The former Dublin captain would always be on my short list of players I wanted to play alongside
I MET Brian Mullins for the first time nearly 50 years ago when I enrolled as a third level student in Thomond College, then known as the National College of Physical Education (NCPE).
Together with Galway’s John Tobin, Fran Ryder from Dublin, Hugo Clerkin (Monaghan), Dick Dunne (Laois) and Ted Owens (Cork), Brian was among the first cohort of students accepted into the new college.
When the likes of myself, the late Richie Bell from Mayo, Brian McSweeney (Cork) and Sean O’Shea (Longford) arrived in 1973, Gaelic football was already the predominant sport in the college. Even though we were only ‘freshers’ we were immediately promoted to the senior team.
Back then, NCPE was regarded as a third level college rather than a university so we weren’t allowed compete in the Sigerson Cup. But if memory serves me right, we went through that season unbeaten.
Mullins was our on-field leader and general. He was the kind of player you wanted as a team-mate.
There are endless debates about who are the greatest footballers of all time. But he would always be on my short list of players I wanted to play alongside.
When games were in the melting pot Brian would be the first into the trenches. He led by example.
A defiant, warrior-like figure, he inspired us all. Ultra-competitive, he hated losing and this was the message he bombarded us with when we were ‘freshers’.
Funnily enough, the first time I saw him playing for Dublin I was less than impressed. The Leinster championship tie between Dublin and Wexford was a curtain raiser to the 1974 National football league final replay between Kerry and Roscommon in Croke Park.
Observing how both Dublin and Brian performed that day, never in my wildest imagination did I think that four months later 13 of that team would be climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive the Sam Maguire Cup. Not for the first time I was wrong.
Brian Mullins was to Dublin what Roy Keane was to Manchester United in his prime. He was the lynchpin of the great Dublin side which contested six All-Ireland finals in a row between 1974 and 1979, winning three titles and becoming Kerry’s greatest rivals.
I always felt he reserved his best performances for big games against us. He had strong roots in the Kingdom – his mother hailed from Lispole and he was a nephew of the famous Kerry footballer Bill Casey.
He detested losing to us, and one sure way of annoying him was to suggest his greatness as a player was due to his Kerry background.
In his prime, he was virtually impossible to stop in full flight. Allied to his physical prowess he was iron-willed.
Arguably his greatest triumph was to come back and win a fourth All-Ireland medal in 1983 after suffering devastating injuries in a car accident in the summer of 1980. This was him at his defiant best.
On a personal level, we weren’t particularly close. He had a very tight network of friends.
He didn’t suffer fools gladly. And if he wasn’t happy with you he had no hesitation in telling you exactly how he felt – as I discovered on more than one occasion.
A growl or a stare from him that would stop you in your tracks. Nonetheless, you couldn’t but love him, because he was such a warrior on the field.
In 2020, the Irish Independent put him at number seven of the greatest footballers of all time and he would be in my top ten anytime.
While the marksmanship of Jimmy Keaveney, the industry of Bobby Doyle and the intelligence of Tony Hanahoe all contributed to the Dublin success story in the 1970s, there was one player and one player alone who made it happen – and that was Brian Mullins.
For a landmark feature on the Dublin football team of the 1970s, ‘Return to the Hill,’ sports writer David Walsh interviewed all 15 players and the manager Kevin Heffernan, weaving a remarkable story in the January 1989 edition of ‘Magill’ magazine.