‘I don’t know what I’d be at if I wasn’t playing football’ - Glen star Eunan Mulholland relishing new challenge with Derry

After ‘whirlwind’ with Watty Graham’s, Mulholland pushing hard for breakthrough with Oak Leafers

Eunan Mulholland scored three vital points at Glen retained the Ulster Club Senior Football Championship final at the Athletic Grounds. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

THE faces at the window light-up when they see one of their heroes coming with footballs, cones and bibs. Eunan Mulholland, the man the Glen youngsters cheered from the Derry championship through the best of Ulster and on to Croke Park glory has arrived to take a coaching session.

Mulholland is one of four players (Alex Doherty, Adam McGonagle and Caolan Convery are the others) from Watty Graham’s - the reigning Derry, Ulster and All-Ireland champions - who visit the two primary schools in the parish a few times a week to bring through the next generation.

“The way we’re going at the minute, the wee’ans love seeing us,” says Eunan.

“Yeah, it’s something different. It’s enjoyable.”

He’s studying Geography at Coleraine and intends to complete a PGCE next year and follow the footsteps of his mother – club stalwart Bronagh - and two sisters into teaching.

“It’s a handy number,” he jokes: “Plenty of holidays.”

You’d imagine he’ll make a good teacher. He’s a good student anyway, someone who thinks about his game and wants to listen and learn and constantly improve as he moves up to the next challenge. That’s the Glen way.

At every level over three stupendous seasons they’ve come up against stubborn gate-keepers who have barred their way. But Glen have taken setbacks and come back the following year and set the record straight. Losing in Derry in 2019, then winning the last three; losing in Ulster in 2021, then winning the last two; losing their first All-Ireland final, then getting over the line in January at the second attempt - learning all the time, improving all the time.

Mulholland was 18 in 2019 when Glen reached their first-ever county senior final. He’d come off the bench in every round of the campaign but didn’t get a chance to show what he could do in the decider. Yes, he was bitterly disappointed at the time but he puts it all down to experience.

“It was probably a blessing in disguise for me and even for us, as a team,” he says.

“If we had won that year we might never have got on this run and won Ulsters and the All-Ireland.

“We were there on talent in 2019 but when Malachy (O’Rourke) and Ryan (Porter) came in they gave us a bit extra. That bit of experience Malachy has means a lot. The first year we went into Ulster, Kilcoo beat us by a point after extra-time and we learned from that. The next year we came back and we were fit to beat them in the final.

“Then we went on to the All-Ireland final and Kilmacud beat us by a couple of points. You learn from that and you come back the next year… You can’t replace that experience, it’s massive.

Eunan Mulholland blocks a Craig Dias shoot during the All-Ireland semi-final between Kilmacud Crokes and Glen at Pairc Esler in Newry

“We always knew we had more in us but there was a feeling around the club: Will we ever actually win a Derry championship?

“When Malachy came in you knew whatever he was doing was the right thing because he’d done it before. He brought a bit of calmness to the whole thing. There’s a lot to be said for a manager who has been there and done it. You can buy into what he’s saying.”

In the 2021 Derry final against Slaughtneil it all clicked for Glen. There were no nerves, no feeling of being second best and they played superb football as they went at the reigning champions in waves. By half-time it seemed all they had to do was stay on their feet and the trophy would be theirs. They did and it was.

“That was one of the best halves of football we’ve ever played,” says Eunan.

“That was our first county title and two and-a-half years’ later we’re sitting with three, two Ulsters and an All-Ireland. It’s been a whirlwind!

“Never mind the medals, it’s brilliant what it has done for everyone in Maghera. We’re a football-mad area, football is everything and the team is all anyone wants to talk about.

“Before 2021 we nearly felt a bit inferior in Derry and it was that question: ‘Will we ever get one? Do you think it’ll ever happen?’ The club had been going for over 70 years and 2019 was the first final. To get over the line is the most special thing about it and what it did for everybody – young and old. That first final and the Ulsters and the All-Ireland… Grown men crying! Everybody turning up in the town when we came back and following us up the street… It’s just so special, it’s hard to put it into words.

“You put a lot of time into it but when you’re doing it with boys you grew up with and you know what it means to so many people you don’t think about it, you just do it and it’s great to be able to do it.

“The GAA is unreal. We had the club dinner dance and somebody was saying how we all thought it would take winning an All-Ireland title to make us a great club but, when you look back on the years before, we were always a great club, we just didn’t have a great senior team.”

Mickey Harte has guided Derry to the National League final. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

COMING off such form and success with Glen you’d imagine that in most counties a versatile wing-back of Mulholland’s quality would go straight into the starting line-up. But Derry have back-to-back Ulster titles behind them and Sunday’s National League final ahead of them so they aren’t ‘most counties’.

It’s going to take work and having climbed right to the top of the club ladder, Mulholland has had to start a good few rungs down the inter-county one and settle for a place on the bench throughout the League.

That’s not where he wants to be but he’s prepared to back himself and bide his time.

Three days after Glen’s All-Ireland title, he was training with the Oak Leafers at Owenbeg.

He’d been overlooked by previous manager Rory Gallagher but Mickey Harte was on the phone before the Derry final had been played last year to tell him there was a place in his squad if he wanted it.

He did and three days after the All-Ireland final triumph he and Conor Glass, Ethan Doherty, Ciaran McFaul, Conleth McGuckian and Emmet Bradley were in Owenbeg to meet the management and do a bit of gym work.

“I was happy to go,” says Eunan.

“When you get over the two or three days of celebrating over you’re ready to go back into something. You spend so much time training and playing that whenever you go away from it you don’t know what to be at with yourself.

“Maybe it would be a different story if I was a bit older with a family or something but it’s the only thing I really do and I don’t know what I’d be at if I wasn’t playing football.

“Playing in Division One, playing against the top teams every week… It’s a good experience to try it out. I’d never met Mickey (Harte) before I went up the first time. He’s a man who has won three All-Irelands and you’re hanging on to every word he says because in football you’re never done learning.”

He missed the first two games of the campaign – victories against Kerry and Tyrone - with a niggling injury but joined the panel for the round three victory over Monaghan and got his first taste of top flight football when he replaced clubmate McFaul after an hour.

He made his first start against Dublin but nothing comes easily at Division One level and he’s determined to work hard to force his way into the team and stay there.

Glass is permanent:
Conor Glass returned to duty with Derry after Glen's All-Ireland triumph (Ray Ryan / SPORTSFILE)

“That’s the next challenge,” he says.

“You want to be playing football and I’m taking it every night as it comes and getting used to the different pace of it because it is a different game.

“It’s 10 minutes longer to start with and when you’re playing at club level you might come up against boys that you’re fitter than, or faster, or stronger than but when you go to county level you’re the person that has the work to do.

“There’s boys flying past you… Everybody is at a really, really high level, especially in Division One. We played Dublin there and it showed me that you think you’re fit and you think you’re in good shape, but there’s a lot more you could be doing.

“The pace of it against Dublin was grand, I felt comfortable enough but when you see the shape some of them boys are in… You’re at the top level.

“I’ll work hard and play my own game and hopefully that’ll be enough to get me in there and get me as much game-time as possible. Obviously whenever you’re coming in you want to try and make an impact, you want to be on the field and on the ball getting scores and all the rest. I want to add my own individual thing to it and hopefully that makes the team a bit better as well.”

The loss to Derry at Celtic Park was Derry’s only setback so far this season. On Sunday they meet the reigning All-Ireland champions again – this time for the League title – and Mulholland says the Oak Leafers will approach the game with the same mindset they do for every game. To win.

“You hear talk about the League and maybe it’s not the be-all and end-all but (with Glen) when we’re playing in the league in Derry, every game you play you want to win it,” he says.

“It’s 100 per cent the same mentality in the Derry dressingroom. There’s six of us from Glen and there’s Slaughtneil boys in there who’ve had a lot of success as well.

“All the boys who’ve been there this last two years have had a lot of success so it’s good to be in that environment where everybody just wants to win the whole time. It’s a good place to be, everybody has that mentality and, individually and collectively, they want to achieve as close to their potential as they can get.”