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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 21 January 2021
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‘Diego, me auld flower, would you mind if I had your shirt?’

Paddy Mulligan kept Diego Maradona scoreless at Lansdowne Road in 1979. He considers the Argentinean one of the greatest players of all time.

Maradona at his prime with the '86 World Cup.
Maradona at his prime with the '86 World Cup.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

PADDY MULLIGAN WAS sitting in his Dublin home yesterday afternoon when the news came through. His telephone rang; a friend and former player on the other end of the line. “Paddy, did you hear about poor auld Diego?”

There is something endearing about the over familiarity; a lot to do with that generation’s ability to converse with one another on the same level, irrespective of their conflicting abilities. In a career as a hard-nosed defender, Mulligan got to dance with the greats: Pele, Best, Charlton, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Maradona but treated them as equals.

“On the pitch they weren’t,” he says. “Those men were sporting Gods. But off it, they’re mortal. George would chat away to you. ‘How’s England treating you, Paddy?’ Bobby Charlton was a gentleman; so too Pele. They didn’t have handlers, security men, agents. They didn’t have notions, either. They just had manners.”

He has a top five. “Pele is top of it; George Best, Maradona – it’s hard to separate them; then you have Bobby Charlton and Eusebio. They were world class. That term is thrown out willy-nilly now. But trust me, Lionel Messi wouldn’t have shone in the ‘70s the way he does today because the pitches were dreadful and the talent got kicked.

“Maradona got a fair few wallops in his time, too. Not by me, though. I couldn’t get near him.”

Post-match he did, though. Argentina had come across to Dublin for a friendly against Ireland, a fundraiser for Unicef. “And the FAI, in their wisdom, didn’t award us a cap for it,” recalls Mulligan. “They were the world champions, for goodness sake. We held them to a 0-0 draw. We did well.”

Especially when you consider the quality of their second-half sub – an 18-year-old listed in the programme as Diego Armando Maradona.

“We had all heard the hype,” Mulligan says. “Well, he wasn’t hyped enough.

I mean you talk about class. Even at 18-years-of-age he always made the right decision. His first touch was way better than everyone else’s; his acceleration took him away from you in a second; his lack of inhibition was staggering. He was unstoppable. Afterwards we all said we were glad he didn’t come on until half-time – because he’d have made eejits out of us.

 

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diego-maradona-11981 Maradona in 1979. Source: Allsport/INPHO

“And that’s one of the things that took him, Pele and Eusebio onto another level. They made the right choice with a level of consistency that was frightening. So not only did they possess outrageous amounts of skill; they had the intuition to know where to find space, were streetwise to get away from trouble before trouble arrived and mentally, they were tough boys. Try to kick Maradona and you’d be swiping at fresh air. Nobody but nobody got near him.”

It was only after the game that Mulligan got up close and personal, gesturing to Maradona to swap shirts. ‘Diego, me auld flower, you wouldn’t swap your jersey, would ya?’

Seven years later, at the height of his Mexico ’86 fame; he donated the shirt to charity, where it was auctioned off.  

Time moved on. The boys of summer became men of winter. Mulligan is 75 now, has never touched a drink and is in good nick, working away in security, getting his daily walks in by the canal. But the kid from ’79 has gone, taken from us at 60.

“The saddest thing of all is that I’m surprised he made it to 60, considering how chaotic his lifestyle was,” says Mulligan. “I hate to see anyone fall ill, doesn’t matter whether they are famous or not, a great player or an ordinary one. Your heart goes out to their family.”

diego-maradona Maradona's lifestyle contributed to his fall. Source: Allsport/INPHO

And his mind wanders back to that friendly in ’79 and that World Cup in ’86. “The second goal against England, when he runs away from five defenders, I could watch that goal all day long,” says Mulligan. “Even the first was genius. Only someone who thinks quickly could have scored a goal like that; I mean what was Peter Shilton up to? It was the goalkeeper’s ball all day long. He dithered, Diego didn’t.

“And the best thing of all is he didn’t give a hoot what anyone thought. You’re on the pitch to win; and he did what he had to carry a mediocre Argentinean team to the World Cup. Messi never did that. Messi doesn’t make my top five.”

It seems harsh. Still, the man blocking his path had a touch of class.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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