Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Owen Mulligan: I'd have been happy with a handshake but I've had nothing

Owen Mulligan: If you were working at a job for 15 years you expect a handshake
Owen Mulligan: If you were working at a job for 15 years you expect a handshake

Owen Mulligan is sitting in the Greenvale Hotel on launch day of his autobiography; 'Mugsy', when he startles the questioner by asking; "I don't think I have slated Mickey Harte. What do you think?"

For the record, he doesn't.

In the prologue, describing his arrest for criminal damage in 2008 for example, he writes, 'If I had been Mickey Harte dealing with me, I'd have given me the road a few times.'

The first chapter begins as thus; 'I was working on the roof of a house the day I heard Mickey Harte was the new Tyrone senior football manager. I could have jumped as high as the house. If anybody is going to manage Tyrone to a senior All-Ireland title, it's him.'

Slate Mickey Harte? No way.

It still pains him though, how it ended. Even now, he hates the way it was all left hanging in the air, waiting for a phonecall to resume his county career that never came after he captained Cookstown to another All-Ireland Intermediate title.

With the county career over, it's time the Tyrone story got another run out. There are few better-placed to tell it than the colourful Mulligan, one of the most popular players ever in the game.

The book is a reflection of his personality in many cases, but he also reveals a depth than many have missed. He recounts a warm childhood dominated by an inter-family Gaelic football tournament, 'The Mulligan Cup' with his father Eugene recording it all on video with player interviews.

'Who's your favourite player? Are you confident of winning today?'

He had Eugene maddened another time when he mistook solid oak door frames for potential goalposts, drove nails into the crossbars, dug the holes and erected the most expensive goals in Ulster in the family garden.

He doesn't avoid the past 12 months. Tyrone ended and he is maddened by the lack of closure.

"I went to two trial matches and I didn't hear anything since," he recalls.

"It didn't hit me until the Dublin game in the National League final, and even then it didn't hit me during the game. See the next morning? That's when it hit. I just thought, 'what's going on here?'"

He continues, "I got a couple of text messages from the players, asking, 'well, when are you coming back?'

"If you were working at a job for 15 years you expect a handshake. I would have been happy with a handshake, 'thank you Mugsy, thank you lad.' That would have done for me. But I didn't get that."

It should be said that there is no-one Mulligan is harder on in his autobiography than himself. His honesty is compelling and he pulls himself up for acting beneath his years as he left his own and Raymond Mulgrew's mother in tears by embarking on a session of drink the week before the 2008 All-Ireland final in Armagh and leaving his phone turned off.

"I was in a bad place, as they say. My confidence was gone, I wasn't on the team ...

"Ray was always the young lad, the next big thing, there was talk he was the next Peter Canavan. But he would come in with a pint of stout and maybe the next week I might come in with a pint. I should have been the older man, advising him, like Canavan and Chris Lawn done to me."

"They were like my guardians, telling me, 'catch yourself on, pull your horns in.' Instead, I was dragging him away for a pint. I dragged him down that road.

"I still think Ray can make it. He's 27 and it has to happen, but it's on here (thumps chest) if he wants it. I have told him this. He knows deep down that he could make it."

He also knows that some papers will pick off lines in the book and they will be transformed into lurid, Technicolor headlines. The truth, he can live with, even episodes like a night in a prison cell.

"I said to myself if I was going to write an autobiography it had to be the truth. Now, I'm not saying I was right to do that thing in The Conway Inn (when he smashed the pub windows after a row). I was totally wrong.

"I jump into a police car; it's wrong, I'm not saying it was right. I am saying to people not to do it, it's like advice. I put it in the book to show the consequences of being rash. It's just my story."

For all the party boy antics, he only partied when he felt he deserved it. In 2005 after hitting one of the finest goals ever against Dublin, he jumped into a lift and got up the road before the team bus.

"I didn't want that. Even leading up to other games the boys were going out at night and I hated that. . I hated the night, hadn't done anything for Tyrone on the pitch. Why would you go out and celebrate that you were a sub?"

He feels the present generation of Tyrone players have lost that edge his contemporaries had.

"The last couple of years there were boys there just happy enough to put on their tracksuit top, happy enough to drive and get a number on their jersey that was like a phone number, going out that night, seeing the Tyrone groupies."

It drove him mad to be in Ballybofey last May and watch a Tyrone side getting bullied around the field, but when a Tyrone fan shouted over during the All-Ireland semi-final that it was a disgrace he wasn't on the pitch, it was too much.

"I had to go down the steps and away from everybody. A boy shouted down the steps at me in the press box but I had a big lump in my throat and couldn't say anything back to him."

There are few happy endings, but that's sport, that's life. We shouldn't sugar-coat everything and in telling his story, Owen Mulligan has left it as raw as possible with all the goals, celebrations, rows, affairs and arrests.

With all that out there, the last question to ask is what concerns him right now?

"You are always going to get haters," he says. "My take on it is if you haven't the b**** to put a book out, you are going to get it anyway.

"If you are in the public eye, people love you, they hate you. If they think the book is s***e, then good luck to them. I know it's from the heart."