HE was a boy who grew up in front of our eyes. At first glance he appeared brash and volatile, no point in saying otherwise. The tight haircut, the fist-pumping and the jersey-clutching. It was as if he needed to suck in the crowd's energy to propel himself to greater feats.
Yes, there was an edge to him alright, a rare kind of fervour.
Hurling people balked at the Waterford team's antics and their over-zealous public displays of affection. But when it came to Mullane most gradually turned a blind eye. 'Ah, his game needs that sort of thing,' they'd mumble. 'And sure the game needs him.' They were right.
John Mullane grew up in Waterford's inner city; he was tall, blindingly fast and hard to shake off the ball and he went on to become the game's ultimate corner-forward.
"All that hard work paid off," says Dan Shanahan. "That man owes Waterford nothing and I think he's right to leave on a high. No one is pushing him out or confining him to the bench. He took the role of a corner-forward into new territory and then he made wing-forward his own over the past year or so. He's the only man in Waterford to win five All Stars – you don't achieve that landmark by not putting the effort in. People may have imagined an easy-going hurler full of flair but John worked harder than most."
Mullane began playing hurling in the yard of Stephen Street primary school where his fixation with the game became entrenched.
"Joey Carton arrived down with the keys to Cleaboy only to be met at the gate by this real thin redhead with a plastic bag in one hand and a hurley in the other," says one De La Salle clubman. "John had huge interest and was always first up to the field, but he was just so skinny. He kept getting horsed out of it by lads his own age. There wouldn't have been a whole lot expected of him at the start."
He ran as a waterboy for the 1992 All- Ireland under 21-winning team and his fascination for the game grew. Tony Browne and Paul Flynn, in particular, caught his eye. Years later, when he won the 2002 Munster final, Mullane remarked that even being in the same dressing room as those players represented a milestone.
De La Salle worked hard on Mullane's development. They had plenty of raw material to work with: speed, attitude, strong wrists and a great left side. The coaches gasped at his unnatural speed but often sent him home from training because of a downright refusal to strike off his right. He made the county's Tony Forristal squad but was dropped for the same reason, an over-dependence on his left. It was only when he hit minor ranks that the message sank in.
Throughout a gradual transition from a raw, inner city kid to a five-time All Star, however, we got to know the real Mullane. Each time he made a mistake or stepped out of line on the field he faced the cameras and apologised, and earned respect in the process.
For 13 years he breathed colour and personality into the game when most marched regimentally on, afraid to speak up, or act differently for fear of standing out.
He was, we discovered, much softer than his match-day persona. In fact, he was one of the most genuine players on the scene, modest and sincere.
"Yeah, he was one of the most honest lads I played with," Shanahan agrees. "He'd tear himself up if he wasn't giving 100 per cent and he liked everything to be right. He was never out of shape if you ask me and he was as primed for club as he was for county."
Challenged by such high standards, he rarely failed to deliver for Waterford. He scored in all but three of his 49 senior championship appearances.
In 2001, Mullane made his championship debut against Limerick and after 15 minutes the game looked to be in the bag. Waterford led 2-6 to 0-1 and Mullane was on fire against Brian Geary. Limerick then put Clem Smith on the case and Smith followed the rookie closely. He hobbled off with a hamstring injury soon after, knowing only then what championship hurling was all about.
But he learned from it. Realising that people doubted his ability to win dirty ball, he turned that theory upside down in subsequent seasons. It became his calling card.
"His speed was the main thing but as the years went on I would say no-one ever physically dominated John like that again," says Shanahan.
The following year a 39-year wait for a Munster title ended as Justin McCarthy's side turned in a dazzling display of hurling to overwhelm Tipperary. Mullane and Eoin McGrath climbed the wires to connect with the supporters who weren't allowed onto the field.
"Back then I was only 20 or so and playing in a Munster final was an achievement in itself for us," Mullane recalled. "Myself, Eoin Kelly, Eoin McGrath, Seamus Prendergast . . . we were only kids."
It was a rotten, wet day. At noon, Brazil beat Germany in the World Cup final and a couple of the Waterford boys backed Ronaldo for top scorer and Brazil as World Cup champions. They cleaned up on both fronts. It distracted them from the business of beating Tipp.
"It all went pretty fast for us," Mullane recalls. "We met up in Dungarvan at noon and before we knew it the game was on – we didn't even have a chance to be nervous."
More than 10,000 people welcomed them back that night. Mullane's life would never be the same.
His 3-1 from play against Cork in the 2003 Munster final will be forever remembered. A provocative wave to the opposition supporters in the midst of that haul will live long in the mind too! "Ah, he was only a young lad and the Cork fans were giving him serious stick," Shanahan smiles. "He learned as he went along. Like the rest of us."
Despite those heroics, all Mullane got from that day was an open gash above his left eye. Three goals and no medal. He later apologised for reacting to the Cork fans.
Three weeks later, Waterford were out of the championship, losing to Wexford in the qualifiers, even if Mullane did all he could, with 0-5 from play. Incidentally, three of those scores came off his right side. That December, he collected his first All Star. It was a good end to a difficult year which had tested him on and off the field. As his profile grew, friends and team-mates witnessed him become more comfortable with the spotlight.
In between the 2004 National League final and their championship opener against Clare, Mullane travelled to Tallow for a senior club challenge, though he couldn't play with the championship looming. So he took 25 youngsters behind one goal and gave an impromptu clinic. The gesture impressed everyone.
That good work would be undone in that year's Munster final, however, when he was sent off for reacting to Cork defender Brian Murphy. With Waterford every game had to be an epic, and once again they produced dramatics, this time hanging on to win one of the greatest hurling encounters ever despite being down a man.
Tears streamed down Mullane's face as he went on RTE to say he had let his county down and just how much love he felt for his county. Six weeks later, still banned for Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, he looked on in despair as they lost by just three points. How they could have done with him.
At the time GAA court injunctions were all the rage, with some players looking to the steps and county secretaries and solicitors to seek temporary respite from suspensions. Mullane ignored that route and took his punishment.
After losing to Kilkenny he approached the media outside a hushed dressing room. He was inconsolable as he uttered the words "if you do the crime". "I am happy I didn't pursue the legal route," he whispered. "At the end of the day I am a GAA man. There were people putting up money (to pursue the suspension in court) and it would have been easy for me to play today."
The acceptance of his punishment won him widespread respect.
The seasons that followed were peppered with the highs and lows. Justin McCarthy, a father figure to many of the team, would ultimately lose the dressing room and moved on in controversial fashion.
Davy Fitzgerald took over for the remainder of the 2008 season and they reached an All-Ireland final. A two-point semi-final win over Tipperary saw Mullane and Fitzgerald rolling around the turf, embracing each other as they qualified for the final. When they met again in 2012 – this time with Fitzgerald manning the opposition bench – the exchanges weren't quite as warm. At the final whistle Mullane over-reacted to an alleged slight on his ability cast by his old friend, a claim that was vehemently denied.
Explaining his reaction on TV, Mullane regretted it had happened: "We'll sit down some day and we'll have it out," he said. "We'll talk it through."
In the middle of all these comings and goings, people forget that he had a narrow escape in 2005.
He took a shoulder in a Waterford quarter-final clash against Fourmilewater, hit his head off the ground and swallowed his tongue. An opposing player and qualified male nurse, Declan Spellman, rushed over and retrieved the tongue with the referee's pen. "It was a freak accident," Mullane recalled. "Only for Declan, I probably wouldn't be around today."
A few weeks ago he was named in Michael Ryan's 35-man panel, but a return wasn't really on the cards. The two men met on Wednesday and following months of careful consideration Mullane drafted a statement on Thursday afternoon and sent it to the GPA. Friends say that he waited until Kevin Moran had been crowned Waterford GAA Player of the Year before making the announcement as he didn't want to steal any attention from his good friend and clubmate.
The reaction was such that a press conference was called for the following morning as Mullane struggled to cope with the media attention. Many commentators expressed their surprise at his decision to retire just short of his 32nd birthday.
Maybe his speed was diminishing somewhat, but the principal reason is that with two little daughters, Abbie and Katie, he stepped aside because it was right for himself and his wife Stephanie.
"I'm not the kind of fella who can go into something without being 100 per cent committed. If I don't feel 100 per cent right within myself, I won't do it – it's all or nothing," he says.
From play, he ends his career as the sixth highest scorer of all time in senior hurling championship, managing almost four points per game.
His prowess grew to such an extent that the team's failure to wean themselves off their overdependence on him – especially since the retirements of Flynn, Ken McGrath and Shanahan – probably cost them. Apart from the five All Stars, he has four Munster titles but perhaps his three county and two provincial club titles mean even more to him. Being overlooked for the Waterford captaincy in recent years never affected his performances either.
Last December, as the All Stars toured San Francisco, a group of journalists passed the Liam MacCarthy cup from one to the next. Then Mullane asked for a go. "Throw it over to us there, lads," he said. "I may as well get used to the feel of it before next September."
He never did get to lift Liam MacCarthy but it was about the only thing in the game he didn't do.
It seems ludicrous to suggest this but perhaps the 2008 All-Ireland final was his day of days. Waterford lost to Kilkenny by a humiliating 23 points but Mullane ran himself into the ground that afternoon. He died with his boots on in a cauldron of humiliation.
The boy had turned into a man. Right in front of our very eyes.