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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021

Wilderness to Leinster champions - Mullinalaghta story sums up magic of club game

The Longford champions pulled off the greatest win in the club’s history today.

Shane Mulligan lifts the trophy Shane Mulligan lifts the trophy. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Kevin O’Brien reports from Bord na Mona O’Connor Park

THERE WON’T BE a cow milked in Mullinalaghta tonight, but that doesn’t mean the farmers are let off the hook. 

Earlier this week, centre-forward James McGivney said that no matter what happened in the Leinster final against Kilmacud Crokes, on Sunday evening he’ll have to put in a couple of hours on his beef farm at home. 

“Before the Leinster final this year, me and my brothers will probably do around two hours outside on the farm that morning, go to the game, come back home and do another two hours in the evening time,” he stated. “Go up then and enjoy a few pints or whatever.” 

There will be more than a few pints consumed in Keogh’s, the only bar in the half-parish, this week. 2018 Leinster club champions. It’s quite the achievement for the tiny Longford club that spent decades in the wilderness. 

This was billed as a David v Goliath contest. Kilmacud Crokes, with their 4,800-odd members, are sponsored with Bank of Ireland. Mullinalaghta have an entire population of around 450 and are without any jersey sponsors. 

There were 3,510 supporters in Tullamore this afternoon and the majority were shouting for the underdogs. Hopefully the last ones out of Mullinalaghta turned the lights off before they left.

Last week it was Gaoth Dobhair, from the Ghaeltacht region on the north-west tip of Donegal, who became the first club from the county to lift the Ulster title in 43 years and sparked joyous scenes in Healy Park.

“It was just surreal. It’s impossible to describe the buzz I’ve felt since last Sunday,” Eamon McGee said over the weekend. 

The Mullinalaghta giant killers will be feeling that buzz all this week – and beyond – as the magnitude of what they’ve achieved begins to kick in.

They’re the first club from Longford to win the provincial crown and it arrives on the 50th anniversary of the county’s sole Leinster SFC-winning campaign of 1968.

It remains to be seen if the Mullinalaghta celebrations videos this week will contain a call-out of their All-Ireland semi-final opponents Dr Crokes, similar to their counterparts in Donegal last week.

Despite the constant barrage of negativity that seems to follow the GAA, stories like Gaoth Dobhair and Mullinalaghta highlight the hugely positive impact it can have on local communities. 

In the same interview last week, McGivney stated that if it wasn’t for St Columba’s GAA club in Mullinalaghta, the vast majority of the squad would have emigrated.

“Football is the only thing keeping the community together,” he added. McGivney himself spent time working in Australia a few years ago before the GAA lured him home. 

The team’s corner-back Conan Brady has been commuting home from the UK for eight years to don the club colours. He had five years of flying back under the belt before they even won a county title – their breakthrough win in 2016 was their first since 1950.

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John Kegan and Simon Cadam celebrate with the trophy after the game John Keegan and Simon Cadam celebrate with the trophy after the game. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Other squad members travel back for training from Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Athlone and Louth without receiving a penny in expenses from the club, because they simply can’t afford it.

The club has barely 100 adult members and they’re just about able to put out a minor team thanks to their amalgamation with Abbeylara. Their squad has been pretty much the same for the last three years and the starting team yesterday featured five sets of brothers – McElligotts, McGivneys, Foxs, Rogers and Mulligans.

Each week, a different family from the area prepares the food for after training sessions and another washes the gear after games. 

Mullinalaghta went close in their last two provincial campaigns. They ran eventual champions St Vincent’s to four points in the 2016 last four meeting and threw away a sizeable lead before losing by the minimum to St Loman’s in the semi-final last year.

But the unexpected victory has left manager Mickey Graham with a daunting workload over the coming weeks. The new Cavan manager will be double-jobbing until February 16 at the earliest. 

The Breffni County begin their McKenna Cup campaign against Down on 30 December,  before further games against Queen’s University on 6 January and Donegal three days later. 

At the same time, he’ll be preparing this remarkable Mullinalaghta group for an unlikely All-Ireland semi-final tilt against Dr Crokes in the middle of February. 

Conor and Donal McElligott celebrate after the game Conor and Donal McElligott celebrate the victory. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It’s an issue Anthony Cunningham had to deal with in early 2012 after the start of his reign in charge of the Galway hurlers coincided with Garrycastle claiming Leinster football honours. They went down to Crossmaglen in the All-Ireland final replay the following March. 

Pat O’Shea had a similar situation after he was appointed Kerry boss in the winter of 2006. The Dr Crokes team he managed made it all the way to the All-Ireland club final the following year. O’Shea had to combine the two high-pressure jobs until April 2007, when Crossmaglen beat Crokes after a replay in the decider.

Graham won’t worry about that tonight though. 

“This is a dream becoming a reality,” overjoyed captain Shane Mulligan said after accepting the cup. 

“This will go down in history, it’s never been done before. The scenes were incredible. People came from all over the world to see this.

“It’s well documented that we are a small rural area, with a small population. GAA is everything, so many people have committed so much time, so much of their lives to GAA. And now we are standing on top of Leinster.”

The tiny club with a huge heart. They’ll be pinching themselves for a while.

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Kevin O'Brien

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