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When Dublin’s favourite son Brian Mullins signed up to guide Derry’s fortunes

The legendary darling of the Hill was long a revered GAA figure in the capital but for three seasons in the late 90s he managed Derry with some success

Brian Mullins had been appointed as the new Derry manager before Gerry Donnelly assumed the role of county board PRO.

In his long life in football, Mullins had taken a Cold War stance with the media that was oblivious to the fall of the Berlin Wall. At county training Donnelly walked into the changing room in Owenbeg, offering himself as a double agent.

“Henry Downey said, ‘Ah, there’s the new PRO,’” says Donnelly now. “Mullins was sitting down and he was tying his boots. Without looking up he said to me, ‘Tell nobody f**k-all’. That was the first conversation between Brian and me.”

The thing about Mullins was that first impressions were not dependent on any interaction. They were formed from a distance, freely: by reputation; by caricature.


On the great Dublin teams of the 1970s and 80s Mullins was to the Dubs what Graeme Souness was to Liverpool or Roy Keane to Manchester United: the alpha male in the middle, ruling by force and iron will and unremarked sophistication.

Before they met him, that was the Mullins the Derry players knew. What did they need? Something like that, they thought. Is that what they got? They were beguiled by the caricature.

Mullins walked into the charred remains of Derry’s nuclear winter. Less than a year after leading Derry to their first All-Ireland in 1993, Eamonn Coleman was removed by the county board and replaced by his number two, Mikey Moran.

The players were up in arms, but the palace coup was allowed to stand. After one season Moran stepped away and Derry were looking for somebody to begin the healing.

By dint of other circumstances Mullins was in their orbit. His career in teaching had taken him to Carndonagh, in north Donegal, where he was principal of the secondary school. From there it is only about 20 miles to Derry city. They proposed; he said yes.

“I was in shock that he had taken it, but he was just what we needed, a breath of fresh air,” says Enda Gormley.

“I grew up watching him as this great icon of the game. I used to idolise him and hate him in equal measure because of what he did to Derry in 1975 [All-Ireland semi-final] and the 1976 league final. I was at those games as a kid, nine and 10.

“When he came in, at the first meeting, he put a gun to our heads and told us we had to buck up our ideas. But he also put a gun to the county board’s head and told them that some of the stuff that had gone on before had to stop. It was a clean sheet for everybody.”

Anthony McGurk knew Mullins. They had been on All Stars trips together, and when Mullins accepted the job he asked the county board to recruit McGurk for his management team. Training was usually in the south of the county, so on training nights they would meet in Derry city and McGurk would drive from there, at ease in each other’s company.

Winning is a common language, but the famous stranger needed to assimilate into his new environment too. In that process there were cultural impediments.

“I don’t think he understood the Derry humour,” says McGurk. “He thought you were serious about everything. He’d look at you and say, ‘Go away.’”

What all of them discovered, though, were sides of Mullins they didn’t expect to find.

“Whatever reputation he had he probably earned it,” says Donnelly, “and maybe in some ways he enjoyed the infamy, you know. He didn’t let that many people get close to him because he didn’t suffer fools. But on the trips to matches he was great company. He could talk about a whole myriad of subjects. I really got to like him.”

Getting past first base with Mullins was the forbidding part. Gormley played for two seasons under Mullins and when a blood condition forced him to step away, at the end of 1997, Mullins invited him on to the management team. By then he thought he had figured him out.

“Oh gruff,” says Gormley, “absolutely gruff. But soft below it – not soft, gentle. Nice. A real genuine character. You had to break down that wee bit of an exterior, but once you earned his trust you were fine.

“I would have been in his company when strangers came up to him and he was cold enough. But if he saw you were a genuine person you’d see his whole personality change.

“You wouldn’t have said he was an intimidating character. You might have been intimidated by his personality, by his physical size, by his reputation, but not his behaviour.”

The players responded instantly to Mullins and in his first season they won the 1996 National League.

“He got us eating out of the palm of his hand,” says Tony Scullion. “He got players wanting to play.”

Naturally, there were flashpoints from time to time. Or ideological differences.

“Sometimes he delivered a message as only Brian can,” says Donnelly. “It probably wouldn’t have been in the diplomacy handbook. The likes of [Joe] Brolly used to infuriate him. I remember him saying to me one night in training, ‘Look at Brolly, look at Brolly, f**k me, what is he doing?’ The team was running around the field and Brolly was stopped at the back. Then he was putting his leg up on the fence, stretching or something. He said, ‘Why doesn’t he just do what everybody else is doing?’”

In the mid-90s Derry were regarded as perennial All-Ireland contenders. When Mullins took over, the nucleus of the 1993 team was still in place, and in 1997 Derry won an Under-21 All-Ireland, feeding the expectation.

“There was enough capacity to probably win an All-Ireland,” says McGurk. That would have been Mullins’s thinking too. It didn’t happen.

In 1998, they won the Ulster title for the first time since their All-Ireland-winning year and started favourites against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. On the day, they flopped. Galway had scraped past Roscommon in a Connacht final replay, kicking 20 wides in the process, and the Derry squad had been there to witness it.

“Jesus, that day you didn’t see the Galway team that transpired against us, or against Kildare in the final,” says Gormley. “Even in hindsight you look back again and go, ‘Did we miss something here?’ It was a desperate game.”

In the All-Ireland semi-final Derry had already been reduced to 14 men when Brolly was replaced 10 minutes into the second half. As he left the field, Mullins and Brolly “exchanged pleasantries” wrote Vincent Hogan in the Irish Independent. Galway kicked just three wides.

Remarkably, that was Mullins’s last day as an intercounty manager. In 1986, a year after he retired from playing, Mullins, Robbie Kelleher and Seán Doherty were gathered as a “caretaker” management when Dublin needed an in-season solution; their involvement, though, ended with Meath’s first Leinster title in 16 years.

Twenty years ago Mullins was formally interviewed for the Dublin job, but infuriated by a chaotic recruitment process he withdrew his candidacy. Having been told to expect a response within two weeks, three weeks passed without any word. In the meantime, it was widely reported that Mick O’Dwyer and Pete McGrath had both been sounded out about the role.

When Mullins withdrew his interest the board pleaded with him to change his mind. He returned with a list of demands and conditions, none of which would be out of the ordinary now.

Among other things, he asked for a week-long overseas training camp, permission to pick his own selectors and “an enhanced sports science programme” which he had costed at about €5,000 per month. The full list came to about eight items, but the Dublin management committee couldn’t swallow them all.

Through a third party, Mullins reached out to Gary Moran in RTÉ to do a radio interview explaining his decision. It aired for 14 minutes as the centre piece of Sunday Sport. Having spent his life happily peddling short answers to the media, Mullins was long and lucid in response to everything Moran asked.

At the conclusion of the interview Moran asked him if this marked the end of his interest in the Dublin job?

“I’m not saying that,” said Mullins. “I’m definitely not saying that. On this occasion, it’s the end.”

Four years later, in 2008, after Paul Caffrey stood down, Mullins’s name was linked with the job again, but he quickly ruled himself out.

Even after he moved back to Dublin, Mullins kept in touch with the people he had worked with in Derry. Just a month before his death in late 2022, he called Gormley to say he would be passing through Maghera and he spent that evening with Gormley and Fergal McCusker, just watching a match and shooting the breeze.

“That didn’t surprise me about Brian because I saw the rapport he had with his own team-mates from the Dublin teams,” says Gormley. “They used to come up to our matches and stay behind afterwards. Jesus, they were as thick as thieves. They had an incredible bond.

“I used to try to catch him out – to see if he’d say anything about the rest of them. Not one bad word, not remotely. I was trying to compare it to our group and I was thinking, ‘Are we not close at all?’ He told me one time, they made a bond that none of them would ever write a book, and none of them ever have.”

After the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final, reporters waited outside the Derry dressingroom in Croke Park, hoping to catch a word with Mullins. Eventually he emerged.

“Better team won, thank you very much,” said Mullins, without stopping. Then he spotted a face in the media scrum who must have committed some crime.

“And you,” he said, “can’t quote me on that.”