Brian Mullins was an athlete of fierce resolve, who was incapable of bending the knee to platitude
In the extraordinary and complex Kevin Heffernan, he encountered a teacher who ran a finishing school both for football and the world beyond those four chalked lines
To the blue legions of Heffo’s Army foot soldiers, he was summer in Dublin, a flesh-and-blood rendition of Bagatelle’s love song to a city that idolised him like a firstborn son.
Anna Livia’s William Wallace, an unbending blond Braveheart at the heart of a 1970s insurgency, a galvanising warrior-prince, custodian of an aura touching mythical levels.
Brian Mullins, son of a Clare father and a Kerry mother, gifted Hill 16 days forever immune to erosion, memories that will live beyond the last breath of every witness to his titanic will.
A midfield Ivy Leaguer, he was at the forefront of the quick-fire cultural shift that awakened Gaelic football as a game for the masses in a city where it had been hanging on by its fingernails.
A sporting ecumenical when such things were frowned upon, he played under-age rugby for Leinster, galloped across muddy fields as an elite cross-country athlete, dabbled in soccer and cricket.
But, after transferring from Clontarf as a 16-year-old, it was at St Vincent’s that he found his home, a club where he was ideologically shaped by men who shared his drive to find the very best of himself.
From his teenage matriculation to the Dublin dressing room, he considered it his immense good fortune to be a student at Kevin Heffernan’s university of life.
In the extraordinary and complex Heffernan, he encountered a teacher who ran a finishing school both for football and the world beyond those four chalked lines.
As Mullins would remark years later of his mentor: “He had life through football and sport captured, the lessons to be learned were completely on the money. He spoke very deliberately and well to that theme and to the challenge for every one of us to seize the moment, see where the opportunity is, understand the opportunity and how you could get more and better out of yourself.”
Greedily exploring the full range of his talents, he became a figurehead of Dublin’s 1970s revolution, a study in excellence, a landmark contrast to the dereliction and economic hopelessness colonising a bruised old town.
He was among those at the wheel as football history turned a sharp corner in September 1974.
Along with Tony Hanahoe, Jimmy Keaveney, Bobby Doyle and Gay O’Driscoll, his Vinnies co-pupils, as well as David Hickey, Paddy Cullen, Robbie Kelleher and the Blue Panther himself, Anton O’Toole, he became an author of an urgently required upbeat story.
Over seasons of Sundays he was familiar as a bird of prey in full flight – the initially flaxen-feathered, later follically challenged Marino eagle – soaring and swooping to pluck footballs from the Drumcondra sky.
He could read a contest like it was one of the city’s evening papers, the Herald or Press, the back pages of which frequently eulogised this prince of the city; he treated the ball like a family heirloom, unrivalled in carefully distributing such a treasured possession to another of the Sky Blue clan.
They were a band of brothers, that crew who rose up 48 years ago to bring a jolt of optimism to a ravaged town, and his sad passing means he rests today alongside O’Toole, his friend and fellow listed building on the streetscape of Dublin football.
Both men closed their eyes for a last time at just 68.
These twin towers would reach for the stars together across two decades, young gods unchaining Dublin from their doubts.
Mullins resided at the very opposite end of the bandwidth to the one where cuddly toys gather.
He was an athlete of fierce resolve, one who didn’t suffer fools, who was incapable of bending the knee to platitude.
The fuel tank of his competitive spirit was forever full to the brim. At times it overflowed.
To paraphrase one of Fleet Street’s most celebrated old newspapermen, Brian didn’t so much get into your face as into your entrails. He was a slab of raw meat in Heffo’s full-flavoured Dublin coddle.
A straight talker, a cold house for spin, a giant unafraid to rise to his full height and serve his world view undiluted, a ferocious competitor, on occasion as volcanic as Vesuvius.
Unafraid to pour Tabasco on any conversation or contest he felt in need of a little spice, he might well have been the prototype model Cork engineers used to design Roy Keane.
Yet he was both a marvellously cultured footballer and a thoughtful man.
Propelled through life by a natural-born curiosity, here was a high-achieving educator whose decorated professional life would include stints in Donegal as principal at the nation’s largest community school and, later, closer to home, as UCD’s Director of Sport.
A 2019 interview on Shay Dalton’s The 1% Podcast offers a compelling insight into a cerebral, reflective figure, reveals the smooth varnish with which he could coat those sometimes sharp edges.
He played in nine All-Irelands, winning four, his riveting heavyweight duels with his fellow master of the era, Jack O’Shea, delivering an electrifying, epic Celtic Thrilla in Manilla.
On those days when he made his chosen code appear absurdly easily, he became Dublin’s buffer against doubt.
In 2020, an Irish Independent ranking of the top 50 players of the previous 50 years positioned him at seventh on the grid of greats.
He was an arch-disciple of hard work, he lived by the gospel that prevailed at Vincent’s when he joined in the early 1970s, one that promoted the idea of exploring your outer limits, pitilessly analysing your failings and viewing every new day as a fresh mountain to be conquered.
For all the occasions he touched glory and sublimity in a football life less ordinary, any audit of his career will announce his most significant triumph as one of courage and will.
In June 1980, at the pinnacle of his powers, he was transported to the darkest place he had ever known when the Fiat 127 he was driving ploughed into a concrete lamppost.
It was a life-threatening accident. He suffered terrible, potentially catastrophic injuries. There were authentic fears he might never walk again. He spent months in hospital.
Even the most wildly optimistic spoke of his football career in the past tense.
If his body was ruptured, his spirit was untouched. That same competitive pride that made him such a formidable opponent unlocked a door most assumed had been bolted closed forever.
And three years later, his signature drumbeat would beat across another All-Ireland winning summer.
On an historic afternoon by the Lee, a replay that was the first semi-final in four decades played outside Croke Park, he scored a second-minute penalty that unnerved Cork. Over the course of a scorching afternoon in Páirc Ui Chaoimh he was an untouchable centrepiece for a city’s hopes
He was sent-off in the infamously bad-tempered 1983 final, one of four dismissed as 12-man Dublin beat 14-man Galway on a day that stopped the nation in its tracks. While not disputing his own premature exit, the coverage over the following weeks left a lasting scar on his psyche.
Those injudicious enough to approach him for a comment would decades recall a stare that continued to provoke a thousand fears. He played on for two more years and another brace of All-Ireland finals before the curtain fell on his Broadway days.
A single year in the Dublin dugout alongside Sean Doherty and Robbie Kelleher followed in 1986, before a stint as Derry manager, where his achievements included Ulster and league titles, not to mention maintaining his sanity while in the company of Joe Brolly for extended periods!
Sickness stalked his recent months and, after one last trademark giving of his all, a figure many considered as indestructible as the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway slipped away.
Dublin is diminished by the loss of another of those authors of alchemy, foundation stones without which Jim Gavin might never have been able, all those years later, to construct such a palace of wonder.
Brian joins Heffo and Anton and Mick Holden in some celestial dressing room.
As Britain mourns its monarch, Anna Livia’s flags fly at a metaphorical half mast for her own fallen blue blood.
An authentic prince of the city, a sun king who sprinkled the gift of light on so many Dublin summers.
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