McMullan has kind of vision the rest can only get from stands
SOME goals deserve to be celebrated more than others. Some players deserve to be celebrated more than others.
Cliftonville’s Georgie McMullan is one such player. He made his debut for the north Belfast club in January 2002. He’s played over 500 games for the Reds through thick and thin and scored 102 goals. Last Saturday afternoon he produced what must rank as one of his finest moments wearing the famous red jersey.
Sitting at the back of the stand at the old Cage End, I had the perfect view of McMullan’s audacious chip that edged Cliftonville 3-2 ahead of old rivals Linfield during the second half. Some moments in sport are good for the soul. I decided to go along with the emotion of it all and McMullan’s moment of pure, unadulterated genius.
Ignoring my journalistic instincts of bland impartiality, I punched the air, hurting my shoulder in the process. I left the old ground hoarse and a little happier about the world.
McMullan’s work of art was the best goal I’ve seen in local football. It was so perfect that it rendered the rest of the game redundant. It didn’t matter that Linfield grabbed an equaliser in the dying embers.
If sport is about anything, it’s about moments. Special moments. The goal in itself was obviously sublime, but it also had context, which made it the best I’ve seen.
Sprung from the bench in the early throes of the second half for the injured Jaimie McGovern, McMullan entered the game at right-back. He’d probably had four or five touches of the ball before Chris Curran defied the laws of geometry to turn Seán Ward and win a penalty.
A penalty against Linfield, at the Cage End. Georgie had been here before. Two years ago, the Reds faithful watched through clasped hands as he stroked the ball into the corner of the net to win the league championship.
Last Saturday, he went for the same corner, only this time Linfield ’keeper Ross Glendinning made an incredible save. The delayed roar from the opposite end of the ground, where the Linfield supporters were housed, reached the Cage End and felt like a tsunami.
A lesser player would probably have disappeared from view for the rest of the game. But McMullan has always been cut from a different cloth, as he has shown throughout his time at Solitude. Some players, regardless of the circumstances, are never out of the game.
During Cliftonville’s next meaningful attack, with the game perfectly poised at 2-2, McMullan drifted into the Linfield penalty area. The Blues defenders denied him space and it looked as though he would either have to turn out and recycle the ball or hit an aimless cross into the danger area and hope for the best. The more far-fetched option was to dink the ball over the entire Linfield defence and goalkeeper into the top corner of the net.
There were probably only three players on the field last Saturday afternoon who would have had the foresight and skill to even try the third, more ridiculous option: Georgie, Marty Donnelly and Chris Curran.
The ball seemed to hang in the air for an eternity, suspended by an imaginary string from the north Belfast skies. Glendinning, the man who denied McMullan minutes earlier, scrambled backwards in slow motion.
If only you could live these moments again. The ball floated into the top corner of Linfield’s net. This was perfection on a football field. Solitude erupted. This was living.
I’ve been a long-time, often agnostic, follower of Irish League football. One of the first games I attended as a boy saw Coleraine take on I’m not sure who at Seaview in the early 1980s. That night two players stood out from the crowd – Felix Healy and Kevin Mahon. Some players are just better than others. Healy and Mahon were two exhilarating footballers.
I remember the time when Peter Murray, Tommy Breslin and Jim McFadden formed Cliftonville’s midfield. Three ball players who produced magical moments nearly every time they played together. All they needed was a defensive midfielder like Barry Johnston and silverware might have reached Solitude a littler earlier than it did.
Later, Laurence Stitt and Mal Donaghy unearthed the central midfield partnership of Tommy McCallion and Mickey Collins. For a couple of seasons, McCallion and Collins were worth the entrance fee alone. When Collins kept his head in the game, a lot of his play was of the jaw-dropping variety.
These were players who were just that bit better than the rest. Coaching never improved them. Coaching had nothing to do with it. What McMullan has is uncoachable. It’s innate football intelligence.
Players like McMullan play the game with unfailing technique. The ball is always safe with them.
They play on the half-turn with pictures in their heads. They can see the future on a football pitch. Always two steps ahead. They can go left or right and nearly always have more than one option in possession. They make opponents hesitate.
The game has always been easier from high in the stands. From there, you can see the right pass. Players like McMullan have that kind of vision.
When Cliftonville played Celtic in the Champions League at Parkhead two years ago, McMullan was one of the few Reds players who believed his technique and understanding of the game was equal to that of his opponents. Cliftonville victories that night were always destined to be small ones. Watching McMullan skip by Celtic midfielder Beram Kayal in the latter stages was one of those small victories.
McMullan’s autumnal renaissance this season has probably a lot to do with the fact that Cliftonville weren’t competing in Europe during the summer and therefore the Reds players were able to enjoy a proper break between campaigns.
McMullan’s piece of genius last Saturday afternoon will live long in the memory. And while he’s still wearing the blood-red jersey of Cliftonville, we should savour players like Georgie.