Invited to explain why the word “Chief” sown into the shoulder of his Portlaoise training top, the captain replied: “That is one of the lads that passed away two years ago. That is just a memorial thing that we have on our tops, that’s all.”
Never forgotten, Peter McNulty, Chief or Chicken as he was also known to his team-mates, remains a source of inspiration to this Portlaoise group. Two weeks after his death in October 2010, then-captain Michael Nolan dedicated their fourth consecutive county title to him. “I know you were looking down on us today,” he said in his acceptance speech.
While it remains a sensitive subject for McNulty’s team-mates (Mulligan prefers to keep the team’s thoughts about their late colleague in-house), his spirit continues to inspire “The Town”.
The 25-year-old was intrinsically linked to their successes during the 2000s. In 2005, the then teenager’s free-taking was crucial in seeing off Crossmaglen in an All-Ireland semi-final. That season, backed up by a provincial U21 title, Mick O’Dwyer called the ciotóg corner forward into his senior panel.
McNulty’s exploits in that win over Crossmaglen, though, act as a reminder of just how much water has past under the bridge since Portlaoise were challenging for All-Ireland honours. Prior to this year, their return for five county titles in a row had been just one Leinster final appearance, which they won two years ago.
“Maybe we have underachieved but we are just totally focused on Sunday and we won’t be looking back at the past,” said Mulligan.
Although, last year’s Leinster semi-final defeat to St Brigid’s certainly hurt them. “We thought that we left it behind us. It was very disappointing at the time and we had put in a lot of hard work, hopefully we can learn from than and drive it on.”
The time they broke out of Leinster in late 2009 was followed by an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilmurry-Ibrickane. “What happened back then is past tense. It didn’t work out for us on those days.”
McNulty’s death was certainly the most difficult but Portlaoise’s list of off-field issues has been sizeable. There was Colm Parkinson’s much-publicised falling out with officials in the club.
“Woolly made his own decision,” said a diplomatic Mulligan. “There are no hard feelings in our club. Woolly moved away and we drove on. We can only work with what we have up at training.”
Of course, the cloud that has hung over the club these last three years has been the €6.5 million debt they’ve been saddled due to a collapsed development deal.
The senior side’s domination of the county throughout such financially distressing times for the club is a testament to the players. But then, they themselves feel they owe others for keeping the show going.
“There are a lot of people in the club who do a lot of unseen work. Our work on the pitch is always seen but there is an awful lot of work done to keep the club going on a day-to-day basis and those people have to be thanked as well.
“Maybe if we can get a win on Sunday we can make all that work that has been going on worthwhile.”
Among the players, there are differences in opinion about the direction of Laois football at inter-county level but Portlaoise remains the constant. Craig Rogers is inter-county material but has elected not to make himself available to Justin McNulty, preferring the brand of football the club are playing to the more defensive style espoused by the Armagh native.
“We are all very close friends on the team,” insisted full-back Mulligan.
“We have had a few years where we have had success, winning county titles and that brings a great bond itself to the team.
“Craig did not go into the county [panel] and that is his own decision. It is a huge commitment and it is great to have him at training with us when the other boys are away with the county, so that drives it on for us. We are delighted with that.”
Rogers’ faith in Portlaoise’s football is understandable on watching them plot an impressive path through county and province to tomorrow’s final.
“The football we are playing is good at the moment but it will all come down to Sunday,” maintained the captain. “We have a huge task ahead. “Ballymun play a great style of football as well, they are all attacking and look to counter-attack. We know that and we’ll have to be the same.”