Brian Talty got in to visit Brian Mullins just the day before his old college mate and All-Ireland sparring partner passed away on Friday. There was comfort in seeing ‘the Mull’ one last time, but that didn’t erase the poignancy of the moment either.
It’s a sad day from a football point of view and from all points of view,” the former Galway midfielder reflected. “To see somebody you thought was indestructible.”
People with only passing knowledge of the Mullins/Talty dynamic – whose memories of the pair in action are confined to a few acrimonious seconds during the first half of the 1983 All-Ireland football final - may do a double-take on reading this.
They might even quote the RTÉ commentary of Micheal O’Hehir, as the kickout lands in their orbit and Mullins and Talty battle for the dropping ball. “Brian Mullins got his fist to that – and Brian Mullins got his fist to that too!” O’Hehir repeats, upon seeing the Dublin powerhouse lash back with a retaliatory swipe and catch his opponent flush.
Referee John Gough was only yards away; today you would call it a stonewall red card, yet no such colour-coded metric of disapproval existed in the GAA of four decades ago. Still, Mullins got his marching orders and off he trooped, hands behind his head, disconsolate.
The notorious narrative of ’83 – the competing caricatures of Dublin’s 12 Apostles/Dirty Dozen (select according to bias) holding out against 14 addled Tribesmen - doubtless coloured the perception among non-Dubs of the county’s midfield enforcer.
But there was so much more to Mullins. And, as Talty pointed out, so much more to his own relationship with the man.
The Tuam native was a year younger and a year behind him at Thomond College, where they studied PE. When Talty arrived in Limerick, Mullins was already an All-Ireland winning midfielder from 1974 – “beating Galway, of course, as he normally did.”
But even that painful caveat didn’t dilute how the young fresher viewed him. “He would have been a hero to us,” Talty said. “He was a big, strong man who was mobile, skilful – and way more skilful than people thought.
“The other thing, of course, is he was a leader. He dragged men up with him. And he did it by doing what had to be done.”
They would go on to share a dressing-room in college – and later, in Dublin, they even became soccer teammates for a while with Mid Sutton FC. “A hugely skilful guy at that as well,” Talty recounted.
“The midfield was Alan Larkin, Brian Talty and Brian Mullins … I had the Mull on one side and I had Larkin on the other side, so I was safe as a house on fire in the middle.”
A 1980 car crash could have ended it all. Where others would have been thankful merely to survive, Mullins made it his mission to get back on the All-Ireland stage with Dublin.
“It was unbelievable,” Talty recalled. “To watch the man come back – we actually were playing soccer around that time, where he was carrying the leg and all that kind of stuff, but still was so determined to get back. And did it.
“I mean, if you saw him in a hospital bed after that, you wouldn’t have thought that he’d even live after it, to be honest with you … so to come back and play football was huge. It showed the character and the strength and the power of the man to do that.
“After that, we thought he was indestructible. But it just shows you what can happen.”
A fourth All-Ireland medal duly followed; yet 1983 would prove a bittersweet symphony and, for a while, relations were strained.
“We had huge connections. My wife was from Clontarf and very friendly with the Mull. Our priest in St David’s was a great friend of both of us,” Talty explained.
“Ah, I mean, these things happen and for a while there was a bit of a stand-off. But after that - very shortly after that - you just realise football is football and what happened on the field is done and dusted. And thanks be to God we were good mates and had a few great days.”
Briefly, for one season in 1986, the now-retired Mullins would join Seán Doherty and Robbie Kelleher in a Dublin managerial triumvirate of old teammates. Many years later, under Paul Caffrey, Talty would become a selector of his adopted Dublin too.
On Thursday, he and Pat McCarthy, another college friend, paid their old comrade one final visit.
Over the years, Talty would bump into Mullins often. Or rather, he clarified with a smile: “We met regularly. He was too big to bump into!”