Mullinavat: a feel good football story in a hurling-only land 8 months ago

Mullinavat: a feel good football story in a hurling-only land

There will be no inquests if Mullinavat lose on Saturday.

There will be two bus-loads glad of the day out. There will be a lively night in the Rising Sun or Jim Ja’s, and there’ll be tales and stories galore.

Unfamiliar stories. Football stories. Stories that will live long into the winter and way beyond it.

Kilkenny football has a pulse if it wants it. And the men of Mullinavat are alive and kicking.

Against all the odds and through all the laughs, dreams and fantasies, they’ve come from a proverbial football swampland, to a Leinster intermediate final.

It’s not yet the hallowed surface, but it’s still a minor miracle.

These pioneering football men only train for a couple of weeks a year, and they’re beating lads who have played their whole lives.

Weeks have turned into months in 2019. It's been some winter in Mullinavat.

South Kilkenny, a stone’s throw from Waterford. It’s not remotely close to anywhere you’d consider a football stronghold but these lads have found a passion and the whole parish is driving the hype now.

Bus-loads, black and white flags and Gaelic footballs are on the road to Drogheda. Mullinavat would love to be where Ballyhale are and hurling is clearly still their first love, but football is the big dance this weekend.

Suddenly, a Kilkenny club came from nowhere to light the whole thing up. What's rare is always better, and inside the cult of seasonal hurling converts, the buzz has reached different levels.

Jamie Fennelly remembers the dressing room before the senior hurling quarter final against O’Loughlin Gaels.

“You could hear a pin drop that day,” says the full forward.

Maybe we’re all guilty of taking it a bit too seriously. He remembers the Rosenallis game too.

That was a Leinster semi-final and the Mullinavat boys were laughing and joking and messing around before throw-in. It certainly didn’t feel like a Leinster semi-final. This is just a bunch of boys having the craic during the off-season.

It’s some sort of reverse, wind-back sports psychology. But it's working an absolute treat.

This was a free shot and they knew it. Maybe that explains their success.

The hurling was their main motivation this year. They’re well good enough for a county final. Unfortunately, that train derailed after a quarter final replay. Yet redeemed, saved and born again, this football run has breathed new life in the place they call 'Mullinavegas.'

Gaelic football is to the Mullinavat lads what soccer is to most GAA players. It keeps them together and keeps them fit in the winter months.

They’d won the last two county championships though. Small potatoes, a sweet taste.

This year felt like more of an opportunity. A few dreamers asked why not. They all agreed to give it a right crack for 2019.

Michael Aylward had a brainwave. He’s the manager but a laid back sort of a fella. A good club-man, he’s clearly here for Mullinavat.

Most of these lads went to school in New Ross in Wexford. Football is big there, and Aiden O’Brien is the main man. It was Aylward who gave him a call.

That’s when this fairytale started.

The lads were rusty and there were balls going everywhere in that first session.

"I don’t know whether it was a wake up call for the man that came in or the lads that were training," says Aylward.

"But it has worked out well. He’s a serious man about it like, he’s passionate about the football and the lads have taken well to it."

O’Brien had seen enough though. There was potential.

When Paddy Mullally was running the legs off them in January, the hurling manager was hardly thinking about Leinster football finals.

But the steely Glenmore man has more of a part to play in this than he might think.

‘All footballers have to be is fit’ is a cliché and it’s not entirely accurate. But it is half the battle. Mullally doesn’t tolerate slouches, and the Mullinavat boys are well able to kick a football.

O’Brien came into a fit team. That's a solid base.

There were no laps or long slogs. Kicking and fielding. Their skills went from zero to ninety in four sessions. That’s all they had before beating Dublin champs Ballyboughal. Kilkenny beating Dublin in football.

“Ah that was incredible now, I suppose we did get a bit of luck along the way,” says midfielder Michael Malone.

“But that win really did tell us we were good enough.”

This really is a fairytale.

In all honesty, Kilkenny is laughed at when it comes to Gaelic football. They’re the only county that doesn’t field a team in the League. Their underage is improving, but it’s not down to any grand county movement.

A few Gaels are keeping the tame flame from quenching altogether. Hopefully this will start something. Mullinavat would certainly get involved. It is about time.

It’s a modest enough set up down here. The lights are nothing special.

Good job footballs are bigger than sliotars, better job there’s no hurling in December.

But the clubhouse is a proud one. Pictures of successful camogie teams. The lads won the intermediate in 2014. Willie O’Dwyer was there for Cody’s four in a row. There will be footballers on that wall soon.

As luck would have it, there’s a Tyrone fella in Mullinavat too. He’s got more than he bargained for. Does water during the hurling. His phone is hopping from the lads back home this weather.

They thought he was football’s loss.

What in the name of God have you started in Kilkenny?

He still hasn’t picked up a hurl. But Kilkenny football has taken him to places he never imagined it would.

In Mullinavat, it's been a winter of wonder and Shane Kelly is central to the mood. He's the Tyrone import and he's brought his northern zeal to the business of sherrifing the square.

Outside, the sight of 30 enthusiastic footballers in Kilkenny of a wintry Wednesday is enough to light the fire under anybody.

In the Rising Sun, they’re talking about flags and buses. And football. What a time to be from Mullinavat.

Watch their story here.