Older and wiser, Peter Pan of Tyrone is no longer the lost boy
Owen Mulligan is as ready as ever to make an impact in this campaign, as he tells Marie Crowe
W hen the National Football League started back in February, Tyrone were in a dark place. Off the field they were coming to terms with the tragic death of Micheala McAreavey and on the field they were struggling to win games.
"We weren't playing for Mickey when he really needed us to," admits Owen Mulligan. "We realised that we couldn't rely on other people to do the business for us, we took responsibility and pulled together as a team because when Tyrone are winning Mickey is happy."
They turned their league campaign around, winning four consecutive games against Laois, Kildare, Antrim and Sligo and drawing the last one against Meath.
"It feels wrong saying that the tragedies made us stronger but they did, they really brought us closer together. I'd love to win an All-Ireland every year for the Hartes, the McGirrs and the McAnallens but I know that it's not as easy as that."
Mulligan was in Australia when he heard of Michaela McAreavey's death, and scarcely believed it. He rang Mickey Harte, barely knowing what to say but his manager took the call and thanked him for ringing. For Mulligan that act alone sums up the man that Harte is. He believes too that his long-time manager is as strong as ever, focused on football and his job in Tyrone.
"After it happened a lot of people were thinking that he may give it up, but it's what he loves doing and it's his routine. There is no doubt that he is a serious man who loves his football, but he's still a winner and that won't change."
The two men have worked together for over half of Mulligan's life. He was on Harte's All-Ireland winning minor team in 1998 and under 21 teams in 2000 and 2001. They have a special bond but it's based as much on a professional relationship forged over their years together.
"We have the crack but he doesn't get me and I don't mean that in a bad way. It's the same with the Errigal Ciarán boys, they don't understand us townies but they are all good lads. Enda McGinley is the same age as me and he's married with kids. He just laughs at me and asks me am I ever going to grow up, I tell him I'm like Peter Pan."
Mickey Harte described Mulligan as shy in his diary of the 2003 season. He said the forward was genuine and easy to get on with although his appearance suggests otherwise. The bleached hair and tattoos have all gone towards creating a perception of an arrogant, cocky character but in fact Harte's assessment rings truer. Mulligan is close to his family and comfortable with his set in Cookstown but he doesn't celebrate his inter-county status. He owns a bar in the town, but it's a sports bar with flags and images from a variety of codes, not a shrine to his own, or Tyrone's achievements.
Mulligan knows now that he was immature at times when it came to his conduct, on and off the field. Away from football, he often found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time but he says he has changed now. He's a bit more streetwise and all that, or at least enough for him to realise that at some stage his inter-county career will end so he needs to make every day count, including today if he gets his chance to come off the bench.
The shocking white hair has been subtly replaced with a less obvious blond look, he enjoys training a lot more and has stepped into a leadership role both for his club and county.
"It's not nice when you get older," he concedes. "You see young lads coming in and sprinting past you at training but it makes you work harder . . . I feel fitter now than I did when I was 20. I like going away with Tyrone for weekends whereas before I used to think it got in the way of my life. I just appreciate everything I've got now."
Mulligan's senior career started on a high with an All-Ireland final win over Armagh in 2003. He had barely whetted his appetite for senior inter-county football when he had a Celtic Cross in his back pocket. Back then Mickey Harte told him his life would change and it did. From that moment on Mulligan was in the spotlight, his football ability, unique look and off-the-field antics ensured he was never far from the headlines.
Two years later, Tyrone beat Kerry in the All-Ireland final but it was his goal against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final that became one of the talking points of the year. He sold dummies to two Dublin backs before hitting the roof of the net -- one of the greatest goals ever scored in Croke Park and the reaction it got still amazes Mulligan.
"People still congratulate me on that goal. Up to that game things weren't going too well for me and then I scored that goal and I don't know what happened, something just clicked.
"I think I saw someone warming up just before it and I thought 'right, I'm for it unless I do something' and the goal was the result of that. I didn't stick around after the game I got a lift up with my brother and Mickey Harte was ringing me flat out and there were journalists looking to talk to me."
The downside of scoring such goals is that people expect him to do it all the time and that brings its own pressure. Mulligan set a high benchmark for himself early in his career and when he doesn't replicate past performances, the perception is that he isn't playing well. "I hardly ever score goals for Tyrone, yet people think that as soon as I get the ball I have to go and get one, it doesn't work like that," he says.
Tyrone didn't reach another All-Ireland final until 2008 but by that stage Mulligan wasn't featuring too prominently in Mickey Harte's plans. He spent most of the year on the bench and in the run-up to the final he had to be content with a peripheral role. The hunger was gone. He wasn't scoring, wasn't sharp and was putting on weight.
"It wasn't until Tyrone started going well in 2008 that I began wondering what the hell I was doing sitting on the bench. I was hanging about with mates who don't play football and I found myself thinking 'sure I'm not getting on here anyway so I'll go out'."
As the matches went by he found himself sitting on the bench watching other players getting on before him and he started to think that his Tyrone career was drawing to a close. He wanted to turn things around so he went to his former team-mates, Peter Canavan and Chris Lawn, for advice.
Canavan taught Mulligan at Holy Trinity College in Cookstown and was instrumental in his development as a footballer. In the past he has heralded his ex-pupil as one of the top passers of the ball on the Tyrone team. Lawn is a club-mate of Mulligan's and has been a regular go-to man for him.
"I'll always be the first to put my hand up and ask for help if I need it. I think all players should be able to do that. The two boys told me to knuckle down and train hard. It was a tough time but I'm glad I did it. If you looked at our bench we had Brian McGuigan, Stephen O'Neill and Kevin Hughes -- we were all starters in the 2003 and 2005 teams.
"Mickey was keeping us eager, it was part of his gameplan, we all got on in the All-Ireland final and I'd like to think that we made the difference. The night of the final, I told him he always makes the right decisions. I hated admitting it but it was true."
Mulligan's club, Fr Rocks, is hugely important to him; they have lost six consecutive games and he is currently suspended after getting sent off against Seán Cavanagh's club, Moy. But in Tyrone the club scene never runs smoothly so Mulligan has to take the good with the bad.
Two years ago, their clubhouse was burned down in a sectarian attack. Politics don't feature high on Mulligan's agenda but seeing his own club burned down makes him outspoken on the matter. Having the Queen visit Croke Park was a surprise to him, a step in the right direction and maybe even a sign that change may soon come.
Ever since Mulligan started playing under Mickey Harte, football has been all about winning. He loves Clones, Croke Park, the big stage but he loves winning more than all of them combined. Although he isn't starting against Monaghan today, all he cares about is a win for Tyrone. It's Mickey Harte's way and it's Owen Mulligan's way too.
Sunday Indo Sport