From Ardfinnan to the Ards - how Barry Mullane ended up with Down
IT was an unlikely road that brought Tipperary native Barry Mullane to the Ards peninsula and Down's hurling hotbed.
Like any young lad growing up in Ardfinnan, towards the south of the county, he idolised Nicky English and Johnny Leahy. Eoin Kelly, despite being a year younger, was “someone everybody looked up to”.
And then there was Brendan Cummins. As a club-mate with Ballybacon-Grange, there was a particular pride at watching Tipperary's totemic goalkeeper twice lift the Liam Mac Carthy Cup.
Both played football for Ardfinnan too – “same parish, two different clubs” – and, years on, the pair are still hurling together.
“And he's still knocking over six or seven points a game,” smiles Mullane.
Somewhere in between though, another passion took hold. Coaching happened more by accident than design but, the more the journey unfolded, the more he embraced where it was taking him.
After finishing up a degree at Waterford IT he travelled the world, before beginning work as a games promotion officer with the Dublin County Board.
“The ambition was to work in some area of sport, I wasn't sure what, but obviously I was brought up in a hurling family and always loved hurling,” said the 42-year-old.
“I learned an awful lot up in Dublin - I didn't really have any ambition to be coaching adults or anything, I was happy out with the kids, but then I got involved with the Dublin development squad, and started coaching adult players and teams.
“When I moved to Dublin I joined Fingallions then and started coaching there too, so I owe them a lot.”
Mullane stayed in the capital for 14 years before eventually returning home to Tipp, but by then his Twitter observations and coaching ideas had already caught the eye of Down boss Ronan Sheehan.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the pair regularly found themselves popping up on the same webinars, sharing ideas and information, before eventually meeting face to face for the first time at a coaching conference in Blanchardstown last summer.
And so, as he sought to freshen up his backroom team towards the end of last year, Sheehan reached out to Mullane about getting involved with a county set-up that has made only forward strides in recent years.
It may be a long way to Tipperary, but a first crack at inter-county involvement proved too tempting a proposition to turn down.
“I had to give it a bit of thought of course, but I asked one or two who have been involved at inter-county level and they said ‘there mightn't be a next year - you need to take it'.
“Ronan likes the game-based stuff, and I was putting a lot of stuff out there for coaches as part of my job. I'd have big belief in that – that training has to replicate the conditions of the match at the weekend. That's what I'm trying to bring, and I'm really enjoying it so far.
“There's good people there with Mick Blair, Tony Austin, Ronan is an excellent manager, I'm learning a lot from him, then Diarmuid O'Sullivan has been up a good bit.
“He's superb, brilliant to have around, so knowledgeable and a good coach as well, good speaker. It's good to learn from him and his experiences. That's been a real bonus.”
It is a case of so far, so good - and Mullane can see the potential.
Since finally escaping the clutches of the National League's Division 2B in 2020, Down have consolidated in 2A, last year finishing top of the pile, only to lose against Westmeath in the League decider.
Had they hit their stride at Semple Stadium that day, the Ardsmen could have been lining out against Kilkenny rather than Kildare this weekend, but incremental improvement has been the name of the game since Sheehan first came in.
Although the first weekend of League action brought a three-point defeat to Offaly in Ballycran, circumstances dictate that the positives outweighed the negatives. For a start, the Ardsmen began the campaign without key men like Donal Hughes and the Sands brothers, Eoghan and Daithi, as well as Portaferry team-mate Darragh Mallon.
Straight red cards either side of half-time, for Jordan Doran and Mark Fisher, left them down to 13-men against a county who had come down from Division One – yet the Faithful were pushed all the way.
“We spoke about not being here for moral victories after the game, but we were delighted with the boys' performance, particularly under the circumstances.
“The work-rate was just exceptional, and then you see young lads like Finn Turpin coming on, only 18, Tom McGrattan… to see those boys flourish, it gives you a lot of heart.
“There was also an air of disappointment that we could have taken them but, down to 13 men for the second half against Offaly, you have to be pleased with the performance.”