up before the board of directors. “The inquisition,” he calls it, noting that their parting shot was an ominous 'you won’t do that again'. “Representing your country – to me it was the greatest honour,” he reflects. “But that was soccer in Ireland in those days. The poor relation.”
Mulligan enjoyed huge success with the Rovers team which would become immortalised as the six-in-row cup winners of the 1960s. He picked up four medals in that incomparable run but missed out on arguably the most celebrated victory of the lot, the 3-0 vanquishing of league kingpins Waterford in 1968, when the official attendance was given as 39,500 but the true figure was reckoned to be closer to 45,000 after the gates were breached at Dalymount Park.
Paddy had a good reason for missing the occasion however – he was in the throes of making his debut as a professional footballer, albeit in the unlikely setting of the United States.
The previous year, he'd already had his first brief taste of life as a trans-Atlantic footballer in the close season after the 1967 FAI Cup win over Pats, when the Milltown club had been invited across to play as the 'Boston Rovers' in a seven-week-long tournament designed to promote the game in the States. Glentoran, Sunderland and clubs from South America were among others participating in a competition which was played in cities all across the States.
Unfortunately for Mulligan, there were two major downsides to the high excitement of his first visit to America – one, he picked up a knee injury of such severity that it threatened to curtail his career and, two, the trip actually cost him his full-time job on civvy street. Already under a warning for daring to take time off to play for his country, Paddy pretty much knew before he even asked that his request for three weeks' leave of absence to go with the month's holiday he was due, would be refused. When he went anyway, he knew his job would not be there when he got back.
In the longer-term, however, the injury he picked up in America looked like it might have even more serious consequences. Back home in Dublin, he had the kneecap scraped in the Pembroke Clinic where he was told by the medics that he might “get away with it for two years at most”. But Mulligan wasn't to be deterred.
“If someone says to me that I can’t do something, then I’ll try and prove them wrong,” he says so, once back training with Rovers, he devised his own extra-curricular recovery programme which involved hiking up at the Hellfire Club in the Dublin mountains and pounding the sand dunes out at Portmarnock in the depths of winter.
“That was my rehab,” he observes with a smile, “how times have changed.” (From those rough and ready days before the advent of sports science, he also offers a fond portrait of legendary Hoops physio Billy Lord: “A wonderful, wonderful man, with his sponge, massaging the wrong leg and dropping cigarette ash on your knee - sure he nearly set himself ablaze one night in Boston with a cigarette in the bed”).
Mulligan's Rovers return didn't last too long: after he played against Shelbourne at Milltown in December, 1967, it was announced that, as a result of his earlier exposure in the States, he would be heading back across the Atlantic in March, this time to take up an offer of full-time football with a brand new club in the North American Soccer League, the Boston Beacons.
“I'd discussed it with my Dad – we'd lost my mother to cancer in '65 – and he backed me on it,” he explains. “I was committed to football by then and my thinking was that I'd give it at least a year. At that stage I wanted to taste professional football and there was nothing happening across in England.”
So off he went but, Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan, the Boston Beacons going belly-up at the end of their very first season.
On his return to Dublin, his reputation as one of the best full-backs in the country was soon attracting offers from Cork Celtic and Dundalk. “But Rovers was where my heart was and where there were big games every week,” he explains, which is how he ended up back in green and white for the Hoops' sixth and final successive Cup triumph when they beat Cork Celtic 4-1 in a replay at Dalymount in 1969.
The following season, as Paddy Mulligan was warming up on the pitch before a game against Waterford in Kilcohan Park, he was approached by a Rovers official with the news that Chelsea had come in for him. “Football directors,” he chuckles, “they have a wonderful sense of timing.”
Having already rejected overtures from Everton – in part, he complains, because he'd been left waiting outside Harry Catterick's office for 45 minutes before the manager deigned see him – Mulligan was uncompromising about his terms and conditions when it came to negotiating with the famous west London club then managed by Dave Sexton. And what he wanted, he decided, was a generous £80 a week plus a £5,000 signing-on fee.
How had he hit on those figures?
“I don't know, they just came into my head,” he says, laughing heartily at his chutzpah. “Maybe I worked for Anglo Irish in another life!”
But what was even more remarkable was that Chelsea actually improved the terms of the deal.
“I was shocked when I discovered I was one of the highest paid players at Chelsea,” says Paddy. “I was on more than Peter Osgood! He was on 60 and I was on 80. The only advice I'd got was from Liam Tuohy and his advice had been was that I was nuts to be asking for that kind of money. In the end, Rovers got £17,500, a good fee in '69, and the deal was done in twenty minutes - 80 a week, 20 an appearance, 40 a point and a 5,000 signing-on fee. And then Dave Sexton said, 'are Shamrock Rovers looking after you?’ 'No'. 'So maybe you should have another 2,000 then'. And so I ended up with 7,000. When I told Tuohy that, he nearly collapsed.”
Mulligan wryly describes his debut in the English First Division as “a two-minute cameo against Manchester City when I came on as a sub at the Bridge, the highlight being a telling back pass to Peter Bonetti which, of course, he was able to pick up in those days.”
His full debut followed against Derby County at the Baseball Ground, the Dubliner now working his way into one of the most famous English sides of the 70s, with Osgood ('Isgood') upfront, Charlie Cooke wowing them on the wing, John Hollins pulling the strings in midfield, Ron 'Chopper' Harris taking no prisoners at the back – alongside Mulligan's fellow Irish international John Dempsey - and Peter 'The Cat' Bonetti living up to his nickname with his agility between the sticks.
Unfortunately, Mulligan didn't make it onto the field for the epic FA Cup Final of 1970 when, having drawn 2-2 with Leeds United at Wembley, Chelsea went on to beat the celebrated team of Giles, Bremner, Gray, Clarke, Hunter and one Jack Charlton, 2-1 in a replay at Old Trafford.
“I'd only been there about four or five months and I think Dave Sexton thought I was still too inexperienced,” says Paddy. “So he went with David Webb at right-back for the first game but when Webby got a chasing from Eddie Gray, the manager put him back to centre-half for the replay and put Harris in at right- back - to kick Eddie Gray up in the air.”
And it worked, with Webb actually scoring the late winner when he went up for a corner. The two games, the first played on a bog of a Wembley pitch which had still not recovered from the Horse Of The Year Show, are regarded as emblematic of an era when dazzling talent and raw brutality were familiar bedfellows in English football. And there was no shortage of the latter in two torrid affairs in London and Manchester, the southern boys determined to show they were no softies up against the hard men from the north.
“After that, Leeds and Chelsea hated each other,” is how this Irish Blue remembers the rivalry. “The following October we played Leeds at the Bridge in a nil-all draw and I remember that as one of the most vicious games I've ever played in. There's winner takes all and winner takes all but this just took the biscuit. And yet there were no sendings off. We used to get away with murder in those days.”
(For the record, there had been just one booking, for Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson, in the Cup Final replay, but when Premier League referee David Elleray reviewed the game in 1997, he determined that he would have handed out six red cards and twenty yellows!).
A badly torn hamstring ate into Mulligan's football the following season but he was back in the Chelsea team in time to play a part in the club's European Cup Winners Cup triumph in 1971 as, again with the benefit of a replay, Chelsea got the better of Spanish aristocrats Real Madrid in Athens, Paddy having come off the bench in a 1-1 draw in the first game.
Not for the first time as he remembers the way football used to be, Mulligan is acutely conscious of how different things are today.
“The first game was on a Wednesday night – with extra time, as well - and the replay was on the Friday,” he notes. “And you look at them now, van Gaal moaning about this, that and the other. So we stayed in Athens and, of course, the lads went out on the tear on the Wednesday night. Except that Wednesday night continued on to Thursday. Harris, who wasn't drinking, and Osgood had words over dinner. It was just chaotic. It's beyond me how we won that Cup Winners' Cup, it's beyond me. There's really no logic in football and if you do ever make some sense of it, give me a shout.”
Paddy Mulligan made 58 appearances in three years at Chelsea and leaving the club prematurely he now describes as “the biggest mistake in my football career”. In 1972, he was told that Crystal Palace had come in with an offer of £75,000 for him and, even though he felt he'd had a good season at the Bridge, he had always harboured a suspicion that, as they say in the game, Sexton didn't really fancy him. Chelsea, he maintains, made it clear that he could stay if he liked but, in something of a state of shock, he figured that if he wasn't really wanted by the manager then he'd be better off moving on.
“So I went to Palace and I knew as soon as I walked in the gates what a mistake I had made,” he says. “Big John 'Yogi Bear' Hughes, who’d come down from Celtic, was there and, to compound my fear, he comes up to me and says, 'what's a good player like you doing here? Welcome to Selhurst Park'.”
Paddy would spend three seasons with Palace and although there were high points – not least a famous 5-0 thrashing of Manchester United in which Mulligan scored twice - he could never shake off an awareness that, in terms of quality, it was a step down from Stamford Bridge.
“You weren't going to find a John Hollins in midfield at Selhurst Park,” is how he puts in now. “With all due respect to Palace – there were some very fine people there - it was just that, for me, it was totally the wrong move.” (Among the fine people he did play with at Palace was Chelsea legend Bobby Tambling who, upon the Dubliner's recommendation, relocated to Ireland where he won the league with Cork Celtic and made a home for himself in Crosshaven).
Happily, Mulligan's playing career in England would still finish on a high, as in 1975 he became John Giles' first signing at West Brom where he was then joined by fellow Irishmen Mick Martin and Ray Treacy, around the same as a highly rated young 'un by the name of Bryan Robson was coming through.
“It was absolutely brilliant at West Brom,” Paddy enthuses. “We got promoted in the first season and there was wonderful camaraderie. Giles knew what he was doing.”
Ireland might have had to wait until Jack Charlton's arrival in the mid-eighties before the country finally made its international breakthrough but, playing alongside and under Giles in the green shirt, gave Mulligan some of the most cherished moments of his 50-cap career.
“The game against the French in '77 at Lansdowne, when he won 1-0, that wasn't bad,” he smiles. “But '74 at Dalymount when we beat the Soviet Union 3-0, that was definitely a stand-out one. We had Giles in midfield with a young man by the name of Liam Brady beside him making his debut, Steve Heighway on the left and Don Givens getting a hat-trick.
“It was a very, very good team but, in those days, we were very short on substitutes. If anyone got injured, one of the important players, it really cost us back then. I remember when Liam Tuohy, one of the most knowledgeable men about the game, was manager, we played in Moscow in 1973. We were playing really well and at half-time – with the score nil-nil - it was looking like we could win this away from home. Both then Giles and Terry Conroy both went off injured and we ended up getting beaten 1-0. Not having anywhere near enough a big squad, if we lost big players we were in trouble straight away.”
Paddy Mulligan’s swansong as a player was back with his beloved Shamrock Rovers in 1980 and, after he hung up his boots, he took to the road again, spending a couple of seasons working as an assistant manager at Panathinaikos in Greece before returning home to manage Galway United and Shelbourne. (His ambitions to manage Ireland, as an accompanying panel explains, were thwarted in bizarre circumstances).
These days he works as a security man with a Dublin company but keeps up his football profile with appearances as a pundit on television and radio.
“You'll never find something to replace football in my eyes,” he reflects. “I think I'm very lucky in that I have an interest in many sports and I love watching Ireland play. I love Galway hurling and football. I love the Irish rugby team. Of course, you miss playing football but then your body tells you when it's time to stop. I got away with it for a number of years, twelve or thirteen, after being given only two years to play. So, when I got away with that, I said to myself, 'don't push your luck too far'.
“Now, it's always difficult to find a niche for yourself in private life after retirement because all you've known is football. And it was difficult to go and get jobs and be happy in what you were doing. So that took a while. But I'm very happy in my life now. And happy with my former life.
“Even with the mistakes I made, I wouldn't change it for anything."