Antoin McMullan working towards another clean sheet for Slaughtneil
VERY few of the Slaughtneil team work outside a 50-mile radius of home. Antoin McMullan is, in a sense, one of the exceptions.
But it says it all about the Emmet’s goalkeeper’s commitment, and that of his team-mates, that their working lives are built around the need and want to play for the club.
A Quantity Surveyor for McLaughlin and Harvey, he is based in Mallusk three of the five days, but he has to travel to work at Luton Airport outside London at some point every week.
The modern economic climate doesn’t often afford graduates the opportunity to lay down terms to their employers, but McMullan felt there was no option when he interviewed for the job.
Needing to be home for training on Tuesday and Friday nights, the 27-year-old wasn’t going to take a job that didn’t allow him to do that.
“That was one of the ground rules I laid down at interview. I wouldn't have taken the job if I wasn't able to play football.”
So as part of his week, he flies into Luton every Wednesday and back home on a Thursday evening. He didn’t last week, though, and he won’t this week as he prepares for Friday’s All-Ireland club final.
“It's a big sacrifice, they say. I don't actually see it as a sacrifice. A lot of people here wouldn't.
“I'm not married, but if I didn't have football then I just wouldn't enjoy it. There would be no point.
“Football is the priority around here. So is hurling and camogie. It's the only thing that gives you real happiness. Work is kind of second. You would work all day and you’re thinking about getting up here [to the club]/
“I am sitting in work now and it is hard to stay focussed. Your mind is on Paddy's Day the whole time. Always thinking about it.”
Tuesday night into Wednesday morning comes quickly. By the time he gets to bed after training, it’s usually midnight. McMullan is up again at 4am to hit the road for an early flight.
But Wednesday night is when he takes advantage of being away from home with no real distractions.
“I tend to try to get to bed early and maybe get eleven hours sleep. It's a bit embarrassing to say that, but it's the reality.”
The dedication has paid off. Friday’s All-Ireland final will be their tenth Championship game of this run and Antoin McMullan is yet to concede a single goal.
His save from Tiernan Cox late on in their Ulster semi-final win over Killyclogher was an outstanding point-blank stop, while he also went full length to turn away Enda Varley’s flick-on at a crucial time in the All-Ireland semi-final win over St Vincent’s.
His diving save from Kilcoo’s Eugene Branagan low effort with four minutes to play in the Ulster final and two points separating the sides was the most important of all.
“We have defended well all year. I think it is more reflective as how we play as a collective rather than a goalkeeper,” he says of his incredible run of 540 minutes (plus whatever stoppage time) without conceding a goal.
“Even from our forwards, the defence, the midfield, it is the brand of football we play, it is hard to score goals against us.
“But if we concede a goal on Paddy's Day against Crokes, it won't be the end of the world.”
And there he will come up against one of the greatest finishers the game has ever seen.
It’s very seldom you’ll ever have seen Colm Cooper miss a one-on-one with any goalkeeper.
McMullan is relishing the prospect of not only that challenge, but St Patrick’s Day as a while.
“He’ll go down in history as one of the best ever. For ten years almost, he was the face of the GAA.
“If you’d drive around Dublin, you’d see his face on billboards. It’s a bit surreal now to be playing against him.
“But we’ll try and keep that aside for 60 minutes. You want to enjoy it. I know there’s a lot of pressure to win it, and a lot of people want to see us win it.
“I learned from the 2014 campaign, me personally, I was so focussed on winning I realised I didn’t really enjoy the journey as much as I should have. This time around, I want to try and enjoy it more. I think everyone wants to go out and enjoy it.”
When he was first in Croke Park, it wasn’t a particularly memorable afternoon in terms of the game as Corofin built on Martin Farragher’s early goal to comfortably win the 2015 final.
The Slaughtneil ‘keeper did make one crazy save late in the first half when he propelled himself head first at a shot from point-blank range, to see it cannon off his shoulder and fly off for a 45.
In the nine years since he made his Championship debut – since when he’s missed just two games in 2010 – his game has developed enormously. It’s had to.
This season, McMullan has availed heavily of the short kickout. Slaughtneil’s obsession with keeping possession begins with him.
But he doesn’t spend his hours at Emmet Park setting and resetting the ball on the tee. In a very professional operation, there is no goalkeeping coach. He trains with the outfield players.
“I think in the modern era, they want to get goalkeeping coaches in because it looks better.
“I’ve found a lot of the training is structured around shot-stopping, so you spend all night diving around saving shots when maybe 80 per cent of your job in the game will be kickouts.
“If 80 per cent of your training’s focused on kickouts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think you should structure your training based on your contribution in the game.
“You might not get a shot during the game, so I don’t understand why you’d spend so long at training doing shot-stopping. That’s why I’d rather do the collective training.”
The collective has blocked everyone from Lavey to St Vincent's out so far, and if Antoin McMullan manages a tenth straight clean sheet on Friday, it would be a huge step towards an All-Ireland title.