In conversation with Paddy Mulligan: Ireland’s street football gladiator

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By Trevor Murray

Paddy Mulligan is both an Irish football legend and a man you can’t help but sit up and listen to. You can hear the passion in his voice, his anecdotes are second to none, and his relationship with the game spans decades.

Mulligan is a half-centurion for the Republic of Ireland and was a mainstay in the team’s rearguard for 10 years between 1969 and 1979. Although the Green Army never managed to qualify for a major tournament during Mulligan’s playing days, his era is a crucial one in understanding the history of Irish football. Had it not been for the pride, passion and determination to battle on during the doldrums, Ireland would not have built the solid foundation and strong sense of public interest needed to nurture the next generation of greats – those players who would go on to achieve that seemingly-elusive tournament appearance.

One of the most intriguing of those campaigns was the qualification run for the 1976 European Championship. Although the Irish campaign ultimately ended in failure, it was most definitely an opportunity missed. Despite having the best defensive record and scoring the most goals across a four-team group comprised of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Switzerland, Ireland missed out on top spot by a single point and were left to rue a lack of away form.

Winning their opening match 3-0 against the Soviet Union at home, Ireland then drew with Turkey in Izmir and beat Switzerland 2-1 in Lansdowne Road to put themselves in a favourable position. Two defeats in a row – against the Soviets in Kiev and against Switzerland in Berne – were disappointing setbacks, but Ireland could have still qualified if they overcame the Turks in their final match and the Swiss got a result in Kiev.

The game against Turkey would be remembered as only the second time an Irish footballer scored four goals in one match, and the last time a Republic of Ireland team took to the pitch comprised solely of Irish-born players. The manner of victory was a marvellous achievement, but the Soviets spoiled the party a fortnight later by also scoring four to hammer the Swiss and end any lingering hopes of Irish qualification. Mulligan admits that missing out on qualification was a horrible experience, but is realistic enough to concede that a lack of squad depth hindered Irish efforts.

Still, he carries fond memories of the match for teammate Don Givens, despite the wider repercussions beyond the final whistle. “Oh, that was a great day for him,” says Mulligan.

“Along with the three [Givens scored] against Russia the previous year, he got three against Russia and then the four against the Turks in ’75. That was another magnificent performance at Dalymount Park.”

“Dalymount was really the home of Irish soccer. It was a fabulous stadium to go and play in, and once the crowd were in there you could see the whites of their eyes. It was just a magnificent stadium – 35-40,000 people at the games. It was a fabulous occasion and you wouldn’t change that for anything.”

Givens’ goals were crucial to Ireland’s great performances through ’74 and ’75, and his historic haul in that final group game dominated much of the talk among the Irish soccer community for the months and years to follow. But equally noteworthy was how good Ireland’s defence was at that time. They only conceded five times across the entire qualification campaign. The last thing the team would remind themselves before walking out onto Dalyer was the mantra: “we do not concede under any circumstances” – a feat they managed twice during the ’76 qualification campaign.

“As a defensive unit we were very solid because we spoke to each other on the pitch all the time,” says Mulligan. “We talked each other into position. We told people where we thought there was danger coming from and we never stopped talking.”

“With us, people accepted responsibility from dead-ball situations. There was no such thing as a zonal system. You went man-to-man, and it was your responsibility to mark X in the Turkish team. That was it, you went with him, and you didn’t bother with anyone else. Now they get away with murder – they can do whatever they like. They’re dragging and pulling jerseys, they’ve got their arms around each other’s waist. It’s like Strictly Come Dancing the way they carry on, without Marty Morrissey,” he jokes.

On a more serious note, Mulligan believes that defending has become something of a lost art in the modern game, where the more glamorous aspects of forward play are prioritised.

“It’s not attractive to the eye. But if you’re a defender, it’s very attractive to your manager and to you because you know what you’ve had to do to prevent a goal or prevent the possibility of a goal. It looks like nothing, but those are the simple things – they are the main ingredients of why you become a good player. You can see the picture – you see things before anybody else sees them and that is an art in itself, because it means your footballing intelligence is working at a rate of knots superior to your opponent. But there’s not enough talk about that today.”

Considering the Irish side of the 1970s was packed with big stars playing for iconic teams, it’s something of a mystery that they couldn’t achieve the results they wanted. Mulligan chalks some of it down to a lack of luck and cites a condensed squad, too. Regardless of the reasons behind Ireland’s absence from Euro ’76 or the World Cup in ’78, the ’70s were an important decade for Irish soccer. It was a period that saw the team improve, take on professional standards and pick up some fantastic results, and it’s become a benchmark for the years that followed.

Nostalgia is one thing, but looking back on a golden generation as a blueprint to be reproduced is something else entirely. Getting Irish footballers playing at the very top level won’t happen overnight, but it should certainly be a long-term priority. In Mulligan’s time, the Irish squad had Steve Heighway at Liverpool, John Giles at Leeds and Paddy Roche at Manchester United. Tony Dunne (ex-Manchester United) was at Bolton Wanderers for the ’76 campaign, and there was also the emergence of a certain Liam Brady at Arsenal, who earned his debut in the opener against Russia. The national team had a surfeit of players plying their trades with the very best, but Mulligan feels it is becoming “increasingly difficult for Irish players to make it across the water”.

In his formative years, Mulligan played much of his football on the street in Chapelizon, Dublin. It gave him his grounding in the beautiful game, and meant he could attune himself to the idiosyncrasies of the sport. “The chief form of entertainment was to go and try and get a ball some place, and normally one of your pals would have one. It was absolutely wonderful,” he says.

“You learned all your skills on the street. You could play five-a-side on the road. Back in the day, a guard might cycle down the road, and you’d see him in the distance and all run away, and when he’d be gone you’d be back out again. You played football ’til it got dark in the summer. You’d play all day long, starting off in the morning, you’d play after tea and that was just the norm.”

Some might view Mulligan’s reflections as a romantic throwback, but it’s hard not to feel that there’s something unique about street football. It teaches skills that coaches cannot. Mulligan feels that youngsters are coached to be competitive far too early in their development, and he wholeheartedly believes that kids should be allowed to enjoy the thrill of the game before they concern themselves with the dynamics of winning.

“When you’re seven or eight or nine years old you haven’t got a clue what your best position is – all you want to do is get that ball. Coaches should be encouraging kids to get their first touch right, your awareness, your positional play, your support play. You’re self-coaching yourself when you’re playing small-sided games, five-a-side, because you’re making yourself available for your colleague to play the ball to you.”

The Ireland legend feels that it will take a “significant cultural shift” for young footballers to get back into street football, and it’s hard to argue with that stance. Although little is certain in the beautiful game, getting kids playing three-and-in with goalposts painted on brick walls could be the key to Ireland producing the sort of nimble, dedicated footballers capable of representing the big British clubs again. Footballers like the distinguished Mulligan.

– Paddy Mulligan was in conversation with Trevor Murray.

Lee NashComment