Stories from a true football gent

Noel Mulhall, aged 82 and currently manager of the Cabo U-11A boys team, is a charming, well-travelled, fabulously groomed and dapper gentleman who generously agreed to this interview and regaled us with stories of football over the last 70 years. In a sunny garden in Sallynoggin, with sun cream and hand sanitiser thoughtfully provided, Noel shared his passion for the beautiful game, and some of his history as a coach, senior referee and manager in Dublin, Ireland and the USA.

Noel is a football man through and through – easy to say, but he has the stories and impressive scrapbooks to prove it, and a remarkable, intuitive knowledge and understanding of the game. A Tottenham fan since 1959 when they signed Dave Mackay, he says Jimmy Greaves is still “one of his top men”. Photos, tickets, newspaper articles, programmes all feature in his carefully curated scrapbook that he accompanies with tales of football clubs, people and matches he remembers in detail.

Having moved to Sallynoggin aged twelve, from distant Dún Laoghaire, Noel started playing with local kids in the streets, followed by a season with Park Rovers U-13s in the late 1950s, before he was scouted to play for Clonkeen in the Bray League. His first taste of coaching success came in those well-known Sallynoggin annual tournaments known as the Parish Street League: aged 20, Noel coached the Pearse Avenue team to three successive victories in feisty, high standard matches watched by hundreds in the neighbourhood including his wife Lily, and featuring Tony Hill who went on to be a schoolboy international.

Recalling so many names from the game and his remarkable footballing career, Noel’s stories tumble from his silver-moustached mouth: he is talkative, smiley and seemingly delighted to be given a chance to tell us more about his love of the game. No doubt, like us all, he’s missing actual live football and coaching during this lockdown, so is more than happy to look back at his football achievements and stand out moments.

A chance remark about the view from his back garden brings a tale of the old Dún Laoghaire golf course where his father caddied for a Mr Weir, of the well-known jewellers in Grafton St. Quick to employ him as a messenger boy, Weir then promoted Noel’s father even more quickly to engraver when he spotted his doodling talents in the messenger book. Noel too became an engraver for a while, followed by a career as a wholesale jeweller in town, cut short by a burglary: there’s such empathy and sadness when he reveals how other people’s precious items were lost. Proud and persistent, and needing to clear his debts, a bank loan enabled Noel to take the mail boat to England and return to work with various sports clubs as he engraved and sold trophies across Ireland.

Then his respected coaching career began: football became his focus, clearly more than a hobby. Never one, it seems, to give in to local politics or priests – or indeed football club cronyism and hypocrisy – Noel built longstanding friendships, rather than just relationships, with so many coaches and players across the game in Dublin. Yet at times, as he puts it himself, he could be a loose cannon, not one to hold his tongue.

One story he tells us illustrates the man so well, though I suspect there could be a book’s worth of other stories setting out his principled approach and integrity. One team he coached had a remarkable season in the early 1960s scoring over 100 goals and deserving, in his view, a place in the A league, alongside the “other” A team. Contrary to that club’s preference for the status quo, for no-one to rock the boat, Noel persuaded the League to allow his team – now with a new abbreviated name – to play the next season in the A league too, and all were thrilled to face decent opposition at last. But even though they finished the season in an outstanding third place, coach and team were let down after just one season, demoted by its own club to the B league.

This is not the only example of Noel’s distaste for hypocrisy and unfairness, and no hesitation on his part to call anyone out on it. Such principles have shaped his career. Probably no surprise then that that particular team, when forced to go down to the B league, preferred to move en masse to a different club for the next season, with Noel invited to coach them. Initially reluctant as he had a young family by then, several knocks at his door by those lads persuaded him to move clubs, where they continued to enjoy multiple league wins.

Becoming a ref was the natural next step, though he needed some encouraging as coaching was such an enjoyable part of his life: also, he’d built, by his own admission, a reputation for not always holding back with his views on referees’ decisions. Fortune played a part in his becoming a referee: one evening, watching a local U-14 game, the ref didn’t show. Noel was asked to step in but insisted he’d not know what to do. Friends told him he’d refereed every match he’d ever been to – in his head from the sidelines – so it was time to step up! He did, and enjoyed it immensely, telling us all about it with a smile.

This confidence stood him well when it came to formalising his ref role. He nearly missed the exam in Merrion Square, having been given the wrong time, but pal Charlie O’Leary let him start a little late: he triumphed with 99% and gained his referee card.

Quickly in demand, he refereed a vast number of games, including cup finals at memorable Dublin grounds. Here again, Noel’s plump scrapbook chronicles some key moments. There’s a magnificent photo of Noel holding aloft the huge UEFA Champions Cup that Liverpool won in 1977, when they were over pre-season at Lansdowne Road playing against the Bass League.

One unappealing aspect of those refereeing days seemed to be the official – or should that be officious? – side of it: on joining the Referees’ Society as required, Noel reveals he put up with quite some unpleasant feedback from stuffy stalwarts not keen on his forthright views and honesty. That backbiting even once meant Noel was relieved of the ref’s whistle for a match between Bohs and visiting Spurs, as a rival referee let on he was a lifelong fan.

Noel signs all his messages “Yours in sport”  and it seems his passion for sport goes beyond football. One of the newspaper clippings we’re shown, yellowed with time but pristine, features his uncle, with whom Noel has always been very close. James ‘Jimbo’ Thomas is now 91 and still lives nearby: as a youngster, he was an amateur boxer who turned to rugby, it being allegedly safer. Jim became captain of both Blackrock College and Leinster in 1958 and then in 1961, he played for Ireland against South Africa. Perhaps his dear uncle’s renowned career gave Noel the insights into rugby that he employs to referee football matches.

He explains how he tried to marry the two different approaches to reffing, preferring the politeness and courtesy of rugby: he talked to players like men, as he puts it, and was scrupulously fair, ignoring prejudice and tip-offs about certain players. It helped too, he says, that he knows football so well, including the frustrations and the edges to a match, so he often simply told players: “you play football, I’ll ref, I’ll protect you”. This modern psychological insight notwithstanding, Noel reveals too – with a glint in his eye – that the ability to “get a word in edgeways” on a pitch was a welcome contrast to the domestic situation as a married man!

It was his firm’s longstanding cleaning contract with Marks and Spencer, who opened their Grafton St store in 1978, that got Noel involved in ladies’ football. Again, timing was key, as were the wide network of friends Noel has in the football community and his endless interest in the game and all who play it. A football friend asked him one night to go along and see a ladies’ team, the Sparks, made up of female M&S staff. Clearly Noel couldn’t resist watching football, wherever it is: the girls who knew him well from work were delighted to see him pitchside and managed a rare draw too. Taking this as a positive sign, Noel agreed to do some pre-season coaching, but, ever committed, he stayed on and under his guidance, the Sparks became a force on the competitive scene. Noel quickly sets out the stats: over three consecutive years, they were “third in the league, won the league, won the treble”, and also produced an Ireland international that he supported and took to trials.

Irish football was in luck again, as national coaching was the next, natural move: Noel stuck with the women’s game and working mainly with Fran Rooney, he was the coach and trainer of Ireland’s team for six years from 1984 to 1990. He said to RTÉ ahead of a home match against the Netherlands that the “dedication that these girls show is beyond belief”  and, ever loyal, was quick to defend his players from naïve friends’ criticism asking why he’d bother with the ladies game. Again, Noel was adamant his team were to get fair treatment, not least from the league when it came to supporting high profile matches.

The Irish ladies’ team was invited to play at Wembley in April 1988 as part of the Football League’s Centenary Tournament. The LFAI was reluctant to endorse the overseas trip or pay for transport despite the English FA covering all other costs. Not put off by this lack of backing, Noel insisted they travelled anyway: he, his team, his wife and his sister all went to London by boat and bus. They played the Sunday opening game, followed by the men’s semis and finals featuring the likes of Nottingham Forest, Tranmere Rovers and Manchester United. Noel recalls how excited the Irish ladies were to brush past renowned footballers including Bryan Robson on their way off the pitch.

Football was by then growing fast in the USA, and so when (his old pal) Brendan Keyes asked Noel to do some coaching and clinics coach in1996, he started going regularly to Houston, Texas. He explains how he began to see football differently – not so much about the winning, more about the kids, as he put it, though to be honest that focus on the kids had been pretty clear from his very early days with so many schoolboy teams. Again with Brendan Keyes, in 2012 Noel was assistant manager at the Galveston Pirates, a semi-professional men’s team. Even though Noel says he never actually signed a contract, the local press reported the appointment, delighted at the chance for their town and team to benefit from what locals rightly called his illustrious career in Ireland and his extensive knowledge of the beautiful game. Sadly, a terrible (although, characteristically, Noel insists it was funny) golf accident involving a buggy, a sandwich and a golf club prevented him from travelling frequently again.

Thankfully he’s fully recovered and his return to Irish football is our gain. Cabinteely FC is very fortunate to have Noel as a friend and manager.

Next time, read more about Noel and his Cabo career.

Page owner: Fergal Young
Last updated: June 12, 2020