Cushendall native Kevin McMullan sets promotion target for London hurlers
WINNING the third London Hurling Championship title in five years as manager of Robert Emmet's was a fitting way for Kevin McMullan to sign off with his adopted club and switch focus to his adopted county.
Cushendall native McMullan has succeeded Shane Kelly at the helm of ‘the Exiles' and says winning promotion back to Division 2A of the National Hurling League is the priority for his team next year.
“That will be our main objective,” he said.
“That's where the standard is. You want to try and build in the League and that will see where we are for the Championship. You need to build momentum so our objective will be to go up and it's going to be tough because it's a very tough League but our target is to get to the final and go back to Division 2A.”
McMullan grew up with mountains at his back and the Irish Sea spread out before him. His hurling journey began with the Ruairi Ogs and he'd played minor and U21 for Antrim before he packed his bags and left the green Glens behind to lay bricks in the Big Apple.
His hurls were left behind too but after a couple of years in Long Island, McMullan made his way back to Cushendall, only to pack his bags again, this time for London and this time his stick was in his bag.
Almost 15 years later, he is still living, working and hurling in England's capital.
“I wouldn't have come to London if there was no hurling, I would have stayed in Cushendall,” he says in an undiluted Antrim accent.
“When I came home from New York I met a guy in Cushendall over Christmas and he said: ‘Come to London and I'll get you a job'. I gave him a ring after Christmas and he said: ‘There's a job here for you, there's a boy called Mick O'Dea, he's the manager of Robert Emmet's, and he'll sort you out and get you a place to stay but you'll have to hurl for us.
“I said: ‘Not a problem'.
“There was another fella called John McCahan, God rest him, from Cushendun. He played for the Emmet's too and he was just down the road so, once I knew them boys were there, I said: ‘That's it, Robert Emmet's is the club for me'.”
As it turned out, he couldn't have timed his move in 2005 any better. After two games with the Emmet's O'Dea called him into the London panel which was preparing for the inaugural Nicky Rackard Cup competition. London beat Louth 5-8 to 1-5 in the final and McMullan scored 2-1.
“It was the first year of the Nicky Rackard and there was a good buzz with it,” he recalled.
“At that time the final was played before one of the All-Ireland semi-finals. Kilkenny played Galway after us so there was about 45,000 people watching the second half of our game.
“We were lucky enough to win that year, well not lucky, we had a good team. We had lads from Cork, Tipp, Kilkenny, Clare… Real good hurlers.”
At club level there was regular success with Robert Emmet's too. McMullan won his first London championship in 2005 and has been involved in finals in all but three years since. Every season new faces popped up at training and familiar ones disappeared.
“People come and go, that's how it works in London,” McMullan explains.
“It's for the better too because there's always good lads coming in. You might lose one but you'll always gain somebody and they're as good as the people going out.”
A sprawling city is a challenging environment to run a club team in and hurling in London is not played along geographical or community rules. When a man gets off the plane, whichever club speaks to him first tends to enlist him and, if he can't make it to training one night or one week, well the manager just has to put with that.
“If a boy rang me on a Thursday night and says he can't make training, as much as under my breath I'm saying: ‘Ah for God's sake' I can't because I know he's not in London to hurl,” says McMullan.
“He gets up a six in the morning and does a day's work… Who am I to say: ‘No, you're here to hurl' because they're not, they're here to work, make a few pound and enjoy themselves and enjoy hurling.
“So I can't say: ‘If you're not here tonight you're not starting the next game' or they'll just decide they don't need the hassle. It can be frustrating but you have to realise that and try and make it as enjoyable as possible so they don't want to make excuses and miss.
“If it's enjoyable the lads you get are the lads you want because they want to play and you go from there.”
Fostering an atmosphere in which players enjoy the release and craic of training and games and find it a pleasure, not a chore, is key and McMullan has worked hard on it with his club. He will hope to bring that environment to the London side too but only to an extent because inter-county hurling is a much more serious business.
“With the county you have to get the lads to buy into how serious it is because, at the end of the day, it's a county team,” he says.
“You're playing against counties like Down, Derry… Good, good hurlers so you have to say: ‘Lads, as much as it is a social thing, it won't work if you go to the pub instead of training because you're going to get hammered by 20 points every game'. There's no enjoyment in that.
“I'll be asking them to give us six months and if you get them to buy into it you're away in a boat. If not, you're struggling and begging lads to come out and they don't want to be there.”
Up to now he has concentrated on putting a panel together for next year and, so far, he has been getting the buy-in he hoped for from the players he wants.
“I've been in contact with a few lads and the general gist of it is that they're going to back me up,” he said.
“I think I'm prepared but I know that going from club to county is the difference between night and day. At county level everything has to be better, faster, bigger, stronger… It's fine margins that lose you games and I'm looking forward to it.”
London-born players are an increasing part of the county's Gaelic football side and last month Michael Maher became the first Londoner to be appointed manager of his county. Can hurling follow suit? McMullan doesn't think so.
“I would definitely bring London-born players in if there was anybody out there good enough,” he says.
“Footballers won't like me saying this, but it's easier to play than hurling, not everybody can play hurling. There are loads of London lads playing Gaelic Football – Tir Chonaill Gaels (junior champs in 2018 and intermediate finalists in 2017) have a whole team of them.
“They train down where we train, I see them and they're a credit to the boys that train them – Fergal Cunningham is their manager. You watch them play and it's unreal, some of them are great footballers.
“But I don't think you will ever see a London-born hurling team winning a championship – the speed of hurling is different you need to be brought up with it and playing all the time. If you were looking to bring in London hurlers you would need a structure that they were playing every week.
“London is a football city, a lot of people want to focus on it and unfortunately hurling plays second fiddle.”