Thursday 27 April 2017

Beer Pong in Vegas, Xmas jumpers and dodgy singing: All Ireland winner's wonderful journey takes new path

Not your typical All-Ireland winner, former Kilkenny hurler is taking the road less travelled in his inter-county career

John Mulhall (left) celebrates with JJ Delaney after Kilkenny’s 2011 All-Ireland SHC final win over Tipp. Photo: Sportsfile
John Mulhall (left) celebrates with JJ Delaney after Kilkenny’s 2011 All-Ireland SHC final win over Tipp. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Verney

It's a rare occasion when an All-Ireland winner also has the distinction of representing Ireland in the World Series of Beer Pong in Las Vegas, where the trash talk was likened to the film Dodgeball, but John Mulhall is no ordinary inter-county hurler and the former Kilkenny Cat has never conformed to expectations.

Remembered for an unusual playing style in black and amber with his untucked jersey and long flowing locks, spend time in Mulhall's company and you quickly realise that most of the 'urban legends' around him could well be true. In fact, he confirms as much.

Flogging St Martin's GAA club lotto tickets in opposition dressing-rooms on match-days is tame enough compared to bleaching his hair red the night before the '06 county minor final and waking up the following morning to realise his scalp is burnt and getting on his green and red helmet (the Muckalee colours) would be torturous.

Br Damien Brennan dropped and recalled him four times between February and June 2006 for a variety of reasons when at the helm of the Kilkenny minors with one famous story of him arriving back on the waiting team bus in Durrow - after a match with Laois - with curry chips and a battered sausage from The Copper Kettle behind his back. It caused uproar after the team dinner and when his offer to throw them into the bin was declined, he "didn't know whether to laugh or cry" as he sat up at the front and finished his meal as punishment.

A couple of years later he travelled from Cork, where he won Fitzgibbon Cup honours in 2009, to Dublin's Phoenix Park to attend an Arcade Fire gig and could be seen hopping a sliotar through O'Connell Street before depositing his favourite hurley in a bush and collecting it on the return home.

His nomadic third-level years, which saw him hop-scotch through four different qualifications in UCC (Politics), Queen's (Master's in Leadership for Sustainable Development), Waterford IT (Master's International Business) and UL (Business Teaching Dip) would make Jim McGuinness proud.

John Mulhall making his Kildare debut last month
John Mulhall making his Kildare debut last month

And it even resulted in the infamy of having a rule being designed to prevent similar cases - you can no longer play more than six years at third-level between two different colleges - with UL officials receiving a letter in his final year which read 'under no circumstances is John Mulhall allowed to play Fitzgibbon Cup hurling this year'.

Taking everything into account, it was no surprise when Kildare boss Joe Quaid spoke of the 28-year-old arriving at their first session since his second-coming in Olympique Lyon shorts and a Christmas jumper, despite sub-zero temperatures.

Quaid's call, which Mulhall presumed was a hoax, came at six one evening in early January when Mulhall was sleeping off his New Year's exertions, but a request to transfer county allegiance set his mind racing and after some thought he opted to throw his lot in with the Lilies.

Living in Naas, because of cheaper rent and the easier commute to Greenhills College in Dublin, where he works as a business and maths teacher and will manage their junior hurling side in today's Dublin D1 final, has allowed an unlikely inter-county resurrection and he "couldn't see negatives in the move".

Quaid had scoured the county for talent, making 67 calls to potential panellists, most of which were unfruitful, and with star forward Gerry Keegan travelling for the year he decided to spread the net wider and acquired the Limerick pair of Mike and David Reidy, Tipp's Dinny Stapleton and Mulhall.

"You get to play county hurling, all the perks of that and you get a chance to go back and play in Croke Park. When you're 22 or 23 you don't think about that but to get back there one day would be unreal. You might never get that chance again," Mulhall says.

A lot has changed in his five years away from the inter-county scene and Mulhall is "enjoying the craic" with Kildare's WhatsApp group, and Snapchats coming from team-mates, and believes Quaid's top-class set-up "is as good as anything I've ever had with Kilkenny" as a wealth of underage talent graduate through the ranks.

He name-checks Jack Sheridan and Brian Byrne and reckons they're "as good as any young hurlers in Kilkenny" and will do anything he can to help win Christy Ring Cup honours and get them into the Leinster round-robin stages with his return nearly sparking a shock Walsh Cup win against Offaly.

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It's nearly five years since he got the dreaded call from Brian Cody - despite being one of two Cats subs to feature in the previous year's All-Ireland - with many believing his 2011 Homecoming performance sealed his fate. But Mulhall says it's far from the truth.

YouTube footage of his on-stage version of KC & The Sunshine Band's 'Give It Up', rewritten as "G'wan The Super Cats", was well received until the last verse: "Now we've taken back our throne/Tipperary póg mo thóin/Liam MacCarthy's coming f***ing home".

Cody's body language changed and taking over the microphone he uttered the famous line, "You've probably witnessed a performance by a fella who is probably going to have the shortest inter-county career of all time", but Mulhall outlines how his exclusion the following spring was form-related and the "total respect" he has for the 11-time All-Ireland-winning boss.

"Cody absolutely loved it, it was just the f*** at the end!" Mulhall says of a moment he is reminded of weekly. "It was 100pc to do with form. I was in UL and I was playing that bad that he couldn't continue with me but I often think that if I'd just got through that final year of college and away from that atmosphere, if I'd got to the summer everything would've come back."

The conversation between the two was short and sweet and he was "happy enough to get to go to the Euros at that stage. I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything, it was only three or four years later when you're hurling with St Martin's and you're like, 'Oh right, he's not going to call again'."

He's convinced Cody would effortlessly stand among a room of business leaders and political figures, such is aura and persona. "You could put him with Obama and other world figures and there'd be no way they'd look down on him. He has that huge presence. I've always said if Cody had one year with Galway they'd win an All-Ireland."

The call never came for a return but "one medal is as good as four" and it allowed him to experience the world outside of GAA as he travelled to South America, Australia, New Zealand, and won hurling titles in Chicago and Boston on one of his many trips Stateside.

Despite his colourful personality, the passion for hurling is obvious, however, and as the next chapter of his career begins with a trip to Armagh on Sunday in Division 2A, he's thankful to have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh, "the soundest, most crazily committed and skilful hurlers of all time" and has no fear for Kilkenny's immediate future.

"Cody is right in saying that there will be no turnover time, the young lads are there, the likes of Richie Leahy, Sean Morrissey, Luke Scanlon are all going to be sick. They'll be big names soon and it's only because they're in Kilkenny that they're not known yet."

His Kilkenny days are behind him but it's unlikely you've heard the last of John Mulhall.

Let's hope not anyway.

Irish Independent

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