Friday 6 December 2019

Opposites linked by their greatness

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

You couldn't get two more different hurlers than Noel Hickey and John Mullane.

Hickey was the most unobtrusive of great players. He eschewed the flamboyance of the other brilliant number threes of his era, Brian Lohan and Diarmuid O'Sullivan, while being ultimately more effective than either of them. You generally noticed him through noticing what the full-forward wasn't doing.

This was particularly the case in the policing job Hickey did on a bang-in-form Joe Deane in the 2003 All-Ireland final. And it was there again in his destruction of Brian Corcoran in the 2006 decider and in the general air of imperturbability he always lent to the Cats' rearguard.

There was never anything unobtrusive about Mullane. The buzz which ran through the crowd when he got the ball saw to that. Nothing in the past decade of hurling has been more eye-catching than those great runs when Mullane would ship a few belts before eventually working an angle from which to sweep the ball over the bar. They were like little cartoons of creativity inside the larger narrative of the game.

The second big difference between the duo is in how they've been rewarded for their brilliance. At 32, Hickey leaves the game with nine All-Ireland medals. A week short of his 32nd birthday, Mullane hasn't one to his name. There's four Munsters and that's it. If everyone wanted Waterford to finally make that All-Ireland breakthrough, Mullane and Tony Browne were the players we most wanted to see joyfully dancing in the Hogan Stand at five o'clock. It says everything about the way things worked out for Waterford that Mullane's brilliant hat-trick of goals in the 2003 Munster final is largely forgotten because they lost the game to Cork.

There was always something larger than life about Mullane. He'd have drawn attention to himself simply by going to the shop. The shaven skull, the white eyebrows and the fact that his general demeanour resembled that of some messianic obsessive played by Klaus Kinski in a Werner Herzog movie saw to that. He engendered huge affection, something which perhaps began when, in an era of objections and loopholes, he took his suspension after the 2004 Munster final like a man and missed the semi-final against Kilkenny as a result.

Noel Hickey, on the other hand, is one of those rare GAA legends who'd probably be able to order a pint in most pubs in the country without any fear of being recognised.

But Hickey and Mullane do have two important things in common. They were both truly great players. And the game of hurling will be poorer without both of them. Mind you, I think we mightn't have seen the last of Mullane. I hope not anyway.

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