Mullan taking the long and winding road to Green Army captaincy

“Somehow, I have found myself in every position except for goalkeeper,” she jokes. “I don’t think that is ever going to change.”

Speaking ahead of the Irish women’s departure for South Africa, Katie Mullan is buzzing to get under way at the World League Semi-Finals in Johannesburg. It’s another long journey to add to many thousands of miles for the 23-year-old.

Katie Mullan in action against Chile in 2016. Pic: Adrian Boehm

She burst onto the international scene in 2012 as a striker, ravenous for an opening in front of goal. At times, that hunger was deployed as a full-back under Darren Smith and in a couple of different midfield roles under Graham Shaw.

Similarly at club level, UCD had her in defence two seasons ago but, with the arrival of Lena Tice, were able to unleash Mullan further up the pitch in their all-conquering run to the Irish Senior Cup and the EY Hockey League victories.

“I know it’s cliché but, honestly, I am just delighted to be on the pitch. Attacking midfield or up front are probably were my current skillset is best suited, the further I am from our defensive circle the better!”

Coach Graham Shaw said earlier this week he will employ Mullan in an advanced role with her “aggression” an element he says “sets the tone from the front” and her recent winning goals Germany and Korea bear that out.

“We like to press aggressively and quite high up the pitch,” Shaw said. “She’s the ideal person to do it. She’s played in many different lines and her defensive side of the game is normal to her. And she knows where the goal is so, for the immediate future, you will see her in the forward line.”

Mullan attributes some of that aggression to her sporting beginnings in camogie with the Eoghan Rua club in Coleraine at the age of eight.

“My older brothers both played hurling and I certainly wasn’t going to be left out in the back garden. As the hockey season would finish the camogie season would get going, it used to work out perfectly for me.

“The sports complement one another superbly with a crossover of hand to eye coordination, 3D skills and physical demands. However, on rare occasions, I have unintentionally made tackles on the hockey pitch with my camogie physicality!”

Hockey came a couple of years later with Coleraine hockey club for an hour on Saturday mornings and ramped up a notch at secondary school in Dalriada with former Irish captain Bridget Cleland (nee McKeever) her an inspirational PE teacher.

She remains a mentor and was a main reason for moving to Ballymoney when she was 14. Another Irish legend, Lynsey McVicker, was player-coach, another strong influence.

From there, hockey and camogie jockeyed for position as her main sport. When she missed out on the Ulster Under-16s first time around, Mullan threw herself fully into camogie and “started seriously to think about moving school to play more camogie”.

But, thankfully for Irish hockey, she kept with it long enough to get a call-up the next season and she has been in representative squads ever since.

While it has taken a central role, she does try to line out for Eoghan Rua as much as physically possible and won an All-Ireland intermediate title in 2011.

“I have managed to play camogie almost every season since then. During the summer, I get to play the occasional game but it seems to become less each year.

“With our international calendar the windows of opportunity are becoming shorter and the injury risk is too high. When I play camogie, there is no pressure or expectation which is the beauty of it but what I miss most is pulling on the local colours alongside my friends and family, the girls I grew up playing with.”

Indeed, that has become even tougher in recent times as a work placement as part of her masters degree in biomedical engineering has seen her working with Stryker Orthopaedics – who she is keen to thank for their support – in Cork since January.

Mullan has been employed in multiple positions for both UCD and Ireland. Pic: Adrian Boehm

She has trained with Harlequins during the club season before traveling up to Dublin for games and national training camps.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the number of miles on my car. Even when I used to play in the Ulster league, it was never just a 15-minute journey down the road.

“Travelling really does take its toll on the body, which is why moving to Dublin for College was a no brainer for me. I love my home place but, with our schedule, it can be up to four months before I get the time to travel. Last week [before flying out] I spent 12 hours in the car from Cork but it was totally worth it to get home.”

For the World League Semi-Final, Mullan will wear the armband for the tournament in the stead of Megan Frazer – another with north-coast roots – who she draws her inspiration from in terms of leadership style.

“I love having the opportunity to walk the team out before an international game. For me the best captains have always been those who lead by example on the pitch, Megan is a prime example of that. That’s the ethos I’m trying to go with.”

The hope is that she can lead Ireland to a World Cup for the first time since 2002. The build-up has been good, sweeping everyone aside at World League Round 2 in January before putting in some fine performances against top ranked nations.

She is well aware of the pitfalls of the tournament structure from 2015’s Olympic qualifiers in Valencia where a brilliant group performance came up agonisingly short against China in the quarter-final.

With the Sky cameras rolling and the sport enjoying an extremely rare moment at the head of the RTE sports bulletins, it was the biggest stage. Ireland pressed and pressed, won 15 corners, but could not break through the Chinese defence, eventually missing out on Rio when Frazer’s shoot-out hit a post and sudden death proved the final undoing of a monumental effort.

Mullan has taken over the captaincy in 2017 in the absence of Megan Frazer. Pic: Adrian Boehm

The emotional toll was too much and Ireland did not bounce back for their classification matches against USA and South Africa.

“2015 was heart-breaking. I struggled following Valencia. We all did; I think part of the disappointment will never go away.

“I was only 21 at the time so I promised myself that I was going to be better equipped physically and technically if I was lucky enough to be at another qualifier.

“I think the biggest thing we can take from the 2015 World League is a realisation of how different we are now as a squad. Heading to Johannesburg we are fitter, technically better, tactically better and much more experienced players.

“The 2016 Hawkes Bay Cup in New Zealand was an awesome tournament for us. There was no pressure and it came at a perfect time. We grew in confidence by beating teams that were Rio bound. We gelled, integrating new squad members and found our hunger for major tournaments again.

“Now, I think we are in a fantastic place. Our preparation schedule has been excellent; since World League 2 we have had test matches in London, Dusseldorf, USA and Berlin.

“On top of some pleasing results, the time together has helped us become a more cohesive unit. The task of qualification is not an easy one. We understand that we have a job to do in South Africa but we are confident that, if we perform, we can secure qualification.”

** All matches will be broadcast on BT Sport; you can see the exact channels here: http://sport.bt.com/tv-guide-01363810618853

Ireland squad for Hockey World League semi-final (Johannesburg, July 8-23): G O’Flanagan (Railway Union), H Matthews (Loreto), Z Wilson (Harvestehuder THC), S McCay (Ulster Elks), L Colvin (Loreto), L Tice (UCD), C Watkins (Hermes-Monkstown), K Mullan (UCD), G Pinder (UCD), A O’Flanagan (Hermes-Monkstown), S Loughran (Hermes-Monkstown), N Evans (Hermes-Monkstown), N Daly (Muckross), D Duke (UCD), E Beatty (KHC Dragons), R Upton (Cork Harlequins), Y O’Byrne (Cork Harlequins), A McFerran (University of Louisville)

Hockey World League
Pool A: England, Germany, Japan, Ireland, Poland
Pool B: Argentina, USA, South Africa, India, Chile

Schedule (times local)
July 8: Ireland v Japan, 12pm
July 10: Ireland v Germany, 2pm
July 12: Ireland v Poland, 2pm
July 16: Ireland v England, 2pm
July 18-23: Classification matches

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