The memory is understandably a little hazy — Mulligan did win 50 Ireland caps — but every other detail of events in Linz are crystal clear. Maybe his mind just wanted to water down the impact of one of the darkest days in Irish international football history.
Austria smashed six goals without reply past Ireland. Liam Tuohy’s first game as manager stands as Ireland’s worst European Championship result, with Mulligan the only non-League of Ireland player lining out for the boys in green.
“That was really one of those horrible, horrible days that we had,” Mulligan says.
Things were very bad for the Irish international team at the time. The 1972 European campaign saw just one point claimed from home and away games against Italy, Austria, and Sweden, the Swedes drawing in Dalymount Park.
In the previous campaign, the effort to qualify for Mexico 1970 saw Ireland collect a solitary point at home to Denmark while losing 2-0 in Copenhagen as well as home and away to Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
“We were on a terrible run and of course it didn’t help that in prior years there was a committee picking the team,” Mulligan explained.
“We weren’t quite sure what formation or what system we would be playing. The committee lads didn’t know and the FAI lads, they didn’t have a breeze as to what was going on.”
After a prolonged outcry, the FAI appointed Tuohy as manager. Tuohy had managed Shamrock Rovers to five FAI Cup victories in a row and managed to combine the Irish job with his day job as a HB Ice cream sales rep while also now managing Dundalk.
Immediately he ran into problems. English club managers refused to release their players for international duty as a full programme of English First Division games was scheduled for the day before the Irish international.
“It was crazy to organise a game on a Sunday with a full English league programme on the Saturday, what chance had anybody got?” says Mulligan, then a Chelsea player.
“I was released because I had gone over on my ankle three weeks previously and I was trying to get some match fitness back. I pleaded with Dave Sexton, the manager of Chelsea, to let me go on the trip and get a game. He had wanted me to play in the reserves.
“I said it would have been better if I went and played in the international. I can tell you, I wasn’t too impressed with my own decision with the hammering that we got.”
Five League of Ireland games took place that Sunday, all outside Dublin, with Bohemians v Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers v Athlone Town postponed due to international call-ups.
Of the starting 11, five players — Paddy Roche, Mick Gannon, Tommy McConville, John Herrick and Mick Martin — earned first caps.
Second-half substitute Damien Richardson also made his senior international debut.
The Irish camp tried to stay positive, with Tuohy insisting to the media that there were five places up for grabs on the Irish side, even when all the cross-channel players were available.
But Austria had far too much for the Irish with three goals either side of half-time, including a Thomas Parits hat-trick. It was Ireland’s third ever 6-0 defeat.
“We knew it was going to be a difficult game but we never expected to get hammered 6-0,” Mulligan says. “We were quite prepared to give it all that we’ve got. Unfortunately, the all that we’d got just wasn’t good enough on the day. These things happen and you pick yourself up and you learn from it and Liam certainly learnt from it and most of the players did.”
‘Baptism of fire for young side: Ireland run ragged by slick Austrians’ read the headline on Bill George’s Cork Examiner report. Though George praised Ireland’s “willing hearts, boundless courage and determination”, also noting that there were “players who defied the odds, who rose above the standard and environment of League of Ireland football to wear the national shirt with distinction”.
“The media were far less demanding,” says Mulligan. “They tried to be as objective as they could. I’m not trying to say the lads aren’t less objective now. We knew the journalists like Noel Dunne, WP Murphy, Peter Byrne, we knew all these lads.
“We were disappointed, remember we were the ones out on the pitch trying to perform and we weren’t performing. From our perspective, it was an absolute walking disaster. You have to be disappointed. If you’re not disappointed there is something very wrong with you.”
At the time, there had been a simmering argument that the Irish team should include more League of Ireland-based players. The argument was lost that evening.
“It gave rise to that argument alright. ‘Look what’s after happening. You’re after getting hammered six-nothing with a full League of Ireland team.’
“The way things happened in that game, the same result could have happened with a full English-based 11.”
In the 45 years that have passed, just 20 players have won a senior international cap while playing with a League of Ireland club, the last being former Cork City midfielder Joe Gamble in 2007.
In very different circumstances to 1971, Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle are in contention for a cap in Saturday’s game with Austria. But the argument that their Dundalk side is the best League of Ireland team of all time holds no sway with Mulligan.
“No, I wouldn’t subscribe to that. They’re a smashing team. The era I played in, Waterford won around four or five leagues in a row. We couldn’t win the league and we won the cup six years in succession.”
The former Shamrock Rovers man believes Horgan should be in Martin O’Neill’s side ahead of Aiden McGeady, but insists the winger is not yet one of the league’s greats.
“Who ever saw Frank O’Neill playing wide on the right for Rovers in the 60s or Liam Tuohy or Paul O’Donovan wide on the right, the jury would be out, in my mind.”
IRELAND (v Austria, 1971): Paddy Roche (Shelbourne), Mick Gannon (Shelbourne), Al Finucane (Limerick, capt), Tommy McConville (Dundalk), John Herrick (Cork Hibs), Frank O’Neill (Shamrock Rovers), Paddy Mulligan (Chelsea), Mick Kearin (Shamrock Rovers), Mick Martin (Bohemians), Mick Leech (Shamrock Rovers), Turlough O’Connor (Dundalk)
Subs Damien Richardson (Shamrock Rovers) for Kearin 52; Alfie Hale (Waterford) for Martin 69.