Interview with Don Mullan

Don Mullan

Don Mullan is without doubt one of the kindest human beings I have ever met.  His extraordinary story growing up in the Troubles represents a childhood in its purest form.  His football memories chimed with that of my own experiences playing street football with my mates across the water every summer in Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh.  I was present when Don gave a passionate speech at the Football Is More International Forum last August and instantly became fascinated by the man’s story, his work and passion for a game that needs protecting.

ERNIE.   Hi Don, firstly, it is a fantastic news to know you are on board as a Patron for the NCFA I think it sends out the all the right messages around the world and for those that facilitate the children’s game.

DON.     I am honoured and delighted to help support NCFA and the wonderful work that you.

E.            As a child what is your earliest football memory?

D.            My earliest memories of football was, as a boy of about seven or eight, seeing teenagers and men playing on the local green. But I remember a distinct increase in interest amongst my  age group in 1966 when the World Cup was broadcast live. Many of my peers were inspired by names such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Eusebio, Pel© etc and wanted to fantasise that they were them. And that’s how I became a goalkeeper. The last two picked by the best players had only one option ‘€“ goalkeeper. And then, on 30 July 1966 I saw Gordon Banks play for England and I was hooked. And have been ever since.  He still remains my hero to this day.

E.            Can you tell us about your scrap book, how it started, why you started it and who was it that encouraged you to keep a scrap book?

D.            No one encouraged me to keep a scrap book. It was my idea, similar to how many children keep scrapbooks of things they are interested in. I began with the same little scrapbooks you can find in shops to this day, with scissors printed on the cover. But they would fill up quickly and I had to get another and another. Then one day I was with my mother in a paint and decorating shop. She was looking at wallpaper in big wallpaper books and I got the idea that one of these would make an ideal scrapbook. And that’s how my famous scrapbook began. The gentleman serving my mother gave me one of the books and I was the happiest boy on the planet.

E.            Your father was clearly a huge influence in your life can you tell us about the time he took you to meet your hero Gordon Banks?

D.            My father wasn’t a football fanatic. He was a quiet and good man who worked hard always to keep a roof over our heads and to make sure we never went hungry or without. Both he and my mother realised that something good was happening to me with my developing interest in Gordon Banks. I am dyslexic and at the time the assumption was I was a slow learner and lacking intelligence. Then suddenly I began to read and research and was gathering all the information I could find into my giant scrapbook. On top of that I was now seriously interested in goalkeeping and was outside endlessly playing football. All of this was very healthy and they realised it was important to encourage me. Then came the day, shortly after ‘That Save’ against Pel©, there was an announcement in our local paper ‘The Derry Journal’ that Gordon Banks would be playing in our neighbouring county, Donegal, on 2 August 1970. I didn’t have to ask my father to take me. He told me he would. And, unknown to me, he and my mother hid my scrapbook in the boot of the car. They decided they would ask Banksy to meet me but didn’t tell me in case he would refuse.  WOW! It was the most magical day of my childhood and my greatest memory of my father. Gordon Banks was a real gentleman and that day was to have a profound influence in the years ahead, as I never forgot this very kind, decent and caring Englishman whom I loved and will love and respect until the day I die. Out first encounter was like being granted an interview with God.

E.            Growing up in Derry / Londonderry Troubles did you conceal your hero / role model Gordon Banks from your peers?  Did you need to?  Was there a ‘now’ recognisable adult world – as opposed to your childhood hero / football world?

D.            Not in the slightest. In fact I think it is a really nice aspect of the story to realise that before the ‘Troubles’ I was the England goalkeeper for my street team, Leenan Gardens, and I always wore a yellow jersey with a sown-on badge with three lions, as I wanted to look like Gordon Banks. No one ever said a word to me or tried to poison my mind against the English or British in any way.  The adult world enjoyed my innocent fantasy and many, knowing of my interest and my scrapbook would give me newspaper cuttings or old programmes. I was never aware of any anti-British sentiment where I lived prior to the early 1970s. Later my estate became an IRA stronghold and there was growing pressure on us all, especially after the introduction of Internment without Trial and Bloody Sunday, to consider the path of violence. Many of my peers choose that road. I didn’t for a variety of reasons and a primary one was the memory of a very kind and gentle Englishman called Gordon Banks.  And even with the Troubles, we still watched ‘Match of the Day’ every Saturday night on the BBC and ‘The Big Match’ on Sunday afternoons on ITV.  Our heroes played in the English First Division. 

E.            Can you tell us about the day your home was raided as child and how football crossed the divide?

D.            I recall hearing Rolls Royce engines roaring outside my bedroom window and the sound of heavy boots running up our steps and fists thumping hard on our front door. I looked out the window and was ordered to open the door immediately. I called to my parents to get up as it was an Army Raid. I was pushed aside as British soldiers took over our home. I followed some upstairs as I was concerned for my parents. It was only the three of us at home. I then followed a soldier into my bedroom. I will never forget his reaction. I suppose he was expecting to see IRA and Republican paraphernalia. Instead he was greeted with posters of Stoke City FC, England and Gordon Banks. He was gobsmacked. ‘What’s this mate?’ he asked me. I told him that Gordon Banks was my hero and I retrieved my scrapbook from under my bed and showed him the autograph he gave me a few years earlier. He called in the officer in charge of the raiding party and the next thing I remember was a line of soldier queuing up to see Banksy’s signature. The aggression evaporated and a short time after this I was sitting on our stairs discussing Irish history with soldiers standing in our hallway. We were having a real dialogue about the merits of what was happening and I remember the soldiers agreeing that if the Irish were doing the same in England, they too would be angry. My scrapbook and love of soccer was a real bridge that allowed us all to connect and recognise our common humanity. 

E.            To this day do you feel football is a vehicle for social inclusion in Ireland?

D.            Yes and no. There are so many heroes who are quietly working with immense dedication in helping young people to have a healthy interest in sport. People like my manager Jim O’Hea, who was a bachelor and who lived and worked for the club he founded, Derry Athletic Football Club. All his money and every spare minute was spent on his boys. An amazing man who, like so many such adults, are never properly recognised or honoured.  These are the men who provide the opportunities for young people to breath and live football and who, in a very real sense, are the real makers of the talent that eventually finds its way onto professional football pitches across the world.

Then there are the men in suits who now control football from the boardrooms and who are kingpins whose God is money. Too often takers ‘€“ not givers; interested primarily in adding value to a brand name that once was the very life blood of a community. They have stolen the soul from the game and, a far cry from Tony Waddington’s memorable description of soccer being ‘the working man’s ballet’; have turned it into a Corporate circus.

I remember one day in 2008, when I was working towards the Gordon Banks day in Stoke, encountering a backroom official who had just had a row with the manager. Rather unprofessionally he ranted at me: “I’ll tell you what I hope. I hope Stoke lose their first 10 games in the Premiership so that he gets the sack and we get a proper manager. He doesn’t realise that this is a 40 billion pound industry. And that’s what it is, an industry. It must be run like a business. He wants to run the club like an old style manager but he can’t. “

I’m happy to know the manager is still there and doing a great job and the last I heard the backroom boy has fallen from grace. And proper order.

E.            Can you tell us about the project to erect a statue to Gordon Banks and why you feel it is important?

D.            For me it was a labour of love. An opportunity to return and say ‘thank you’ to one of England’s most iconic sportsmen who had such a powerful influence for good in my life. My motivation was always one of gratitude. I have a wonderful statue created by Andrew Edwards, but it still has no home. But this I do know, I only want it to be erected amongst people who truly value and respect Gordon Banks. And one day it will be.

E              The Boy Who Could Fly is internationally revered.  How did you feel when both Arch Bishop Tutu and Pele reviewed your book and what did they say.

D.            It was very humbling that they both agreed to contribute a joint foreword to my boyhood memoir. The greatest footballer in the history of soccer and one of the great peacemakers of the 20th Century, combining two very important interests in my life. I was very moved by their description of my scrapbook as being ‘one of the greatest tributes created by a child, anywhere in the world, to a hero’€¦’  My favourite quote from that foreword is the following: 
At all levels, sport should not be about winning at any cost. Its primary goal should be about helping young people to become better, more healthy and caring citizens. That goal is far more important than winning medals, even World Cup and Olympic medals. 

E.            You gave a passionate presentation of your work at the Together We Are Stronger forum about the mission to establish a memorial for the 1914 Christmas Truce football match.  Can you tell us why this is so important?

D.            The British historian, Piers Brendon, has described the 1914 Christmas Truce as ‘”.. a moment of humanity in a time of carnage… what must be the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas since those notable goings-on in Bethlehem.” For me it is the only moment of hope during four years of utter and senseless butchery of millions of young lives. As with the soldiers I connected with during the raid on my home, here was a moment when ‘enemies’ recognised their common humanity. As human beings we have far more in common than dividing us.  That Christmas Eve and Day, the singing of carols, the reverential burying of their comrades, the sharing of gifts and the game of football, all meshed into a moment of magic I want to recreate over and over again with young people from around the world. Those soldiers were never the same again and many were moved away from the front for they found it too difficult to kill an ‘enemy’ whose human face they had recognised. And after Bloody Sunday, which I witnessed at very close quarters, I had the memory of Gordon Banks. I knew the cruelty and inhumanity I witnessed that day was not representative of all English or British people. There have always been British people who cared about Ireland and who have endeavoured to create important and genuine friendships. In this context this why my sculptor friend, Andrew Edwards, has a sports monument he wants to create in the future, of a diving Gordon Banks and Gordon’s boyhood hero, the WWII German Prisoner of War, Bert Trautman, being watched by a little 10 year old boy holding his scrapbook. For the boy is, at once, the Irish boy and his English hero, and the English boy and his German hero. A demonstration of how sport can help us cross the No Man’s land of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry ‘€“ to a place where we rediscover our common humanity; A place that I wish to symbolically create near where the 1914 Christmas Day football game occurred on the Western Front. A place called ‘The Flanders Peace Field’.  

E.            Do you think there is a link between childhood and football which played a fleeting part in the Christmas truce game?

D.            We forget that most of those who died were very young men. To reverently walk, as I have done many times over the past few years, along rows and rows of British and German graves in Flanders, is to realise that many of those who died were not long out of childhood. I am sure the sight of a football ignited memories of happy days in childhood and adolescence when, on the village green or in the school playground, with carefree hearts, they chased after a football, as we all have done. And despite the fact that, days earlier they had been firing bullets and dropping shells, I am sure that game was played with fairness and sportsmanship. It was a moment when Christmas carols and a game of football stopped a world war. That is worth preserving and trying to understand its impact on those who took part for the betterment of humanity now and for generations to come.

E.            I think we all agree that football at professional level is far removed from the professional game we remember in flares and knitted scarves.  What elements of the game would you say will never change?

D.            I must admit I am nostalgic for the game of the 1960 and 1970s which I believe was a far more honest game and one where heroes were ordinary men who didn’t live behind security fences with CCTV security cameras.  I sometimes watch my two favourite games of all time: the 1970 Mexico World Cup clash of the world champions, England vs. Brazil; and the 1972 League Cup Final in Wembley, Stoke City vs. Chelsea. Both were classic games, with consummate sportsmanship. There was little, if any, diving or trying to pull the wool over the referee’s eyes.  A bit like the recent Women World Cup which, while lacking the technical skills of professional male footballers, was a far more honest, and therefore, more enjoyable tournament, than the FIFA World Cup in South Africa., the final of which (no fault to the local organisers) was the worst final in the history of the game because of the absence of real sportsmanship.  But, notice what I have done. I am erroneously thinking that ‘the game’ is the professional game today. When, in fact, the game is the game our children play on the street, in the park, the school playground and the local village green, using bundled coats as goalposts and limbs fuelled with imagination. That’s the element of the game that will never change and that’s the element of the game we should preserve and encourage. For that is the game of children and it should only and always be about fun and fantasy and discovering the joy of living.

E.            As you know the NCFA aim to provide children a voice in football.  Do you feel there is a need for that voice to be heard on an International platform and what do you think it may or may not achieve?

D.            I think there are many voices that need to be heard on the international platform and most certainly, children should be one of them. As you know, I love the fact that I am a fan and why I have the dream of creating a new World Cup ‘€“ The Fans World Cup ‘€“ aimed at encouraging better sportsmanship, respect and good behaviour amongst fans around the world, especially when they attend the World Cup Finals. The voice of children would be a voice calling for fairness and honesty in the game. A voice that wants and needs good role models to whom they can look up to. A voice that can look Sepp Blatter in the eyes and ask, ‘Is FIFA really honest?” A voice that can look the fat cats in the eyes and ask, “What are you doing to help the children of the world.” That’s why I am so committed to helping Pel© make real his 1969 dedication of his 1000th goal to the children of Brazil and the World.  Instinctively, he knew that he must give something back and that it should be to the children, the future of the game and the future of the world.

E.            Sport can be a great bridge but what is it about football, more than any other sport, that makes that vital connection?

D.            It is the ball. Pure and simple. That round bag of captured air that can fly across fields and sky and make adults behave like children and children dream of being heroes. It is inexpensive and can last for a thousand games and more. It speaks the same language on all five continents of the earth. Whether in China or Canada, England or Ethiopia, Ireland or Iran, the ball knows no barriers. It’s there to be kicked and carried, to be chased and cheered, to be the object of valor or vainglory. And through it we must establish rules of engagement that demand fair play. It brings us together, as activists or audience. As competitors it tests us and teaches us who we are. Even when it ends, the game is far from over. For we desire to return and try again. And, as in all sports, the ball encourages us to keep pushing ourselves to be better and more accomplished, on and off the field.  And that is why it is such a good companion for our children. God Bless the Ball and the genius who first invented it!

E.            Don, thank you€“ for being you.

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