Sunday 15 September 2019

'With a few minutes to go, I thought the game was gone'

Emlyn Mulligan has a new fan as he leaves the pitch at half-time during Leitrim’s match against New York at Gaelic Park. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Emlyn Mulligan has a new fan as he leaves the pitch at half-time during Leitrim’s match against New York at Gaelic Park. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Emlyn Mulligan moves slowly through the throngs in New York's Gaelic Park. He's stopped about every three feet or so by a friend or well-wisher.

All around him there are relieved Leitrim faces and glum expressions from those of a New York persuasion. The neutrals are easy to spot, grinning at having witnessed a game that will be hard to top in terms of drama this summer.

He stops to talk to his cousin, the former Longford footballer Kevin Mulligan, but the Leitrim team are being rounded up to get the bus back to their hotel.

A part of Mulligan is relieved to get the call because after more than 90 minutes of championship action, his knees are starting to ache.

Sunday marked a return to championship action for the first time since he underwent his third operation on a damaged cruciate.

This time around, the 'good' left knee buckled after the right had given up twice. With more football behind him than ahead of him he could have been forgiven if he decided he'd had enough and used his time to pursue other things.

However, packing it in never entered his mind.

"I never thought I wouldn't come back," he reflected. "I always said I would but it's a long road, 10 or 12 months of hard work and being in the gym on your own gets a bit boring. But I had a massive hunger coming back.

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"It was hard going," Mulligan said of his recovery. "This time last year we played London and I wasn't in the squad and it was tough watching on.

"But I said to myself the day I got out of Ray Moran's surgery that New York was my aim to try to get back on the panel first. And then I was delighted they felt I was fit enough and moving well enough to start.

"That was the first thing since I got the operation. Psychologically and mentally I was grand. It took its toll on the body but it was great to be in a position where I could play.

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"And to be around a team of young lads rejuvenates you after 10 or 12 years on the inter-county scene.

"It's great to get out of here with a win first and foremost, but on a personal note I was glad to be able to partake in it and give as much as I could."

Mulligan did his bit, kicking three first-half points as he engaged in a fascinating duel with former Mayo footballer Tom Cunniffe.

It should have come as no surprise because Gaelic Park has been good to him. Before Sunday, he had played there for Leitrim twice in the championship and amassed 3-18, while he also spent a summer playing for Donegal in the city. He has also played there with Sligo IT in the FBD League.

But he might have gone into the game with some trepidation. The astro-turf surface was always going to test his knees to the limit even without the additional 20 minutes of extra time. He made it through in one piece but less than an hour after the game his body is starting to revolt a little.

"I can feel a lot of pain in the front of the two knees," he said as the post-match party in Gaelic Park started to ramp up.

"We trained on the astro for the last few weeks and it took is toll. Look, it's great to be out there, the first half I was happy, kicked a few points and got the confidence up.

"Marking Tom Cunniffe was never going to be easy but it's about doing what you can whether that is making runs to make space or whatever.

"The older you get the less you can do but thankfully the young lads stepped up there at the end when we needed them and it looked like it was gone from us."

In many ways, Leitrim were on a hiding to nothing in New York. Win and it'd be pointed out that they beat a team that were afforded just a single challenge game - against a Corofin team that were just off the plane - in their preparation.

Otherwise the Exiles played in-house games, something well removed from the league Leitrim were able to play in. Lose and they would be on the wrong side of history and be the first team in 20 years to go down to the Exiles in the Connacht championship.

New York were as short as they had ever been with the bookmakers to make their breakthrough at slightly better than evens.

And while Mulligan could understand why some would have liked to see New York make history, he believes a defeat would have been very damaging for Brendan Guckian's young and developing side.

And he admits that the build-up to a game against New York can be difficult.

"It's a great atmosphere for Leitrim supporters, but for ourselves it's not a trip you enjoy. The first few days you have that fear of defeat, I suppose it's a huge thing for us.

"People were saying it would be great for New York to win that but I disagreed with that all week.

"I said to a few people the blood that flows through those young lads is green and gold blood and they'd do anything for Leitrim.

"No disrespect to New York, they are a team that are made up of lads on visas and this and that but they don't have the same passion for what we are representing as we do.

"I think it would have set us back a big amount if we didn't get through."

Having trailed by three with just less than five minutes to play, Leitrim needed four unanswered points, including a dramatic winner from sub Noel Plunkett, in the second half of extra-time to progress.


A draw at that stage would have seen New York brought back to Carrick-on-Shannon - New York reckon around 90pc of their panel would have been able to travel - but Mulligan admits he didn't even think they would get another chance at it at one stage.

"We read a lot, every comment I saw on Twitter, I'd be a big social media man, I'd read everything and I wouldn't hide away from it, and everybody was giving New York a chance.

"We knew New York had a very strong squad on paper and, with Jamie Clarke in the team, they were always going to be dangerous.

"At the same time, it took us a while to settle into it but we got back into it and kept within touching distance of it.

"Being honest, with a few minutes to go I thought the game was gone from us to be honest and I knew myself the body wasn't able to do a whole pile.

"Thankfully, Noel came on and kicked the winner and the few scores before that were vital and it's great they had the energy to drive it on and keep going.

"They showed some nerve and it was a great morale boost for us. We had a great few days together, there's a lot of bonding done.

"And you have a few days after it too, it will bring us on well for Roscommon. We know we'll have a huge challenge ahead of us but we're just delighted to still be in the Connacht championship."

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