The Tyrone great tells Damian Dolan why now’s the right time to take his first steps into management
Owen Mulligan admits he would have “laughed” had someone told him a few years ago that he’d take his first steps on the managerial ladder with a GAA club in London.
While Clapham Common isn’t quite yet ‘home’ – the Tyrone great still gets back to his home town of Cookstown every two weeks to keep tabs on his bar, Mulligans – the city definitely has its claws into him.
Or perhaps more precisely that should be Fulham Irish.
Arriving in London in early 2017 “just for work” – football was far from his mind – Mulligan soon found himself “wrangled” into togging out for the ambitious south London outfit. He soon “fell in love with the club”.
Fast forward two years – and one senior title later – and no sooner had the three-times All-Ireland winner tweeted a pair of boots hanging from a dressing room peg last month to signify his retirement from playing, than he was being announced as Fulham’s new manager.
He had intended on taking a break. But then again, he’d also toyed with the idea of packing it in after helping Fulham win that senior county title in 2017 – Mulligan kicking the winning injury-time free. His scriptwriter earnt his coin that day, alright.
With the benefit of hindsight, he should have called it quits then, he says.
“The lads persuaded me to stay on to go for the double, and to be fair we weren’t too far away from retaining the title,” Mulligan told the Irish World. “It was hard one to take.”
Mulligan came off the bench to kick the late free which took Tir Chonaill Gaels to a replay, but then didn’t feature a week later. Injuries finally catching up with him at age of 37, although he’s still far fitter than many 20-year-olds.
After talking over his future with his wife, Mulligan decided it was finally time to retire. He needed some “space” – he’d “had enough of football”.
When news of this reached Fulham ears, the club approached him with an offer to manage the team in 2019. The idea came as a “shock” to Mulligan.
But now he’s in the job and the work has begun, he knows exactly what he expects from his players, the team and himself. For Mulligan, it’s a further chance to “give something back”.
“It’s about the here and now; you want to produce victories and win silverware. I’m here to get these boys over the line,” said Mulligan, who insists he’s not looking any further ahead than this year.
“Ten per cent is the manager, 90 per cent is the players on the field. I’ll pick the team and give them the tactics, but it’s the players on the pitch who do the hard work.”
The Fulham Irish players can expect a “firm but fair” approach.
“I want the best for the players, I know what it’s like to be a player. I know for a fact that some of the Fulham lads need an arm around them, but I also know that some will need to be told what I expect of them,” he added.
As a player, Mulligan knows he was susceptible to getting “overexcited” on occasion on the pitch, while talking back to a referee wasn’t something alien to him.
He knows he needs to curb that, and show a different ‘Owen Mulligan’ on the sideline, just as he did in last year’s county final replay – injured, but still encouraging, cajoling and directing his teammates from beneath the McGovern Park stand.
He served his managerial apprenticeship – even if he didn’t know it at the time – under one of the best. Mickey Harte. He also cites Joe Kernan and Brian McAniff as influences.
He’ll look to take “snippets” from all of them to find the “best formula” to achieve success, and he won’t be slow to pick up the phone to any of them if he’s in need of a bit of advice.
One thing’s abundantly clear, if you want to play on Mulligan’s team, you’re going to have to be fit. He’s in the gym once a day himself.
“My team is going to have to be flying fit if they’re going to compete. I wouldn’t ask the players to do anything that I didn’t do on a training pitch fitness wise,” he said.
“Greg McCartan set the bar, and now he’s handed it over to me. It’s my job to keep rising it.”
He also won’t tolerate prima donnas. When he joined up with the London panel in 2017, he made a point of not wanting any special treatment. He insisted on being treated like every other player, just as it should be.
Fulham Irish Senior Football Team Manager Appointment pic.twitter.com/uwfE16U1pn
— Fulham Irish GAA (@FulhamIrish) January 25, 2019
Mulligan has fully embraced the GAA life in London – just as he did during spells in America and Australia – and he expects his players to do the same.
“When I first came over I saw a couple of boys looking at me changing on the side of the pitch – that wouldn’t annoy me,” he recalled.
“If you’re going to come in here and be a prima donna and think you shouldn’t be changing at the side of the pitch, then you shouldn’t be here.
“I hear of players doing that and not mixing – if you’re prepared to knuckle down and do the hard work you’ll end up winning a championship and it’ll probably be one of the best years of your life. I did.”
While he admits that he wasn’t always the easiest to manage during his playing days, management was something that always intrigued Mulligan.
The time has come to let go, iv lived the dream. pic.twitter.com/hNqreO5nd6
— Owen Mulligan (@owen_mulligan) January 13, 2019
“When the team was picked I would think to myself ‘I could pick a better team than that’ or “I could tweak something’,” he said.
So how would Mulligan the manager have handled Mulligan the player?
“I’ve been a cancer to the team when I was playing, but I’ve also been one of the top three players,” he says.
“We’ve all broken drink bans in the past. How you handle that is all part of management. I’m looking forward to them sort of challenges.
“In my early days I wouldn’t have been the best to manage, but between 28-37 that’s when I knuckled down and was committed.
“Cookstown probably got the best out of me, compared to Tyrone, because I was concentrating….you weren’t breaking drink bans, you were concentrating, and I won two All-Irelands with my club.”
Mulligan will confirm his management team in due course, but he’s already enlisted the services of his brother, Stephen, to help out with training.
He’s also already been contacted by “five or six” players from his hometown club expressing an interest in coming over to London to work.
He’ll “welcome them with open arms” but while they may be coming over to work, he says he’ll soon “get them in a Fulham strip”.
For Mulligan, the “beauty of London” is the different challenge it throws up every year. No one’s ever quite sure what hand their rivals have, until it’s time for everyone to reveal their cards come championship time. That appeals to him.
Ultimately, though, he knows he’ll be judged on wins and silverware.
“I’m not going into management just to fulfil fixtures – I want to be challenging. I want to be challenging for the league and the championship,” he said.
Whatever the next few months hold, like Mulligan’s playing days, it promises to be compelling viewing.