It was appropriate on the day that Lance Armstrong was all over the news as he kinda fessed up to Oprah Winfrey about his transgressions that John Mullane should also step up to hog the headlines. On the one hand you have a man who utterly betrayed his sport. On the other, a man who has done his sport some service. The alpha male bully versus the inspirational leader. Someone who when faced with a choice about how to proceed with his career chose the way of cheating versus someone who chose to illuminate his sport with his talent rather than his aggression. As cycling has been cursed by its ambassador figure, so hurling has been blessed by John Mullane. And that’s just his impact on the sport in general. We will see in the next few years just how important he was to Waterford in particular . . .
It was not always fated to be like this. As Thomas Keane has noted he didn’t pull up trees at underage level, so he seemed to arrive fully formed on the scene in 2001 when he endured a frustrating cameo against Limerick. Even among a Waterford team that ripped through Limerick in the first fifteen minutes he looked special and when he went down in a heap after Shannonsider enforcer Clement Smith had moved on to him, embittered Waterford supporters spent the entire winter wondering ‘what if?’ he had only been able to remain on the field. When we got to see him for real the following summer as we finally landed the Munster title, he looked the part but not noticeably more special than Eoin Kelly or Ken McGrath. His temper was not standing him in good stead, with stories swirling around of lamentable incidents at club matches and his notorious red card in the 2004 Munster final when he allowed himself to be baited by a langer made you wonder whether he would ever mature to the level required.
It was only after several years of service that the penny dropped that this guy was on a different level to everyone around him. It helped that he managed to put a lid on the volcano. He retained the whiff of townie sulphur that made him stand out in a sport littered with bland culchies – the outrage down Leeside over him flicking the bird at the Town End after his hat-trick goal in the 2003 Munster final spoke volumes at how he rattled the cages of those who viewed him as their inferior, as did the manner in which he won them all over in the end. Ultimately though it the performances on the field that mattered:
Facts like that would be enough in themselves. The level of consistency really leaves you fretting for the future as you mentally start Waterford at -3 without him. But the bare stats would mask the bravura nature of those performances. Countless times Waterford would sag and he would grab the team by the lapels and thrust them collectively forward, as if by the force of his will he could push the team over the finish line – although keeping the scoreboard ticking over always helped. The count of games where he was carrying us is not beyond number – I’m sure you could go through all 48+1 sub and see how many there were – but there were lots. The aforementioned hat-trick against Cork in 2003. Knowing we were toast when he went off injured against Wexford in the next game after a five-point haul. An effortless eight points in Dr Cullen Park against Offaly in 2005. His inspirational scores which sparked the late revival against Cork in 2006, a game memorably described by Ger Loughnane as ‘epic and heartbreaking’. Desperately keeping Waterford in touch in 2009 against Tipperary when they repeatedly threatened to steamroller us in the manner they did two year later – only one man could be put on the cover of the programme to represent the Déise. That stupendous point that undid Galway in 2009. Even his last Championship game, coming out to the middle of the park to knock Cork out of their stride sufficiently for Waterford to regain a foothold in the game. You could go on and on, and it’s just a pity he can’t.
As I write this, I’m conscious of over-reach. If An Fear Rua still existed you’d have trolls on dragging up unseemly incidents in his past, and to say he was on a different level to Ken McGrath seems almost sacrilegious. Still, I feel like channeling the spirit of a man who was beholden to no-one, so I will come out and say it – of all the players I have seen, not just those who played for Waterford, he was the best of the lot. Better than Brian Whelehan, better than Nicky English, better even than King Henry. I’ll miss him when Waterford next take to the field without him in the Championship, but a piece of him will always be in my heart. Where I grew up frustrated at not having seen the likes of John Keane or Frankie Walsh, it will be my children who will sit at my feet and be regaled with tales of his derring-do. Thank you, John Mullane. It has been an honour and a privilege to see you play.