Éamonn Murphy sat down with long-serving Cork City keeper Mark McNulty to reflect on an incredible 2017 for the club, his family life off the field and the intensity of the rivalry with Dundalk on it...
THEY say there’s no rest for the wicked and while it might be the offseason for the man who played the role of villain to perfection in the FAI Cup final, Mark McNulty is certainly keeping himself busy.
Cork City’s super-keeper, who enraged Dundalk in the build-up to last month’s Aviva Stadium showdown and then pulled off the match-winning penalty save, is still putting the finishing touches on the new house his family recently moved into in Frankfield. It’s all go in the McNulty household, as Mark and Theresa have five kids, including an eight-month-old baby.
“You had three great days celebrating with all the team after the cup final but sure once that’s over you’re thinking about getting back into the gym. Preseason is around the corner so you’ve to be ready for the middle of January to go all out again.
“It’s unreal having a laugh with the boys after the cup final but you’re back down to earth quick enough. You’ve to be there for the missus and the kids, find your routine. Three days and after that… reality, but it’s a good reality!”
The City players are in demand this winter in the best possible sense. Completing the domestic double, as well as securing the President’s Cup and the Munster Senior Cup, has increased their profile hugely. There have been numerous visits to schools, sponsors and events, while they’ve become recognisable to the Cork public at large.
“It’s unreal,” McNulty admits. “Six months ago very few people would have known you but now it’s selfies, pictures. Look it’s because we’re winning. That’s sport, that’s Cork sport. I’ve no problem with that. The buzz is great. Long may it continue!
“My kids are getting to the age where they know what it all means. Why not enjoy it? Why hide away?”
Just last week he met up with three teenagers from Blarney who were doing a Transition Year project.
“One of their fathers rang me. It only took 20 minutes out of my time and I know what that means to them.”
There were those three days of wild partying after upsetting the odds against Dundalk in the FAI Cup final shootout, but while a share of the City team then jetted off to the sun McNulty had a prior engagement.
He spent four days on the intense UEFA B course at Fota Resort, run by Dave Bell, Niall O’Regan, Steve O’Mahony and Paul Martin. It was 9am to 9pm, but he’d plenty of League of Ireland colleagues for company: Karl Sheppard, John Dunleavy, Robbie Williams, Ian Turner and Billy Dennehy.
“It was interesting. There was more to it than the Goalkeeping B Licence because you can be working with strikers and you’re taking in the bigger picture.
“You’d be nervous. Day one you’re doing a presentation with 20 people. Something as simple as showing formations on the tactics board can throw you when you’re talking to a group and trying to keep your concentration. Nervous wreck! And you put me in front of 25,000 people in the Aviva it doesn’t bother me.
“As soon as you’re on the training pitch you’re so comfortable. With the ball at your feet, even with a group around, it’s far easier. You’d be edgy before a pitch session but as soon as you get in there’s no problem. That’s the coaching side of it and it can be very enjoyable.”
Everything is pretty enjoyable at the moment. Recently turned 37, McNulty is still in top shape – lean and mean – and most certainly basking in the glow of his greatest campaign for his beloved club. It’s been quite a journey for the Ballincollig man.
He had to serve a lengthy apprenticeship under Mick Devine and even when he took over was displaced for a spell by Dan Connor in 2009-’10. It took him a while after that to really nail down his status as one of the best in the league.
“Back in 2001 when I was with the U21s, would I have thought I’d have over 300 appearances with Cork City? No chance. Would I have thought I’d have been involved in the squad for the league in 2005? No. A first-ever double for the club? Definitely not.
“I’ve been involved in five FAI Cups final, won three, lost two. Even winning the First Division that last day up against Shels.
“Would I have thought I’d have the profile I have now? Never. Where it’s gone over the 20 years has been incredible. It shows what hard work can do, but I still don’t know if I’ll appreciate it all until down the road when I retire.”
Still, he’s been around long enough to know that 2017 was special. McNulty was there through the Arkaga and Tom Coughlan years when the club collapsed. He appreciates the stability under fan ownership and John Caulfield’s astute management, as much as the on-field thrills.
“When you’re winning, everyone wants to be a part of it. From the first game last season Cork City was in all the media, not just Cork.
“We went 23 games unbeaten and the country was talking about that, Seánie Maguire was banging goals in for fun, talks of the international call-up. It meant kids were interested, their parents, it became a family thing to go to the games.
“I wouldn’t say people are jumping on the bandwagon, it’s just actually being interested. Hurling, football, soccer and rugby are probably the four main sports in Cork and the others weren’t going that well earlier this year.
“Unfortunately for Cork City we’ve been behind those sports but Munster haven’t been getting to Heineken Cup finals, there haven’t been All-Ireland wins, so we picked up more support.
“Look next year the Cork hurlers might drive on again or whatever and we know we’ve to keep winning. If you’re not doing well you just won’t get the big support. That’s fair enough.”
There will be a Champions League qualifier next summer and given some impressive recent signings as well as the retention of the likes of Sheppard and Steven Beattie, another title challenge. Nothing matches a heaving Turner’s Cross.
“The average team in Dublin gets 1,200 at a home game. We’ve been getting that for a cup game against a non-league team or something. There were five or six sold-out home games last year and that’s where the appeal is for the likes of Shepp and Beats.
“I guarantee you after the cup final Shepp was thinking ‘there’s no way I can leave this’. Once his missus was happy to be in Cork he couldn’t walk away. It’s addictive playing at the Cross. Once you’ve a happy home, training is easier and when it clicks on the big day it’s fantastic.”
For any youngster with sporting ambition, delivering when it really matters – against your adversaries, when reputations and medals are on the line – is what you dream of. The cup final was exactly that for McNulty.
“It’s tough moving house. It can be a stressful time. You’re starting from fresh but look it helped me that I was going to training looking forward to the cup final and to winning the league. You’re here in the house, painting or whatever, happy out thinking ‘we could win the league this Friday…’ Daydreaming away to yourself.
“When I saved the penalty against Dundalk it was something I dreamed about, in front of their fans, after all the grief I got. Just to be able to turn around and see all the hands on their heads: ‘how did that jammy f***er save that!’ It was mad how it worked out.”
Which of course brings us to the infamous sing-song in SOHO after the league was wrapped up. The clip of McNulty goading Dundalk with a chant of ‘F*** the Lilywhites’ went viral and got huge coverage the week before the FAI Cup final when Stephen Kenny, Stephen O’Donnell and Brian Gartland vented their anger at the press conference.
“I partly guessed there would be something, but not that much. Look there were a couple of hundred Cork fans and they were all like ‘go on Nults’, having the craic after last year. Everyone went ‘wah-hey’ after I sang it and move on and you forget about it.
“I got up the next morning not a bother and then I saw my phone and there were 12 notifications on my Twitter and I don’t do much tweeting. ‘What’s all this about?’
“Then I went in and it was Dundalk fans: ‘McNulty’s acting the tool again’. They were hammering me, destroying me. The missus just told me not to be getting wound up about it, to forget it, turn off social media and keep the concentration. She said: ‘what’s the point in reading about some 13-year-old young fella saying you’re this or this. Waste of time’.
“Obviously I heard about it on the radio when Stephen Kenny bit. Kenny saying I was disrespecting some deceased members of the club. The last thing I was thinking when I was standing up in the bar singing ‘F*** the Lilywhites’ was dishonouring anyone. It’s about the rivalry now and it’s about not taking yourself too seriously.
“If Kenny hadn’t brought it up it would have been ignored by most people. It would have died out but they were looking for Cork to bite back. They’d O’Donnell, Gartland on it. We let them at it.
“We went into the game and in the tunnel, I knew the lads were wound up with me. They were saying ‘alright Benno’ but blanking me. I would have been friendly with Stephen O’Donnell when he was in Cork.
“Then during the game McMillan was getting wound up with me. He was giving me grief when I had the ball but I was only laughing at him. Gartland was getting wound up. O’Donnell was. I think it got to them because none of those players got a kick of the ball. None of it bothered me but it obviously did to them.”
Surely Caulfield – though the manager publicly shot done any suggestion that it was a concern – wasn’t impressed?
“He pulled me in and he goes ‘are you alright Mark?’ ‘Take no notice of that stuff on social media. I don’t go on it but someone in the club has made me aware of it. We’ve a game in five or six days and I do not want you worrying about what’s said on social media. Stay off. It’ll die down.’
“He left it at that. He basically said the same thing Therese did to me.
“He knows what type of character I am. Going back to when he was with Avondale and I was helping out with the goalkeepers. He knows there was no badness in it.”
It’s that type of off-the-cuff honesty that makes the League of Ireland unique. #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld as the hardcore supporters claim on Twitter.
“You just don’t have that in the Premier League. Imagine if Wayne Rooney did something about Liverpool before the derby. It would be nuts. But you know if he did, it would only be a bit of craic about a team he’s rivals with, has been since he was a kid because he’s an Everton fan.
“Here in fairness everything is looked at as a good way to get interest in a game, maybe bring in another couple of fans. It like George O’Callaghan. Georgie, he loved and fed off having 3,000 people roaring abuse at him. Some guys shy away from that. It depends on who you are.
“I used to be great friends with Stephen O’Donnell. Great fella, very funny. It was when we weren’t challenging but look when you start doing well it becomes intense, it becomes a real rivalry because the stakes are high.
“Now you’d have lads who when you go up to shake their hands they just brush off you. You’re thinking ‘hold on, last year when ye were beating us ye had no problem coming over to us after games to shake our hands’.
“People say I was disrespectful for what I said, but for me it’s more disrespectful not to shake your opponent’s hands. When they won the league in Caulfield’s first year there were fellas running past us, in our faces, and going over taunting the Cork City fans. That was real wind-up stuff and that was far more dangerous.
“Listen though, rivalry it great. Sport is boring without it. You have two great teams and I’m sure in years to come we’ll be able to get along again with no grudges.”
He doesn’t expect the enmity to diminish between City and Dundalk anytime soon though.
“They’re standing in our way. We’re standing in their way. Of course there’s a bit of hatred there.
“There were comfortably better than us for a while. They were a few goals better than us and they had this thing over us. You’re going to games thinking getting a draw would do.
“That switched. We’ve played them over the past two seasons and not played brilliantly but still won 2-1, 2-0.
“Even going into the cup final they were red-hot favourites, we were underdogs even though we’d just won the league by seven points but in our minds we knew we could always get going to take them on.”
Judging by their celebrations, the perception that City weren’t as good as Dundalk – despite going unbeaten against them all season – clearly bugged the players.
“It did annoy us because people were saying we only got where we did because of Seánie Maguire. He was unbelievable but he wasn’t getting the ball and running past 11 players to score. He wasn’t defending in our box. It’s a team game.
“For all we’ve done over the last four years it was coming down to being about Seánie. That’s why Beats said after the cup final we won all the rounds of the cup without Seánie Maguire, Kevin O’Connor and John Dunleavy.
“We were going into games at the start of the season and it wasn’t about ‘can we win, it was about how much we’d score’. We know we didn’t play as well after they left for Preston but it’s not easy winning a league. Once we won the league did it really matter how we played in some brutal game away to Finn Harps or somewhere.”
It won’t be long before the road trips come round again. City will return in January to defend their trophies and McNulty will slip back into his familiar routine.
“You’re up at quarter past seven, getting the kids’ stuff ready, leaving the house by quarter past eight to get them to school, them into Bishopstown for training. You train until half one and you drop the gearbag home and back down to pick the kids up for half two. Therese works part-time so that’s a help. She gets most Fridays off so I can get a kip on match days.
“I’d love to jump on the couch, play FIFA, kip for a few hours but listen I did that plenty of times when I was younger, I’m quite happy with family life.”
He’s very grounded these days, after the decadence of the late noughties when overspending left on the brink of obliteration.
“We were on great money. Scandalous. But the following Thursday I’d be waiting for my wages. I’d be shopping on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I must have kept Zara in business. It was all about the laugh and the craic. There was no saving that’s for sure. Mad.
“If City had gone I don’t know would I stayed in the league really. Megan and Tessa and Faye were just born so I don’t know if I’d have travelled up the country to try and play for a smaller club. I could have ended up working on the building line or doing something completely different.”
That’s why he appreciates the commitment to the cause given by the die-hards who kept City going through the darkest hours.
“The part FORAS have played in the success of Cork City is just phenomenal. They deserve to enjoy every second of this. You have the likes of Mick Ring. His family are steeped in Cork City, he was the chairman, now he’s doing the kit man.
“After we won the cup final to see the emotion of someone like him. I didn’t see a happier man. He was in his element. He’s pure Cork City. Sometimes winning and losing affects him more than certain players.
“You’ve Eanna Buckley too. Cork City through and through. From a fan to a massive part of running the club. Incredible really.”
Between the posts can be the loneliest position in sport if you make a mistake. McNulty though doesn’t turn to a sports psychologist when the pressure is on. With former Cork City number one and league winner Phil Harrington in the backroom, he’s well covered.
“I don’t think I need to talk to a total stranger about that. Each to their own but we have loads of strong characters in the club. We have loads of coaches, Cotts, Kearney, Biscuits (John Cotter, Liam Kearney and Harrington).
“When I came into Cork City, Biscuits was there then so in a way he’s been a coach to me for about 13 or 14 of the last 17 years. We’ve built up a great relationship and it’s a very natural one. You can sound him out about anything.
“You try to remind fellas that you have to be patient as a goalie. I’d the same with Mick Devine. I could have dropped down to the First Division but I was sub keeper for as long as it took. The best club in the country is Cork City so why go to Limerick or Waterford. You bide your time and then take your chance when it comes.
“I think with keepers they’re usually just singing your name, small things to distract you. Never bothers me. Up in Dundalk you got dog’s abuse alright. Stuff being thrown. It probably didn’t help when I started singing things in SOHO about them of course! Sure look it is what it is. We’ll all get over it in time.”
McNulty was the ultimate late bloomer, in that he was an attacker in his teens for Ballincollig when he played with two former City players Colin Healy and Alan Carey. Though his uncles and father Mick were noted netminders, his conversion to goalie wasn’t planned.
“It all happened by default in some ways for me. I was always a striker until we were struggling for a keeper at U17 and U18. I was about 5’ 2” or 5’ 3” until I was 16. There’s a picture Miller’s mother has of me when he was going over the Celtic and he was a good head over me and he’s not a big guy like.”
Miller is Liam Miller, McNulty’s childhood friend and former Celtic, Sunderland, Leeds and Cork City midfield, who recently returned from the US to face the toughest battle of his career.
“Look his family asked me to put out there that he doesn’t have pancreatic cancer. That was all over social media and it’s not true. He does have cancer and it’s a very tough time but he’s three kids, seven, 10 and 13, and it’s difficult enough for them without all the stuff about pancreatic cancer.
“He doesn’t want any more front page news or it to be built back up again. There’s no easy way to talk about it. He’s fighting cancer. It’s very tough. There were people saying he was in Marymount. Way off the mark.
“I was chatting to him on the phone on the Friday night before he came home from the States and people were saying he was already home and in Marymount. People saying he had weeks to live.
“No matter where Miller’s been in the world we stayed in contact. Went to games when he was with United, Celtic, Leeds. At least he’s at home now. He’s a big family, three older brothers and a sister, and they’re rallying around him. He’ll fight through.”