'The challenge is to make training specific to the GAA'
Black card notoriety aside, Declan Mullan has reasons to smile, writes Marie Crowe
History was made on a dark night in Armagh in December when Derry player Declan Mullan was sent to the line in an O'Fiach Cup game against Louth.
As he walked off the pitch, Damian Cassidy shouted down from the stands, "You are going to be the answer to a quiz question now, Mullan".
The crowd erupted in laughter and the significance of getting the first black card in Gaelic football dawned on the young player.
"Brendan Rice was the referee so he was the first one to give one out," says Mullan.
"I had a bit of crack with him after the match. I told him I technically put him on the map but he reckoned it was the other way around."
Mullan learned a lesson from the experience, he doesn't want to get another one and he'd rather not be remembered for getting the first. In training Derry are working on dealing with the new rules and their manager Brian McIver regularly brings in an official referee to monitor how his players are adapting. It's still early days but so far Mullan is enjoying the benefits that the threat of the card brings.
"It's a much more free-flowing game now. Before it was almost like basketball where one team would shoot and the other would defend. Hopefully, there will be a shift away from sweeper systems and the game will open up even more."
Maintaining fitness has always been a challenge for the forward. Groin and hamstring problems have kept him out of action for several years. So serious were his injuries that he went under the knife in England and Germany to try and get back playing top-level football. Finally, after years of heartache, Mullan is injury-free and he plans to stay that way.
For him it's all about survival and in order to do so in elite sport Mullan works hard. He's a fitness fanatic, studying strength and conditioning in Setanta College and he lives clean. Training is part of part of his daily existence but he had to learn the importance of doing things right.
When he started going to the gym he was just 15. Back then gyms were filled with treadmills, bicycles and small weights areas. There was a culture and belief out there that heavy lifting equated to good training. Education was limited and Mullan concedes that the gym work he was doing at that time contributed to his current fitness struggles.
"I didn't know what I was at. There was nothing set up in the GAA to tell young players what they should and shouldn't be doing.
"But that has changed now and everyone is more educated. People in the GAA are moving away from the attitude that strength and conditioning causes injuries. Instead they are seeing the value of it and every county and a lot of clubs have S&C coaches."
Along with his college course, Mullan runs Elite Fitness and Performance Gyms with Gregory Bradley. They take teams for training sessions in their premises in Belfast, kit out gyms with equipment and design bespoke equipment. They have supplied equipment to Arsenal and recently finished installations for Ulster rugby and also for the Armagh footballers.
"We have developed strong relationships in rugby and it's good to have that crossover. I think in terms of strength and conditioning the GAA took a lot from rugby. A lot of the coaching came from rugby and many of the training courses the GAA coaches were doing were rugby-related. The challenge now is to make training specific to the GAA."
So between training teams, running the gym business and training with Derry, Mullan is rarely away from the fitness industry. But he wouldn't have it any other way. Over the last few
years he's seen many friends head off to Australia and America while he opted to spend hours rehabbing his various injuries. He's suffered setback after setback but his resolve never faltered. Playing with Derry has always been his main focus.
This season Eoin Bradley hit the headlines for choosing to play soccer with Coleraine over football with Derry. And while it is not a road that Mullan would take, he supports his former team-mate's decision.
"He seems happy enough, he's scoring goals and going well. It's all about where you want to be. There are plenty of players in Ireland playing county football who could get paid to play League of Ireland football but their passion and their desire to play county football is bigger. It's not an issue for the team now; it's been knocked on the head. We know that this is the Derry squad, these are the players we are training with and this is the bunch of lads the team will be picked from."
They play Tyrone in the first match of the National League next Saturday. Of course the rivalry between the two sides is still there despite Tyrone being the dominant team over the last ten years. Mullan has grown up watching Mickey Harte's side rack up All-Ireland and Ulster titles and now that he is injury-free he wants the chance to help Derry do the same.
"To be the best you have to beat the best," says Mullan. And that's what he plans to do.