AT THE weekend a Sunday newspaper ran the headline ‘Departing at the top of his game’ relating to the announcement that Waterford hurler, John Mullane had retired.
Mullane will be 32 at the end of the month. Without doubt he is well up to another year or two on the inter-county scene, but last week he called time on a great career with Waterford. He cited mental tiredness as his reason for retiring. Most players retire because they no longer feel up to the physical demands of inter-county action, but that was certainly not the case with John Mullane.
I saw him recently at the funeral of Waterford’s last All-Ireland winning captain, Frankie Walsh, and he looked the picture of fitness. Mullane surely owes nothing more to Waterford, but like so many great hurlers over the years he leaves the stage without the biggest prize hurling has to offer.
It is a shame he never won a Celtic Cross, but then sport was never meant to be fair. For much of the past decade he delivered many match-winning performances for the Déise. At one stage he had difficulties on the pitch, which impacted on his performances.
One of the best
When that changed and he adopted the proper focus, John Mullane became one of the best forwards around. He brought a great buzz and excitement to hurling and he had an exceptionally close relationship with Waterford supporters.
The retired star was utterly brave, almost to the point of reckless disregard for his safety at times. He regularly tried the audacious with his hurley and the sliotar and, more often than not, shot a crucial score from out on the sideline. He mastered the best defenders in the game on many occasions, but too often he was the only threat in the Déise attack.
If Mullane was held the likelihood was that Waterford did not enjoy a fruitful afternoon. By and large GAA players are appreciated by their county’s supporters, but only a few have ever enjoyed such a close relationship as that which existed between John Mullane and the Déise supporters.
He was their hero, always wearing his heart on his sleeve and he was one player capable of turning defeat into victory. He was an inspiration to his fellow players and was regularly seen encouraging them to greater effort. In over a decade wearing the blue and white he played 49 championship games, scoring on 46 of those occasions.
Four Munster senior championship medals, one National League title (against Kilkenny in 2007 on a score of 0-20 to 0-18) and five All-Star awards proudly sit on Mullane’s mantelpiece, testimony to a great hurling career. He also enjoyed some notable successes with his club De La Salle, with perhaps more to come.
Three Waterford and two Munster titles is a decent haul, but similar to his inter-county career, he never won an All-Ireland club title. His one and only appearance in a club final was a hugely disappointing loss to Galway’s Portumna on St Patrick’s Day 2009, 2-24 to 1-8.
Not the captain, but a real leader
In 2010 De La Salle missed out on reaching another All-Ireland final when they lost a classic semi-final to Galway’s Clarenbridge after extra-time in Semple Stadium. That afternoon as the game ebbed to a conclusion Mullane and his teammates looked to have done enough to secure another appearance in the final, but alas it was not to be.
In a late rally Clarenbridge scored a goal, thus ending the De La Salle dream. I can still see a crestfallen Mullane on the pitch. He was utterly dejected.
While he played during a very fruitful period for Waterford, too often the post-match photos showed the gallant De La Salle man being consoled after a disappointing defeat. Mullane is assured of his place in Waterford’s hurling history. He may never have worn the captain’s armband, but he was the undoubted leader of the team for much of the past decade.
He mentioned last week that current manager, Michael Ryan, offered him the captaincy some months back, but he declined. Maybe had Ryan made the same offer 12 months earlier Mullane might not now be a former Waterford hurler.
If ever a player deserved to captain his county it was Mullane. All players dream of playing in an All-Ireland final. Mullane finally got to play in hurling’s biggest game in 2008.
Unfortunately for him and all of Waterford, it turned out to be a forgettable afternoon as Kilkenny romped to a 3-30 to 1-13 victory. As they trekked out of Croke Park that September, Waterford fans and players were despondent, but all expected to be back once again on Jones Road sooner or later, perhaps even 12 months later.
But right now Waterford is a long way from making a return trip to Croke Park. Perhaps that is at the heart of John Mullane’s decision to retire. He knows his county faces a big challenge to regain former glories and he is no longer mentally prepared to travel the tough road that lies ahead.
He is a huge loss to Michael Ryan, an honourable man with only the best interests of Waterford at heart. Ryan has already lost Stephen Molumphy this year to Army duty abroad, while the evergreen Tony Browne may also opt out.
Let’s wait and see
Mullane’s tenure with Waterford coincided with Kilkenny’s dominance. I am sure he has great admiration for the black and amber, but he knows that had he played in a different decade his rewards may have been more plentiful. He is adamant that there will be no uturn.
Let’s see how Waterford perform in the upcoming National League before we can be sure that the book has finally closed on the inter-county hurling career of a remarkable and flamboyant hurler. Would he really turn his back on the Déise and its colourful and loyal followers if the League
results are disappointing?
Of course he would not!