“Look it, you just have to make do with what you have,” says a philosophical Mickey Graham over a cappuccino in Delish.
The Mullinalaghta St Columba’s manager’s doing much better than simply making do. His achievements are bordering on the miraculous.
Mullinalaghtans born in the year St Columba’s had last won the Longford Senior Championship, were eligible to draw the old age pension by the time Mickey took the helm. He ended that longest of waits in his debut year, courtesy of a memorable victory over their footballing siamese twin, Abbeylara.
Despite an impressive Leinster run in 2016, halted only by Dublin Champions St Vincent’s, many fancied Killoe to soften their cough in this year’s Championship. Again St Columba’s prevailed and they doubled down on the pain they dealt out to Abbeylara once again the final. Wait 66 years for a win, and then achieve back to back championships, Mullinalaghta’s run is bordering on miraculous.
When the Celt meets the Gaels clubman his side has taken care of Carlow’s Eire Óg in the Leinster Championship opener, and were now focussed on the quarter-final with Westmeath’s champions St Loman’s. If Mickey Graham was to plot another couple of wins and chart a path through to a Leinster decider, St Columba himself would have to doff his mitre at that miracle.
The talk of “making do” comes down to numbers: famously Mullinalaghta is half a parish, with Loch Gowna its spiritual bedfellow. Scanning through the panel - which numbers only around 25 - it’s amazing how the same names crop up over again: McElligotts, Mulligans, McGivneys, Bradys, Rogers, McCabes.
“The club is made up of a few families: that’s the reality of it. It’s a half parish at the end of the day so the pick wouldn’t be huge and that goes to show with the underage - that’s why they’re joined with Abbeylara, and even then the numbers wouldn’t be big either so credit to both clubs that they are able to contest the last couple of Longford finals with such small resources.”
Familiar with the Longford scene having managed Clonguish for three years, he was happy to take a post with such limited resources since it didn’t pose a conflict of interest with his Cavan Gaels loyalties, for whom two brothers, a first cousin, and even a few former teammates still play – and crucially, it was only a 20 minutes’ spin away. He notes that Mullinalaghta were always “at the business end” of the championship, and insists that the players’ experience at college level with Cnoc Mhuire, and at various grades of county football, they had a core of players blessed with the all important “winning mentality”. Modestly he limits his contribution to “getting the balance right” in the team and “getting them believing in each other”.
Still the numbers must weigh on his mind.
“Up till about the end of June when the county lads come back, and colleges finish, we have an average of 16-17 players at training,” he says matter of factly.
He admits to living in dread of injuries, as they could not sustain more than a couple.
“Two, three [injuries] would definitely affect us big time, because we just don’t have the back-up that other teams would have. We’ve been lucky in that way in that we haven’t had one injury in two years - that’s a credit to the lads themselves because they do a lot of work in the gym themselves to make sure they are well conditioned - and also the recovery - they look after themselves.”
That bill of health is a blessing when you consider they’ve played nine games in ten weeks. As such midweek training sessions are kept “nice and light” and they do “a good session” on a Friday night for about 45-50 minutes. It’s a training regime which paid off as they were fresh enough to blitz the Carlow champions early.
“Eire Óg probably looked at Longford as a good opportunity and they probably didn’t give us the respect we deserved and early on we maybe caught them out, and they realised after about 25 minutes - oh hold on, we’re in a game here. And we had done enough damage to keep our noses in front.
“Definitely the second half was a lot closer than the scoreline would suggest, but again the experience from last year definitely stood to us.”
Caught on the hop
Next up is the “huge game” with St Loman’s on Sunday, who they overcame last year with a point to spare. Mickey suspects that having run Ballyboden very close a few years ago, they probably came to Pearse’s Park in 2016 not expecting much from Mullinalaghta.
“I think that was the general feeling from St Loman’s after the game: that they were caught on the hop. So they have won the third [Westmeath championship] in a row, they were probably training there on the Tuesday or Wednesday night getting ready for this game so the element of surprise is gone. They’re going to come with revenge on their mind and we’re just going to have to put our own game plan in place and go out and perform the best we can. We’re going to have to perform probably to the best we’ve done all year if we’re going to get a result. That’s the challenge we face so hopefully we can rise to it.”
In meeting the Loman’s challenge they will fall back on the confidence gained from their 2016 odyssey. Particularly in holding St Vincent’s to within three points with just minutes on the clock until the Dublin outfit unleashed their star-studded bench, Mullinalaghta learned that “they could play at a certain level”.
That self belief sustained them earlier in the season.
“We didn’t start pre-season until March and, to be honest with you we didn’t have an awful lot of work done before the league started. We thought we’d be struggling in the first few league games, but the boys’ confidence was so high from the year before and momentum carried us through those early games.”
With St Vincent’s not hindering a potential run to Leinster glory, possibly until the final, Mickey accepts that they are on the easier side of the draw.
“Everyone on our side of the draw is thinking that, there’s no denying it - Eire Óg’s management after the game said they thought that, and Loman’s is thinking that and Simonstown is thinking that - so they are all thinking it is a good opportunity, and when you have an opportunity like that you have to try to make the most of it.”
However, he cautions, that “there’s still a long way to go” before thinking of a Leinster final.
Mickey shares the Celt’s concern over the pressures on rural communities. With the relegation of farming to hobby status for many, and the seeming lack of employment or educational opportunities outside of Dublin and cities further afield, struggling football clubs are only a symptom of a much more serious malaise. The Celt wonders if the era in which a team like Mullinalaghta can elbow its way into the national footballing consciousness is coming to a close.
“It’s going to get harder,” he says, noting that “what’s saving” Mullinalaghta currently is the few farmers they still have, and the half dozen college students being available.
He adds: “But then in the last 12 months, you have four lads gone to the Gards in Templemore, so they could be based anywhere. It’ll be hard for them to get away for training on certain nights because there will be shift work so it’s going to get harder moving forward. Then when the lads are finished college, they have to find work somewhere and that could be another six lads moved away so, it’s going to be very hard in a few years - for all rural clubs.”
Reflecting on the long way they’ve already come in the last two years, surprisingly Mickey cites relief rather than joy as the overriding emotion for the players and supporters back in 2016, as “a lot of people said they would never win it”.
“Talking to a number of players after it, the feeling was, if they never won another one, so be it. They were just so happy to get their hands on one. And then to come back and do it for a second time was just - it’s just unreal for them because as they say, they know it’s not going to last. They’ve only a small window of opportunity, and they’ve a bunch of players at the moment who can compete for honours and they know that it might only last for another year or two - and if that goes, there could be another 66-70 years again. And that’s football.”