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Reluctant hero guarding his post

by Keith Duggan was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 3rd of July 2004

Leinster SH Final/Offaly v Wexford: A late June Monday in Birr and a heavy lunch-time shower spatters the square in the town, causing people to cower in the porch of Dooley's hotel. Brian Mullins is among them, wearing jeans and a light sweatshirt. Hurling heroes are two-a-penny in Birr and if Mullins has joined their ranks, he has done so reluctantly. He doesn't carry himself like a man expectant of recognition in the town of his childhood.

After talking with grave unease about himself for an hour, he casts an anxious look at the grey midland skies and turns to say good luck. The town post office, a gorgeous red-brick building, is located just up from the hotel and he is due back at work.

"Feck this. Is your car near here?" he asks. "Ya'll make it so. Right then. All the best," and he steps under the downpour, moving with a panther's alacrity and grace through the noon-time downpour until he is quickly out of sight.

His first coming was a bit like that too, was it not? Brian Mullins appeared on the intercounty scene with such a blatant lack of annunciation that it might have been presumed he had been plucked from obscurity. Because Offaly's summer was confined, Mullins's debut season was brief, but distinguished by an afterglow of quality that somehow got overlooked when the end-of-year baubles were being handed out.

In the 70 minutes against Wexford, he demonstrated the preternatural sharpness and skill and unorthodox reflexes that marked him out as a goalkeeper worthy of displacing his illustrious predecessor Stephen Byrne. Just like that, it was obvious he was the real thing.

But, be clear, there was nothing preordained about the arrival of Brian Mullins. When Paddy Kirwan consulted with Mullins in the post office one day before the beginning of last season about his role in the Offaly panel, Mullins was highly dubious about his future. They talked about it, goalkeeper to goalkeeper. Birr men.

"I first got a call the second time (Michael) Bond was there. What year was that? 2001? They called me, but I suppose I only half bothered with it. Stephen Byrne was there and nobody was going to be taking his place, he was that established.

"I knew I would have to make the same sacrifices as everyone else, but that I would always be on the sideline. And I thought that was just a waste of time. At least an outfield player always has a chance of getting in off the substitutes. So it wasn't they didn't give me the chance then, it was that I didn't bother taking it. But then I decided to give it a bash and right enough, I was on the sidelines in 2002.

"It was frustrating, so last year I was contemplating not even going back. I remember asking Paddy Kirwan if I was just wasting everyone's time. Like, what was the point?"

Kirwan recalls that conversation and the doubt in Mullins's eyes. He always regarded the younger man as a protégé and from his childhood he believed that Mullins had whatever ichor hurling goalkeepers have running through his veins.

"All I could do was promise him he would get a fair crack. I wouldn't have asked him to join if I didn't think he was in with a chance."

The dilemma Mullins faced then epitomises the contradictory nature of his hurling life. You think of the cast of the best hurling goalkeepers in Ireland right now and you come to the fast conclusion that there is no stereotype but Mullins just looks and thinks differently.

He is scruffy in a hip way and when he goes out around Birr, he hangs around with a non-GAA crowd. Although he is growing tired of hearing it, he is notoriously laid back and kind of drifted in and out of the conventional structures of his sport, playing minor for the county but then passing on the Fitzgibbon hurling when studying at Waterford IT.

The college team was particularly strong then, led by the redoubtable Henry Shefflin. The odd time, Mullins would bump into Colm Cassidy from Kilcormac, who would enthuse about the set-up and encourage him to come up.

"And I'd go, 'Yeah, yeah, be up on Tuesday'. But I never bothered me bollocks. And I suppose they never really asked me to go up either. It's something I regret not doing now. Like, I think they won a couple of Fitzgibbon titles when I was down there.

"But if I am completely honest, just getting in as far as the college was an effort in those days. A lot of the time I just sat on my arse doing nothing. Ricki-Lake-in-the-afternoon kind of scene."

It wasn't that Mullins was indulging in a period of self-conscious collegiate slacking: all his life, he was never one to impose himself on situations. He loves hurling and is a student of goalkeepers but was always naturally reserved when it came to the trappings of GAA culture.

As a kid in the town, he idolised the architects of the Offaly hurling renaissance of the early 1990s: Brian Whelahan, big Joe Errity and the Pilkington brothers. But he never said boo to them.

Even when he joined the senior panel a few years later, taking over from Robbie Phelan, he stayed quiet as a mouse until guys like Johnny Pilkington took him under his wing at the bar. Made him welcome. When Birr won the 1998 club All-Ireland, he was up there on the lorry for the homecoming and the speeches. Then Big Joe decided to introduce each of the players individually. Mullins wilted in terror.

"Just remember havin' to go out and give this wave and then getting out of there as fast as I fuckin' could."

Mullins is lightning but that wasn't quick enough to spare him the mother of all slagging from his friends. That summer, when the vanguard of the Birr team were chasing All-Ireland glory with Offaly, Mullins followed their trail with no more interest than a casual observer. The only match he attended was the semi-final against Clare, which was ended prematurely, sparking a sit-down by the Offaly fans.

"It was a laugh. I just remember walking around with everyone sitting on the field, just pulling the piss. I was up in Dublin then for the All-Ireland final but there was this party on the night before and I wasn't feeling the best by the morning. So I sold on the ticket and watched it in the pub."

He was back in his local in Birr when the Offaly bus crawled by the window, the boys all dolled up in suits and the McCarthy Cup dangling over the edge. He did not go down to the square for the speeches. It was better fun where he was and that scene is just not for him.

"I thinks sometimes people - even former Offaly managers - got the wrong impression of Brian Mullins, that he has this lifestyle that doesn't tally with the game," says Kirwan.

"Brian enjoys life, definitely, and I would never knock a man for that. But he also just keeps himself out of the hurling spotlight - he's a quiet fella in that way. And he is deeply serious about his game, he cares about it as much as anyone I know. It probably took a while for people to get to know that - and to know Brian Mullins."

When he was 17, Mullins endured a horrendous experience in goal for the Offaly minors in the Leinster final against Kilkenny. Four goals went past him, three of which were caused by fundamental errors.

"It was nerves," he confesses. "They used to eat me up. The ball went through my legs, it dropped from my hands. It was a complete nightmare.

"Afterwards, I went home and thought about it and just said fuck it, enough is enough. Like, it's a game of hurling when all is said and done. No point in fretting about it. The worst had happened that day. The nerves haven't come back since."

Lurking in the shadows of the Offaly senior team gave him a chance to observe the established keepers up close. He rates them all: Cummins, Fitzhenry, McGarry, Donal Óg, Fitzgerald. But he knows none of them. The first three names made up the shortlist for last year's All-Star nominations.

It is common for players to talk down their interest in such awards but when Mullins says he "doesn't give a toss about that sort of stuff" you believe it.

It is unlikely he will ever go into acting - he is too honest - but if he does, he will shun Oscar night for genuine reasons.

"Anyhow, I'd have no gripes with those three names. Who won it? Cummins, wasn't it? Sure that man - like those saves against Kilkenny were unreal. Like, I reckon he would say himself that there was a couple he would have been disappointed not to have got - one ball came to his left and he jumped to his left to push it away. It looked great and all that but he would have been annoyed not to get it. But the combination of saves was amazing now. Ah, the man is just a step ahead of the rest."

Had Mullins never been presented with the opportunity to showcase his own repertoire on the main stage, he would not have lost sleep over it. Legend has it that his full range of abilities became irresistible during a pre-season weekend early in 2003 in Waterford when they played Cork in a challenge game. Goals rained in on both sides but Mullins won a series of one-on-one encounters with Setanta.

Stephen Byrne, watching his understudy, reputedly turned to the selectors after each stop grew more outrageous than the one before and declaimed, "Jesus, what about that. It's unreal."

And Byrne, an All Star in 1998, could not have been more supportive when it was apparent Mullins's force had caught the eye of the selectors. They trained together and the Banagher man encouraged him, praised him publicly and generally let it be known there were no hard feelings.

"I was fierce appreciative," Mullins says. "Like someone else would go off sulking and make it awkward for you. He couldn't have been more sound."

Mullins's form has been such that Byrne, with busy work and life commitments, took stock and decided to quit the panel, at least for the interim. Hurling goalkeepers aren't in it for the free shirt and tie.

Now, Mullins is the senior man, with Shane O'Connor, the county under-21 goalkeeper, as his ghost. With that comes a certain profile. As well as requests for interviews, he made his debut appearance on the GAA magazine programme Breaking Ball last night. Starring in a show like that was not exactly his thing, but the truth is he would have felt like an arrogant asshole turning down what was a polite request. Better to grin and bear it. He is an excellent tennis player so they filmed him hurling on the grounds of Birr Castle and on the town courts.

"Ah, they were sound. Yer man was lying on the ground while I was whacking a tennis ball over the net with a hurl. Suppose I'll get a hammering for that but what odds?"

It is the same in his job as a postman. Sometimes he delivers in town, other days he is on a country route. To his eternal surprise, people have begun to recognise his face and in weeks like this are mad to talk hurling.

Such banter does not come easily to him so he tears through the delivery route, furtive and stealthy, the opposite of the whistling, bicycling purveyor of gossip, and never ringing twice.

"People mean well and I suppose they must think I am an ignorant oul hoor half the time. I just like to keep the head down. Weeks like this, a lot of people will ask, 'Are ye goin' to win?' And in fairness, how the hell am I supposed to know."

But he is getting used to it. For Paddy Kirwan, the rise of Brian Mullins is a case of true potential realised. Billy Mullins was an All-Ireland handball champion and his son inherited the speed, the fast-twitch fibres, along with an easy-going way.

Kirwan knows Mullins is an independent character but understands also that doesn't conflict with his hurling. He was there to witness the desperate disappointment that overcame Mullins in the dressing-room after that late, dramatic loss to Wexford last summer. He was disconsolate.

A few weeks ago against Dublin, Mullins fired his hurl against the netting after a ball went past him. About life, Mullins may come across as non-committal, but when it comes to hurling, he is as passionate as the rest.

Against that, Kirwan enjoys telling the yarn of a county under-21 match when the team stepped off in Mountmellick just to hit the ball around the field. After a while, he noticed Mullins was absent and his investigations took him to the dressing-rooms.

"There he was, lying on the bench with the gear bag under the head, fast asleep. Sure, we couldn't get over it."

It is the perfect image of the true Offaly virtuoso, à la Pilkington or John Troy. Mullins thought the world of those two men but would never classify himself in their bracket. That is for others to do. All Brian Mullins wants is the quiet life distinguished by all the clean sheets he can gather. How he fits into the broader picture of Offaly hurling is not his concern.

After an hour in his company, all you can be certain about is that Brian Mullins is true to himself and true to his sport. And that he did not come down in the last shower.

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