More than just a mug's game

Picture: Justin Kernoghan

He’s changed. Every so often, working in the bar, he realises that.

By rule he doesn’t drink in Mulligan’s. People thought that it would be a disaster, he’d be his own best customer. He’s there to run the bar, not drink in it. In other places in another time he wrecked some pub property. Not now, not in Mulligan’s. “I take great pride in it. I did the joinery in here myself. I have too much respect for it. The days of getting into scrapes are behind me, I think.”

There was a time when he’d get into a good few jousts. His new book starts with him waking up in a jail cell the morning after Tyrone were beaten by Down in the 2008 Ulster championship. He’d been thrown into that jail cell because a few hours earlier he had been thrown out of a nightclub. Later that summer, Tyrone would win a third All-Ireland. Mulligan was part of it. For some reason Mickey Harte never threw him out.

“I’d have told me to go away to feck anyway,” Owen Mulligan smiles ruefully. “Mickey kept serious faith in me, probably because he knew on the field I’d give it my all and could deliver for him on big days in Clones and Croke Park, but he could easily have said I wasn’t worth the bother. I’m in business and if somebody is not doing it and messing around, I’ve had to say to them, ‘Look, it’s not working out, it’s best you finish up here’.” And sometimes too he’s had to bar people from the bar. That’s right; the poacher has turned gamekeeper. The irony of it hasn’t been lost on him, or some of those rowdy customers.

“People will remind you while you’re putting them out, ‘What? Ah come on, Mugsy! You were no angel yourself!’ They’re entitled to say it. I laugh, ‘I know, but hey boys, you can wise up tonight and come back tomorrow, it’s just youse have had enough tonight and that’s it’. Because I was just like them.

“Of course, there are some men who can’t be talked to. You encounter them as well.

“But then I was maybe one of them too.”

Mugsy: My Story is one of the best and most enjoyable Irish sports books out this winter. In its foreword, Mulligan’s old school teacher and team-mate Peter Canavan talks about how it is “a true reflection of the man himself — honest, colourful and full of the unexpected” and Canavan isn’t wrong. One minute Mulligan is in a scrape, the next he’s strutting his stuff in Croke Park, the next he’s strutting around naked in a sex club in San Francisco with a couple of team-mates when they’re spotted by some Tyrone supporters, and the next he’s on the dole, feeling embarrassed. Skilfully crafted by ghostwriter Orla Bannon, it is one of the liveliest reads you’ll come across in the GAA autobiography section.

It is neither that of a remorseless, clean-living winner nor a confessional of a gambler or alcoholic.

Owen Mulligan won a lot alright but this is no how-to-win manual. He drank a lot too but while it got him into the odd scrape and jail cell, about all he confesses here is that for the most part he had a great time, winning and partying with the lads and especially with the ladies. Owen Mulligan might not have been the first rock’n’ roll GAA star, but this is the first rock’n’roll GAA autobiography.

It’s not that he’s graphic about his conquests. He’s suitably discreet. But he’s suitably candid too. For once a county player owns up to some of the perks of being a county player, especially an All-Ireland winner. On the Late Late Show last month Seán Óg Ó hAilpín admitted he was too naive to pick up on some female advances following his first All-Ireland. The bould Owen was no Seán Óg that way.

“If some gorgeous girl came over and said ‘Are you going to take me home tonight, Owen?, then, of course, I did... I’m a man and I took advantage. My phone was melting. The boys started calling it the bat phone. ‘Where’s the bat signal shining tonight, Mugsy? Is it in Coalisland or Brockagh or where?’ I had to get another phone about three months after the All-Ireland and change my number.”

He was approached about doing a book 18 months ago. He initially declined, wanting to wait until his inter-county career was over, but then when it dawned that Mickey Harte had made that decision for him earlier this year, he decided to plough ahead. Tyrone supporters were repeatedly coming up to him, asking why he’d turned his back on Tyrone, so the book was an opportunity to clarify that it was Mickey’s idea, not his, that he was no longer donning the white and red.

But the book had to be about more than that. This wasn’t an extract or headline — ‘Mugsy slates Harte’ — because for 15 years he had got on the best with Harte, “I was just disappointed the way it ended.” It had to be balanced and it had to be truthful.

“I’ve read autobiographies before and said to myself, ‘He’s holding back.’ I didn’t want to hold back on anything. It was a chance to put some things straight. There are a lot of stories in the book about me you would not have known but there were a lot of stories out there about me that weren’t true either. People think I was this complete party animal. I liked to party but I couldn’t have been partying all the time and been winning as much as I did. I wanted to show how much I committed to the cause. Okay, I went off the boil and off the tracks a few years but I always stood up for my team-mates and I think that’s portrayed in the book.”

Everything about him is: all his glorious moments, all his devilment, all his flaws, insecurities and paradoxes. One of the things he stressed to Bannon was that he didn’t want to pretend that he was “some kind of brainbox using these big words”. So, there’s no receiving an “exquisite” pass from Brian McGuigan; instead McGuigan would pick him out once he’d seen “the whites of your eyes”.

But there’s a different type of intelligence evident alright.

The bar he bought had traditionally been a nationalist pub. He changed all that. Willie Anderson, along with Peter Canavan and Barney Eastwood, opened it for him. Another rugby international from the other side of the community, Jeremy Davidson, has felt welcome enough to drink there.

A framed Northern Ireland jersey of Cookstown’s own Aaron Hughes is hung from the walls. Mulligan might be no “brainbox” but he’s been broad-minded enough to be no bigot.

On the field he was street smart, with his skills and his verbals. He puts it down to being a Cookstown thing where the speed of your wit counts as much as the speed of your feet.

In his debut season of 2001 he got into some exchanges, verbal and physical, with Derry manager Eamonn Coleman and corner back Gareth Doherty. “Make the switch, Eamonn,” he cheekily implored, “or you’re going to lose the game.”

When he’d be going well in a match, he’d be particularly chatty. “Here lads, get the ball in to me, I’m roasting this man. He’ll be sleeping with no sheets on the bed tonight, he’s roasting. Get the sun cream out!”

If he scored on his man, he could turn around and pat them on the ass. “Keep the head up, big man, you’ll get the next one.” A line to drive a marker mental.

Even in 2008 when an opponent would remark on how much he was struggling with his weight, Mulligan would quip right back with a line from the Zimbabwean cricketer Eddo Brandes, “Well, if your woman would stop feeding me biscuits every time I call round to see her whenever you’re out, I wouldn’t be this size.” Whatever about the last score, he always had to have the last word.

But he could be quiet too, especially when he wasn’t playing well. “If you’re playing well you’re entitled to give verbals,” he says. “If you’re playing shite you have no right or need to start them.”

He admired Joe Brolly for the way he could play the game with a smile and for show. As a kid kicking around in the back garden, he’d celebrate a goal in front of the evergreens, as if they were supporters. When he came on in the final quarter of the 2008 All-Ireland final and Kerry’s Tom O’Sullivan remarked about his new-grown beard, they both shared a laugh. He’d have the banter with referees, bringing out an unseen light side in Gerry Kinneavy. “Hey, ref,” he’d smile, “this man is hitting me hard, I’m fearing for my safety here!” The Connacht cop would smile back, “You’re okay, you’re big enough to take care of yourself.”

In that way Mugsy: My Story brings you into the inner game. He learned from Cookstown’s own Stephen ‘Scotchy’ Conway how to do the solo dummy and how you should never be blocked down on a football pitch, that it was the ultimate insult a footballer could get. He learned from Canavan how and where to run to get a ball. And he studied James McCartan closely to see how to go to ground and win frees. For some people that might not have been football but for Mulligan it was part of the inner game, the winning game.

The inner life of Owen Mulligan is what really fascinates though. He’s full of contradictions, as if his life has been about this one big struggle between Mugsy on one side and Owen on the other. There are two sides to him, though they’re both friends.

He was once cocky enough to quip to Jordan when they posed together for a publicity shot in 2003 that she wasn’t the most famous blonde in the house, yet colleagues in a joinery class would challenge him the day after he scored 2-1 against Kerry in a league game, wondering why he never told them that he played for Tyrone.

He had a reputation for being a ladies man yet went steady with the same girl for seven years.

He was the worst sub in the world in 2008 yet it was his intervention and speech that allowed Stephen O’Neill come back for that year’s All-Ireland final, further pushing himself down the bench in the process.

Off the field, he reckons, he’s mostly shy, hugely in fact. “If I was walking around Belfast I’d always wear a baseball cap in case anybody spotted me,” he writes in the book. “People have this impression I love getting attention but most of the time I just want to blend in with the crowd.

“On the pitch it is a different story. I want to be noticed.”

It’s why he bleached the hair back when he was a minor. He was naturally a redhead but then he saw his idol Robbie Fowler dye the hair and he did the same. It helped make him stand out on the field and helped him stand out on the TV for his grandmother. She liked it and it turned out other females would too. Yet behind some of the bravado there could be some anguish and guilt too.

After turning his 2005 season right around he was called up to the Irish International Rules squad, only to treat the tour as a holiday out with some old friends from Cookstown. Sean Marty Lockhart confronted him about it and Mulligan just smirked away, yet once he returned home the first thing he did was visit Cormac McAnallen’s grave and apologise to his old team-mate that he hadn’t honoured the competition and trophy that bore his name.

He partied at the wrong time in 2008 as well. That may have been one of Tyrone’s best years but it was one of Mulligan’s worst. His form and motivation slumped and to his shame he brought young Raymond Mulgrew down with him. Mulgrew had been the standout player of a 2004 All-Ireland minor final featuring Darran O’Sullivan. His ball skills were sublime. In his first year with the seniors in 2007 he was Tyrone’s one All Star nomination. Then he made the mistake of becoming the wingman of a Cookstown clubmate, one Owen Mulligan.

His senior partner in crime literally led him astray. The night before a critical in-house game nine days out from that year’s All-Ireland final, they ended up crashing in a girl’s house, oblivious that their families and Mickey Harte had issued a search party. Mulligan naturally was one of the best players in that morning’s in-house game, enough to get him game-time in Croke Park the following Sunday. Mulgrew has barely kicked a ball for Tyrone since.

“I take the blame for that,” says Mulligan. “When I was starting out with Tyrone, I had Chris Lawn and Peter Canavan to keep me right. I didn’t keep Raymond right. When he’d say ‘What about a wee drink?’ I’d say ‘Well I’ll have one if you’re having one so’ whereas Lawn and Canavan would have pulled the horns and said ‘Mugsy, you can have one after we’ve won this next game.’

“In 2008 the self-destruction button was hit. I had a complete meltdown. Every player goes through a stage like that, just some are better at dealing with it. I struggled with seeing boys I was better than playing better than me and making the team ahead of me. I wasn’t getting on the team and maybe I took Mulgrew down with me. He’d say no, that it was mostly his own fault, but I’m not sure about that.”

They’re still friends. Just yesterday they were talking in the local gym. Mickey Harte is looking at Mulgrew for an upcoming trial game. “I’ve always said that if Tyrone are to get back winning All-Irelands they need another Brian McGuigan, another playmaker, and a fit Raymond Mulgrew is the answer to that. I’d have always questioned his hunger but he might have it now. There’s nothing more I’d like to see than Raymond Mulgrew back in the Tyrone setup.”

He won’t be back himself. He knows and accepts that now. It was a tough year coming to terms with that. He still felt he had something to offer. He might not have been a good sub in 2008 but he would have been a good and useful one in 2013, felt he might have won a couple of frees and scores when it was tight against Donegal and Mayo last summer. But that is in the past. He can see Stevie O’Neill playing that role going forward, now that he’s been relieved off the captaincy.

Mulligan won’t.

“I didn’t know what way to cope at first. I was thinking, will I huff and puff and stay in the house and say ‘Frig these boys.’ But I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this, I love Tyrone too much, I’ve had too many battles on the field wearing that jersey to turn my back on it now and not support the team.’ I was lucky then the BBC asked me to do some work for them. I really enjoyed that. I don’t know if they’ll want me back next year but either way I’ll be going to Tyrone matches.

“It was wild tough there for a few months, constantly sitting by the phone and thinking ‘I could still do a job’, but the fact is it didn’t ring. I’d have liked if Mickey had called one way or another, to maybe shake my hand and say ‘Thanks, Mugsy, it’s been a great 15 years, we’ll just leave it at this.’ It was like a death without a burial. But I’d be fine with Mickey otherwise. And I’m fine about it now.”

So, no, you needn’t worry about Owen Mulligan, that in 20 years’ time he’ll be in some caravan in some trailer park just outside Cookstown, still buying supplements to bleach his hair, still watching reruns of The Goal against Dublin, Tyrone’s own version of Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler. He’ll be fine. He’s doing fine. The pub is going well. He’s fine with talking about football and being reminded about The Goal. “I could be remembered for a lot worse.”

He’s going steady with Niamh now. “I’d like to think I’m settling down,” he smiles, “it’s about time.” It looks like goodbye to Mugsy so, and more hello to Owen. But what a friend that Mugsy was, and what a time he had.

“It was a rollercoaster ride. The wins, the women, the fights. I’m not proud of it all but I’d have it no other way either. I enjoyed 99.9% of it. I was no angel but I wasn’t a bad fella either.”

- Mugsy, My Story, published by Irish Sports Publishing, is out now at €15.99


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