Listening to the match between Wexford and Kilkenny last weekend, it was an absolute pleasure to listen to John Mullane’s analysis and his general co-commentary on RTÉ radio, writes Paul Rouse.
In her brilliant novel Gilead — one of the best books written in this new millennium — Marilynne Robinson imagines that she is the Reverend John Ames writing a letter as he nears the end of his life to his young son.
The Reverend Ames has been given a TV by his congregation as a mark of respect, so that he can watch baseball, a game he adores.
He watches the baseball and likes it, but notes that he prefers to listen to matches on the radio. TV, he believes, ‘seems quite two-dimensional beside radio’.
Listening to the match between Wexford and Kilkenny on the radio last weekend brought the vivid images evoked in Robinson’s book to mind. More precisely, it was an absolute pleasure to listen to John Mullane’s analysis and his general co-commentary on RTÉ radio.
More than anything else, Mullane was able to convey the emotion of the occasion, the joy of what it meant for Wexford people to throw off the disappointments of a decade and defeat Kilkenny.
When the final whistle had been blown and Wexford people had gone stone crazy in a way that only a delayed release from captivity can allow, Mullane was in his element: ‘The Wexicans are going bonkers! Dancing at the crossroads!’
It wasn’t just the words — in fact, it wasn’t really the words at all — it was the pitch of his voice, the feeling that flowed from it. The way he speaks about hurling, the passion he conveys, the way his excitement brings you inside a game is a wonderful thing. At the core of this is a love of hurling that you just can’t fake. And complementary to that love is a knowledge of the game, of players and of the flow of the play.
The thing is, when he was heading towards his peak as a player a decade ago, it’s hard to think of another hurler who drew as much adverse attention from opposition supporters as John Mullane.
Supporters abusing players is not news — but the abuse thrown at John Mullane during certain matches was a disgrace. Partly it was because he was so good, partly because he was such a distinctive figure on the field, but mostly it was because of the sense that because he played with such emotion, he could be rattled.
For example, when Waterford played Offaly in the first round of the qualifiers in Carlow in June 2005, the range of insults thrown was epic. Some of it was just a bit of slagging and was fairly funny, but more of it was vicious and mindless.
The match was played late on a Saturday evening and a good few in the crowd were good and spongy before they got to the game.
Standing on the seats down at the end of the ground, a few lads starting roaring for the Offaly backs to let Mullane have it.
And this was before the ball was even thrown in.
As the insults flew around him, Mullane just stood on the 14-yard line, tight up against the sideline, and took it all. Maybe he was just feeding off the words, storing it all up to throw back in their faces once the game started. Or maybe, and most likely, he was just used to it, even if there are some things you should never have to get used to. Either ways, he never reacted.
Everyone down in Mullane’s corner of the field was waiting for the first ball to come in, waiting for the cleaving to start. But what happened was classic. A high ball falling from the sky, swinging timber, a white arm in the air, ball in hand, two steps off his right, shoots off his left. Mullane’s first point. And, then, a few minutes later, his second.
By half-time, he had Offaly beaten, and by full-time, had tortured a succession of markers, scoring points, winning frees, making passes. After a few of his finer scores, he came out the field strutting around like a cock pheasant, shaking his jersey at the crowd, shaking his fist in the air. As indulgences go, it was the least he deserved. He ended the game with eight points from play, despite twice being forced from the field with head wounds, the blood flowing freely down the side of his face. All told, it was a triumphant display of courage, skill and restraint – he was the best player on the field by a considerable distance.
The previous summer, his final act in a Waterford jersey had been an interview in front of the Old Stand in Thurles, for the Six-One news on RTÉ, almost immediately after the final whistle for the Munster final.
Tony O’Donoghue put a microphone in front of him and the ensuing interview was not easy viewing, even if it was compelling. Mullane had been sent off early in the second half for an off-the-ball lash at a Cork corner-back.
He had been rightly sent off. But perhaps it was a strike born of years of frustration with corner-backs as a species. They are a lamentable collection of individuals! They believe their purpose on this planet is to frustrate, to annoy, to deny, to interfere, and, ultimately, to destroy. They are the children who kicked over any sandcastles they found on a beach. Then kicked the sand into any eyes they could find. And walked away laughing.
Years later, they’ve never managed to conquer that basic instinct, even as they grow into adults. It manifests itself every time they take the field (despite all this talk of corner-backs playing more ball now than ever before). And John Mullane did what all corner-forwards have done at one time or another — he lashed out, was unlucky enough to be caught and he paid the price.
He could — probably should — have cost Waterford the match that day against Cork, but in a fraught, pulsating second half, Waterford showed the steel and the composure that had sometimes evaded them. Through it all, sitting on the sidelines, Mullane had tormented himself for getting put off. He knew he had made a mistake and there he was on national television, saying how much he loved Waterford, how badly he felt for letting the people of Waterford down. It was raw, emotional and absolutely honest.
When he was suspended for the semi-final against Kilkenny, it was a blow from which Waterford never seemed likely to recover. And they didn’t.
But even then he showed class. These were years when GAA players ran to the High Courts to get suspensions overturned. Mullane understood his crime and took his punishment. He didn’t look for someone else to blame.
Now, John Mullane has no All-Ireland senior hurling medal. Presumably he wishes he had one and he certainly came close enough with Waterford. The medal doesn’t really matter, though — the joy he gave as a player and the passions he now stirs as a commentator give him a connection to the game that goes beyond victory or defeat. Best of all, he is free from the constraints of those All-Ireland winners who find themselves broadcasting from the past, talking too often about the way that they once won, and applying the logic of their own success to the current experience of others. John Mullane gets it wrong, of course, and says things that you could only disagree with, but there is no denying he is genuine, knowledgeable and a pleasure to hear on the radio.
And oh to hear him commentate on a Waterford victory over Kilkenny!
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved