'This year the team have really stepped up to the mark'
Midfield great Brian Mullins hopeful St Vincent's have what it takes to rewrite record books, says Liam Kelly
BRIAN Mullins, a man-mountain and mighty Dublin midfielder, had taken a heavy knock and blood flowed freely from a gash on his forehead, just above the eyebrow.
It was half-time in the 1979 All-Ireland football semi-final between the Dubs and Roscommon, and the extent of the injury was being checked out in the medical area adjacent to the dressing-room in the old Cusack Stand.
Medical opinion was that it didn't look good. There was a suggestion Mullins should not play in the second half.
Then came the verdict. It was the only one that counted and it was delivered by Dublin manager Kevin Heffernan.
Heffo surveyed the wreckage and dismissed the medics' opinions. There was no way Mullins was leaving the fray.
That lantern jaw was set, the gimlet eyes bore down on the victim. And then Heffo spoke.
"Look, if you think you're going to hide behind a bit of blood, you've another thing coming."
Message understood. Thirty five years later Mullins, director of sport in UCD, smiles as he recalls the moment.
"I remember that. Up I got, and looking back on it afterwards, he was right. I hadn't died, I didn't pass away, and I didn't have to go off. And we won the match."
Words. Heffo's words. Heffo's carefully chosen, carefully timed, clearly delivered words, always crafted with one intention – to bring the best out of his footballers, and indeed the hurlers, he worked with, at whatever level.
No more will his voice be heard as the great leader who was the heart and soul of St Vincent's GAA club and Dublin football for decades passed on to his eternal reward last January.
His spirit, however, and that of the St Vincent's club lives on in the heart of the 2013 team which brought the Dublin senior football title back to their Marino heartland a few weeks ago.
The moment with Mullins in 1979 was, to an extent, re-enacted collectively as St Vincent's were battered, bruised and almost KO'd in the final against Ballymun Kickhams.
They could have folded and felt sorry for themselves, but that wasn't going to happen, not this year of all years.
Somehow, they dug deep and forced a draw.
In the replay, Vincent's lost county star Diarmuid Connolly to a red card, but they quarried out deep reserves of mental and emotional strength to win the county championship for the first time since 2007.
Ger Brennan's dismissal against St Loman's Mullingar in their opening Leinster championship match after seven minutes put Vincent's back in the cauldron, but once more, they came through that examination.
And last Sunday week, without the suspended Connolly and Brennan, the Vins were rocked on their heels for most of the first half against Summerhill of Meath at Parnell Park.
When the going got tough, the tough got going, and now St Vincent's are set to play a highly successful Portlaoise side in the Leinster club final next Sunday.
Vincent's have to win this one – for Heffernan. Yes?
Well, in Mullins' opinion, the club, which is so dear to his heart, and the team and management must take a seriously pragmatic view of the task facing them at Tullamore.
"You'd have to ask the players about that (the Heffernan issue)," he says.
"I would imagine it's maybe some part of their motivation and some part of their psyche, but I don't think it would be the dominant feature.
"The team has been managed by Tommy Conroy for the last number of years, and Tommy was there with the management team when Mickey Whelan led them to the All-Ireland in 2008.
"This year the team have really stepped up to the mark, not necessarily in a more forceful way, but in a more obvious way. They're playing very well and showing a unity of spirit and purpose that they didn't necessarily show last year, so we're very happy.
"If they have achieved this in the year that Kevin has passed away, and there's a perception abroad that it's in part due to trying to commemorate his memory and his spirit, then well and good."
There are, of course, no guarantees. Success is not a given and in Mullins' view Portlaoise represent a clear and present danger.
"It's another match and it's another day and looking at it objectively, it's a two-horse race," he says.
"Portlaoise have, over the last number of years, a very strong track record in their own local championship and in the Leinster championship, so for Vincent's the first thing is that they have to respect that.
"The players have to be mindful that they're not just going in against any team. It's a team that has proved themselves capable of the highest standards, so be mindful of that, and respectful of that.
"Vincent's have to plan as to how they're going to overcome that challenge over the 60 minutes in Tullamore.
"From that point of view, Vincent's will be preparing for the match in as honest and as focused a way as they can to make sure we overcome that serious challenge.
"But whether they do or not, it remains to be seen. That's the great thing about sport. The resilience that they've shown against Ballymun, and against St Loman's and Summerhill, won't necessarily happen automatically just because it happened the other days.
"It's an aspect that the players have to work on as much as any other, because you can't make any assumptions based on the previous matches."
The Dublin legend is only reiterating the code of conduct he learned when he joined St Vincent's at the age of 15 from Clontarf GAA club.
"I was the second youngest of six. By the time I came of age to play sport we were living in Clontarf, so my first club was Clontarf. I played hurling and football with them until I was 15.
"One particular year Clontarf couldn't field a team in my age bracket, so the immediate natural gravitation at that stage was to Vincent's and I transferred to them.
"One of the lucky parts of my life was that my first mentor was a man called Emmet Memery, who is still alive and who left a lasting legacy and imprint, not only on me but with the club itself.
"Soon after that I came under the steadying influence of Buster Leaney.
"Paddy Donnelly coached hurling for a while in a team I was involved in, so I had a huge reservoir of mentors and advisers and coaches in the early part of my life in Vincent's and eventually, within a short space of time, I came under the guidance of Kevin Heffernan, both as a senior football selector in Vincent's, but also as the Dublin county manager."
At the time, the Vins were based in Raheny village, on a site called the Oval.
The club was well established when the young Mullins joined, and the ethos had been laid down by the older generation of Vincent's heroes, including Heffernan, the Freaney brothers Ollie and Cyril, Danno Mahoney, Norman Allen, and Mickey Whelan.
"You quickly learned that the simple facts of life were about effort, about commitment, about being the best you can be, about putting your best foot forward, about carrying the jersey and the spirit of the club with pride and distinction.
"It was about doing your best and giving of your best, and it was about blood, sweat and tears in training and in matches."
Success in Dublin, once almost a given in the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s, has become an all too rare prize for St Vincent's and it's all the more cherished for that reason.
They have won the All-Ireland club title twice – in 1976 and 2007.
The '80s yielded 'only' the 1984 Dublin and Leinster titles; there was no senior football title success in the '90s and finally the 2007-08 treble of Dublin, Leinster, and All-Ireland trophies ended the famine.
"Since 2007 we have found it difficult to get back to where we are now," Mullins says. "Having won another Dublin championship, we're very happy and we cherish them, because we realise it's a very difficult competition to win.
"A lot of clubs have come to the fore, and the Dublin football scene is a lot different environment than it was in the '60s and '70s.
"We have to be mindful of that and we have to realise we can't assume or take anything for granted. Hard work is what it's always going to take – working harder than the opposition."
Brian's son Nathan (23) continues the Mullins family line into the current generation as a member of the Vincent's squad.
Five facts about Brian Mullins
1 The day before his Dublin debut in the Corn na Casca tournament in 1974, he played rugby for Leinster U-19s against Ulster in Ravenhill.
2 His last competitive match for St Vincent's was a victory in the 1991 Dublin intermediate football final against St Brigid's.
3 Brian was principal of Carndonagh Community School for nine years until he moved back to Dublin to take over as director of sport in UCD in 2000.
4 During that time in Donegal he played on, and mentored, teams in Carndonagh.
5 At UCD, as director of sport, he has overall responsibility for 57 clubs. Last year the university opened a €48m extension to the sports complex, including a 50-metre swimming pool and gym, which is open to the students and the public.
The facilities, which also cater for up to 90 UCD societies, feature a cinema, a theatre, a debating chamber and multi-purpose rooms.