'We don't want anyone feeling sorry for us. We want for nothing'
Leitrim forward Emlyn Mulligan insists resources and population should not be seen as a barrier to Championship progress
Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30
Emlyn Mulligan is an attacker of great renown but when we meet on a sunny morning on Sligo's quayside, nine days out from Leitrim's opening Connacht Championship match against Roscommon, he's in full defensive mode.
It's the season of the haves and the have-nots, the conflict of the game's elite and common classes sharing the same starting grid. When preparation, support, demographics, finance and competition reform are all placed in the spin dryer, the start button is pressed and the noise of those contents rolling around becomes deafening in May and into June.
So often Leitrim is the benchmark for comparison. The smallest population (32,000 according to Census 2011), with one of the smallest title sponsorship pots (¤15,000 according to recent convention reports) compared to 1.2m people and take your pick on finance at the other end of the scale. In terms of ratios for both headings it's anything between 40 and 60 to one.
But if we've come to be a shoulder to cry on we're in the wrong place.
Population? "Look at Monaghan."
Resources? "Couldn't be happier in our newly opened centre of excellence."
Sponsorship? "We want for nothing."
Competition structures? "Just give us that crack at Roscommon or Sligo any year."
Endless losses? "We'll deal with it."
And on it goes.
Mulligan may never play in Croke Park. He may never play a Championship game in August. But if he is to do either he wants to earn it in its own right. No leg ups, no sympathy.
"Who are the people feeling sorry for themselves?" he asks. "Because I'm not feeling sorry for myself. What we don't have we don't miss. Dublin and Kerry have what they have but we don't miss it because we never had it.
"We're as well looked after as any county team. We have everything we need, a brilliant centre of excellence, coaches, nutritionists. We can't go around with the 'ah poor Leitrim' attitude. Gone are the days when we can say 'ah we didn't get this or didn't get that.' We're looked after top notch in every sense."
Their Annaduff complex is a place they can now call home, complete with Prunty pitches and an environment far removed from the haphazard days of 11th hour training venues switches. It leads him to believe that the squad for tomorrow's match with Roscommon is the best prepared in his decade as a Leitrim player.
"The difference is knowing you have your base, quality football pitches. It's made everything so much easier for us. When I went away there was nothing like that. We were training all over the place."
'Away' constituted a world tour with his girlfriend in 2015 that took them to Dubai, China, Singapore and Bali before they eventually docked in Boston for the summer.
Mulligan, on a three-year career break from the gardai, rolled up his sleeves and worked for a plasterer by day and played football for 'Donegal' at weekends. He won a championship in the company of Rory Kavanagh and when he tuned in for last year's Connacht Championship clash with Galway he got no real sense that he'd rather be there.
"Over the years I've had a few bad injuries that I have missed games - 2009 and 2010 I did cruciates. I've got used to missing games. I was kind of happy enough that I wasn't so drawn to it," he says.
The irony of winning a title with 'Donegal' in Boston is that it could so easily have happened on this side of the Atlantic.
For the first few years of his life he lived in Bundoran and recalls the excitement of a victorious Donegal team coming into the town in 1992. Leitrim's 1994 visit to Kinlough, a couple of miles over the border where his father was stationed as a garda, had no such impact.
They eventually moved out to Kinlough but, up to the age of 18, Donegal were still his first love. Is there ever a feeling of what might have been?
"No point, I'd never (feel I) could have done this or that, that's not the way it works," he stresses. "Even now I'd support them going up to Croke Park but as a player my first love is Leitrim. I'm proud putting on the Leitrim jersey, I get as much thrill out of that. Of course you'd be envious as a county but not on the basis of what might have been."
The lure of that one shot against a neighbour is what ultimately drew him back from the States. "Just give me Sligo or Roscommon," he laughs. "That's what you always want. When you get it you're buzzing."
The constant talk of Championship reform almost irritates him. You float the idea of a future landscape based on county mergers, a Sligo/Leitrim north-east franchise perhaps?
"You couldn't. You wouldn't have the same heart. Every night you're in a huddle with the lads, I can't imagine getting into a huddle with a Sligo boy beside me, telling them 'we're going to do this'. It's not the same thing.
"Same thing as people getting rid of the championship - and I understand completely. If there was a B championship and we were drawn against someone down like Carlow or Wicklow the whole buzz wouldn't be there leading up to that though.
"This is a big game, 10,000 crowd. Regardless if you get beaten out the door, people say that's not good for them. But sure, we're able to deal with it. We wouldn't be coming back year after year if we felt we didn't want to do it. That's what it is all about. It's the big Championship day."
Mulligan describes the 2011 win over Sligo, the only Connacht Championship game he has won on Irish soil, as "one of the best of my life".
"One or two of those in your career. . . . you wouldn't swap that for a B championship. Winning in Markievicz Park, they're the days you play for. Leitrim people, you couldn't see them as happy."
His own form, he feels, has benefited from the shift work that is fundamental to life in An Garda Siochana. He feels fresher and less pressurised about time.
"For around six or seven years I was working night shifts, the crossover of shifts was tough on the body but I wouldn't have noticed that," he says.
"In the last year, even in Boston, when you are working your 'seven to three' and getting a wee nap in during the day before training, it makes your performance on the pitch (better). And even this past six or seven weeks I'm feeling it now more than ever, buzzing going to training.
"Previous to that I was looking at taking leave for matches, stressing about a game on a Sunday when I was supposed to be working. Thankfully the boys in Longford were very good to me at the time.
"It is tough and it's not fair on people you are working with, expected to be gone every night. The stress alone, not having to worry about that, is brilliant for me."
These days he plays his club football with St Brigid's in Blanchardstown - he left Melvin Gaels two years ago when he based himself in the city.
The spin-offs of that too have helped. After Leitrim's League campaign wrapped up he played a match for Brigid's against Cuala and found it difficult to adjust to the pace.
"I couldn't believe the pace of it, I was actually taken aback. 'Jesus I need to up it.' It's up there with Division 4; Ballyboden and St Vincent's, that could be Division 3."
He accepts the move hasn't sat well with everybody. "I know people have their opinions on it, 'it's a disgrace, some junior B players are travelling home for training''. But it's everyone's decision for themselves. Whatever suits them. I don't regret doing it. My home club in Kinlough, I still go to a lot of their games.
"It was about bettering myself and play at the best level. I never played in a Division 4 final or played in Croke Park. The only place for me to play better football outside the county was Dublin realistically. The fact that I was up there and the opportunity arose, I couldn't turn it down."
Outside their own group, Leitrim feel a dismissive air blowing their direction. Even a Sligo player who he counts among his best friends inadvertently references Roscommon on June 12, he says!
"Belief isn't out there among Leitrim supporters, my own family and girlfriend. But I believe and that's all that matters to me," he says. "I back myself every day I go out and my main aim is to win my individual battle."
Desire, he insists, will be another galvanising force.
"You couldn't put it into words what it would mean to beat Roscommon. If we can bring the bit of quality I feel we have, that fire in the belly will not be in Roscommon as much as it will be in ours.
"That feeling I feel, there's not one Roscommon player will feel that as strong. There are 26 Leitrim lads thinking 'Jesus Christ what sort of feeling will be going through my body if we won that?'."