GAA Football

Nathan Mullins not content to give up on Donegal dream

Nathan Mullins joined the Donegal squad amid much fanfare ahead of the 2018 season and the son of Dublin legend Brian was instantly handed National League starts against Dublin and Kerry. The holder of an Ulster medal from that summer, the St Vincent's clubman tells Cahair O'Kane about how that year unfolded and why he hasn't given up hope yet of playing for Donegal again…

Nathan Mullins after Donegal's 2018 McKenna Cup win over Armagh.
Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

NATHAN Mullins has never been conflicted about his identity.

Son of a Dublin and St Vincent’s legend, a mother whose family were steeped in the same club and county, his earliest memory of being around a changing room is when Brian Mullins managed Derry to the Ulster title in 1998.

Since he was 11, they have lived back in Dublin. He’s made his own name in Dublin club football, winning its player of the year award in 2017, and is an All-Ireland club medallist with St Vincent’s, as well as having an All-Ireland U21 medal with Dublin.

But it’s Donegal to which he is bound. He is the holder of an Ulster medal from two summers ago and it’s Donegal that he wants to see knock Dublin off their perch at some stage.

It’s Donegal he hasn’t given up hope of playing with again.

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WHEN Geoffrey McGonagle leaned on Noel McGinley’s back and then nearly broke Joe Brolly’s in celebration, one eight-year-old from Donegal leapt for joy.

On this day, Nathan Mullins is a Derry supporter.

For three years the youngest of their three sons would beg to be allowed to negotiate the border and head for south Derry with the father.

In the folklore of Brian Mullins, one of the greatest midfielders ever given to the game, it barely registers as a footnote. But when McGonagle barged and Brolly blew kisses, little did they know that 22 years on, Derry wouldn’t have won the Anglo-Celt back since.

“I don’t have too many memories of being in before the games, there might have been too much cursing for an eight-year-old!

“But fond memories of going in after. I loved being in around the players. Joe Brolly was so good to me as a kid.”

They did that from the end of 1995 until the end of 1998, when the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Galway brought the curtain down.

Those memories stay with Nathan Mullins to this day. Ulster football has always held a place in his heart.

“It’s very different. I’m trying to explain to some of the Vincent’s lads down here what it’s like up there, it’s a different world when it comes to supporting your county and the rivalry.

“Even at the McKenna Cup games, there’s times they’d be more intense than Leinster Championship games in Croke Park.”

His father was appointed as principal of Carndonagh Community School in 1991. He would stay for a happy decade, which included winning a Donegal intermediate title in 1996, before moving back down.

When Nathan was just a few months old, he and his three siblings moved north with their parents. Their mother, Helen, had her own stock in St Vincent’s club. She was dyed into its fabric, her father Barney Harris having been a founder member and a former Dublin hurler.

Although he was gone back to Dublin by the age of 11, his heart has never left. Part of the stock has never left, with one of his brothers setting up home in Clonmany, where there are now four children.

He’ll be up the road as often as he can, be it for the local festival each summer or to randomly pop into friends like the Divers who own a farm at the foot of Malin Head.

In 2018, though, he was scuttling up and down every turnabout.

He was a year young on the bench for the boys in blue in 2010 when Michael Murphy’s effort cannoned off the crossbar at the death of the All-Ireland U21 final, but Jim McGuinness knew of his links and convinced young Mullins to make the jump north-west the following year.

If he’s not the only one, Mullins is one of very few to have shared a changing room with both Murphy and Diarmuid Connolly. He rates the latter as the better footballer, but the Donegal skipper as an unparalleled leader, “a man who’d have you running through walls when he speaks”.

It took Mullins a long time, however, to find himself established with St Vincent’s. Broken bones in each leg and a succession of hamstring injuries meant that he was 26 by the time he was really finding his feet.

He had come on in the dying seconds of the 2014 All-Ireland club final, but his talents shone three years later when he was named Dublin club footballer of the year.

Declan Bonner’s ears pricked up.

“People thought I lived in Donegal a few years and that I was using the county for a chance to play county football, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

“Although the accent, and I’m living, working, playing down here, I’d be in Donegal as much as possible.

“For them to ask me to go training, it didn’t take much thinking at all.

“I spoke to my Da and his first choice would obviously have been for me to be lining out in the blue and giving Dublin a rattle, but it wasn’t a choice between the two.

“It wasn’t as if I had Declan on one line and Jim Gavin on the other. I just went with what came naturally.”

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ON his McKenna Cup debut against Queen’s, the lean, hard-running machine looked tailor made. Punched a goal for good measure.

During the week, a dozen of the squad who were Dublin based including Patrick McBrearty, Marty O’Reilly and Mark McHugh trained together in the capital.

Very quickly, this 'son of' became a talked about man, viewed as a potential foil that would allow Michael Murphy to graze the attacking lands instead of worrying about midfield.

The first league game came against Kerry and Nathan Mullins was named to start, but was sent off for swinging a boot at Brendan O’Sullivan inside 20 minutes.

Two weeks later, he was thrown straight in again. This time, Dublin in Croke Park.

Detailed to do as he’d done so often in club games against Raheny and pick up Brian Fenton, who would go on to win Footballer of the Year that autumn, it lasted just 26 minutes.

“The turning point for me was being taken off in that game. It was difficult.

“Declan’s impression was that Fenton was getting on too much ball, and he was. He got more possessions than he should have, and I wasn’t sticking as tight to him as I should have been.

“He made the decision as manager and 100 per cent I’ve respect for him, that’s what you have to do as manager.

“In my own head, I was thinking ‘get me to half-time’ or ‘change things around’. It might sound a bit senseless but it wasn’t that someone said ‘get your head out of your ass or we’ll take you off’ – I was just taken off.

“Fenton’s one of the best players about, so there’s no embarrassment not to play well against him. I would’ve felt I’d have grown into the game and genuinely didn’t think I was doing that badly.”

It was his second start for Donegal, and his last. He came off the bench in three of the other league games but when it came to making a real play for a championship berth, he found himself being stretched out on the rack.

April came and St Vincent’s had a big championship game to gear up for against Na Fianna. Donegal were out first in Ulster against Cavan.

When Declan Bonner held a five-day training camp in Belfast, Mullins spent all day there and then drove down to Dublin for whatever Vincent’s were doing that night. All five days he did that.

“I was being pulled from pillar to post. It was very difficult to organise.

“In general, travelling up to Donegal for training in that period, it wasn’t working. I didn’t balance it well myself, I should have sat down with both managements and tried to work something out. It just didn’t happen that way.

“It was difficult because I completely understood both parties and I didn’t wanna let anyone down. Donegal was county football, it was so important, but at the same time Vincent’s was the lads I’d won everything with, grown up with.

“I wouldn’t necessarily put it down to the camp in Belfast or solely to the month of April.

“There were a couple of things I just didn’t manage. It’s not Donegal’s fault, not Vincent’s fault – it would have been on my shoulders.”

He didn’t feature in the championship but stayed in around matchday squads. At his home in Portmarnock, there’s an Ulster medal.

“It means a lot to me. Now, it doesn’t mean as much as if I was playing, but I’ve no regrets.

“I don’t look back on it with any negativity. I hugely enjoyed my time.”

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DAYS after Donegal’s Super 8s loss to Tyrone in Ballybofey, Mullins suffered two broken ribs in a club game. He played through the championship with it, but wasn’t himself.

After re-joining the Donegal setup for pre-season, Bonner called him prior to the season’s start and told him to go off and find some form with the club. The recall hasn’t come.

He will be 30 at the end of this month. He refuses to give up hope.

Such is Mullins’ interest in playing for Donegal, he says he’d strongly consider upping sticks and moving north if the call ever came again.

“Looking back now, if I was asked to do it again, I would consider moving up and going 100 per cent at it by being up there.

“100 per cent, no, I haven’t given up on it whatsoever. It was the same last year. I’d had a great year or two with the club and then had a few injuries last year.

“I would have aspirations for myself to get back to the level where I was this year and have a good crack with the club.

“And if my performances with Vincent’s show up in front of the management of Donegal, that would be brilliant, I’d grab it with two hands and learn from the last time with them. I’d love to have the opportunity again if I could.”

If not, then if not content by how it went, he’ll be proud that it at least happened at some point.

“It’s a difficult one. To some extent, I would be very, very happy with the experience and gaining the friendly relationships with a lot of the lads, having that exposure to Ulster football and that. I loved every second of it.

“But no, I wouldn’t be content. I would feel I could have reached a higher potential, that I could have done things differently and maybe held on to the number 9 or even 19 and making an impact.

“There’s days that keep me awake with Vincent’s, losing to Rathnew and Slaughtneil. You feel like you always have regrets, but you have to remember the good days.”

But when Donegal face Dublin, he is not a man conflicted.

“In terms of who I’d support, 100 per cent Donegal. And with Dublin winning so much in recent years, you want to see someone knock them off their perch.”

It’s Donegal he is, and forever shall be.

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