A quarter of a century before late great Irish “Demon” Jimmy Stynes took the Australian football landscape by storm, Robin Mulholland was a true multicultural pioneer of the country’s national code, writes Peter Argent
From the tough, working class streets of Belfast, Mulholland travelled across the world to Gawler – a town an hour north of Adelaide – in 1961, and he first played Australian Rules at the South Gawler Lions two years later.
“For the first couple of years I would watch West Adelaide because there were a number of players with an Irish connection in the side,” Mulholland told the Irish Echo.
“In ’63, at the age of 18, I started in the B grade for South, and after a couple of games they must have thought I had enough talent to play in the first team.
“We enjoyed a premiership that year. I played on one wing for South, and a team mate at Central District, one of the Bulldogs true greats, Aboriginal champion Sonny Morey played on the other wing for our opponents, Gawler Central.
“I was lucky enough to have good coaches at South – firstly Dean Clark and then Des Clark – among them. Tommy Glesson, our centreman at South, also looked after me.”
After four more years with the Lions and a second premiership in 1967, where South defeated Hamley Bridge, Mulholland decided to take up Bulldogs great recruiter Norm Russell’s offer to venture 30 minutes down Main North Road to the Ponderosa to play with Central District, who were still in the early years of their South Australian National Football League (SANFL) tenure.
“Norm had first got in touch with me in 1965 but I told him I had still had plenty to learn,” Mulholland said.
“In the country having a bit of speed masked a few skill deficiencies – but you skills are under the microscope at league level – and everyone had pace. I had a theory that if I got the football as many times as possible, the other issues would be less relevant.”
Between 1968 and 1974 he played 112 league games for the Dogs, and was a key figure with six goals, including five in the final quarter, in the club’s historic inaugural finals triumph at league level on September 4, 1971 against Sturt.
Long term Central District CEO Kris Grant remembered Mulholland as bubbly, effervescent person who loved his football, being passionate about his training and was well liked around the club.
Mulholland would win a pair of best and fairest awards (the highest honour in the club for a year’s best performed player) – impressively in his first league season in 1968, and again in 1972, the year he donned the SA state jumper three times during the last interstate carnival in Perth.
He expressed disappointment this national championship is no longer a part of the football programme, and vividly remembers roving against iconic players such as Leigh Matthews, Kevin Bartlett and Ross Smith when they played for Victoria.
“‘Irish’ [Mulholland] was very determined and he’d do everything in his powers to achieve victory,” former teammate Peter Vivian said.
“Early in his career he’d often get 20 plus kicks, and a just couple of handballs. Driving him back home to Gawler after training I suggested he learned how to handball.
“It turned into a competition between us about who would get the most handballs. His strength was his endurance, and in the modern era he would have found a way to play at the top level.”
Having played a variety of sports in Ireland included soccer, Gaelic football and hurling, the Australian code held no fear for Mulholland.
“Hurling is a game where you had to display your metal,” he said.
“This was my favourite game, because you had a big stick and after playing that, footy held no fears. I wasn’t superstitious, but I did have a fabric shamrock in my shorts for the first final we won.
“What I am most proud of is there was a definite shift at Central District from being a group of blokes happy to be play league football, to an efficient football team was competing at that level.
“Former Melbourne footballer Denis Jones and Tony Casserley played a tremendous role in achieving this. Denis has a warm spot in my heart; Tony was a champion in Perth before he came over to SA and I learnt a lot about football from him.
“On reflection 1972 was my best year, playing 22 games, playing state football and I won the leading goal kicker award at the club. I did like to kick a goal, everyone cheered.”
Mulholland moved to the Nuriootpa Football Club in the Barossa and Light competition as captain-coach in 1975.
“In those days you were coach of the A and B grade, as well as playing,” Mulholland said.
“I sent an application up to the Tigers and took over from former North and Woodville footballer Barry Barbary.
“In a radio interview in later years in Adelaide once I told [SA sports radio icon] Ian Aitken – ‘I was an Irishman teaching Germans Aussie Rules’ – which he found amusing.”
Moulding a strong willed group of men together, Mulholland engineered premiership triumphs over Eudunda at Freeling Oval in his first year, and then against Kapunda in 1976 at Angaston Oval.
Best and fairest
A Mail Medal (competition best and fairest) honour was achieved in 1976 with 25 votes, and the following year – in his final year in the Tigers black and gold – he was leading goal kicker with Panther backman-turned-full forward Trevor Smitham, kicking 62 goals as a rover, changing in the forward pocket.
Mulholland also played a second level of SA state football.
Captain-coach of the Elizabeth Eagles in the now defunct SAFA (South Australian Football Association), he travelled to Melbourne and played against the VFA in 1979.
When questioned about the players who stood out in his career, Mulholland mentions the iconic Australian Hall of Fame Legend, Barrie Robran, Bulldog giant Dean Farnham and the original “Jumbo Prince” Peter Darley.
“Robran had it all; he was tall, fast and a quick thinker,” Mullholland said.
“Dean was a great team-mate, while Darley [playing with South Adelaide] took games apart and I would rove to his taps.
“My hardest opponent was West Torrens captain-coach Johnny Birt, who came over from Essendon. Two of the biggest characters at Central were Kevin Johns and David Saywell – the later was a unique footballer who delivered when it counted.”
To celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Bulldogs arrival in 1959, Mulholland collaborated with club historian Rob Laidlaw and produced the book Poms to Premiers, an expression of his satisfaction of being able to chronicle the history of the club he holds dear to his heart.
“Football has been an immensely satisfying part of my life, I just loved the atmosphere of the club and the friendships made,” Mulholland concluded.