Residents on the south Dublin streets of Drimnagh probably still have footballs confiscated from Jake Mulraney. Smashed window panes were a regular sight as the winger honed his talents around his local district. Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s Aaron Doran is a good friend and another product of the area.
Practice makes perfect, as they say. The blinding pace and close control consummated during his youth in Ireland have taken Mulraney to Hampden Park this weekend, where Hearts meet Inverness in the Scottish Cup semi-final. In a neat quirk, he also happens to be a former player of the Highland club having only left last summer for Edinburgh.
The 23-year-old is determined to shrug off the disappointment of losing a Capital derby to focus on what will be his first ever visit to Hampden. Mum Joanne, Auntie Angela and his nephew Riley will be there to watch Mulraney on the biggest occasion of his career. The years of street football are now paying off handsomely.
“All we did was play ball on the road. That’s all we did when we were younger,” he told the Evening News. “There were six or seven of us. We would use someone’s gates as a goal. I don’t know how many footballs we had taken off us for breaking windows or smashing things.
“Sometimes we would go to a field but we’d usually just use people’s gates. You see the odd few kids playing out in the street now, but not very often. Where we used to play, there are never kids there any more. It’s a shame.
“My mum, my auntie and my little nephew are coming across from back home for the semi-final. It will be the biggest game they’ve come to watch, definitely. It will also be the biggest game I’ve ever played in without doubt.”
Doran and the Inverness lads will be ready with the wind-ups for a winger who enjoyed two years at the Caledonian Stadium. Mulraney still has friends up north and keeps in regular contact. He is nonetheless determined not to become unsettled should he encounter some gamesmanship.
“I have to just treat it as another game. I’m just looking to get to the final, really. I don’t really care who we beat. We really want to get to the final. I’m sure I’ll get a bit of stick on the pitch from a few of the Inverness boys. Aaron Doran is a funny guy so I expect I’ll get one or two comments from him during the game.”
Opportunities like this are why he headed south last summer to sign a two-year contract with Hearts. Since the turn of the year, he has become a more productive player for manager Craig Levein, which has led to more game time in the first team.
The move is already vindicated. “Oh yeah, 100 per cent. I knew when I came here that this was a big club. I knew I’d be in these situations. That’s the whole reason I signed, the whole reason I came to Scotland in the first place.
“I wanted it to lead to where I am now. I had a feeling I would eventually be in this situation with Hearts. I’m 100 per cent looking forward to this semi-final. I’m still a bit down about Saturday but this week is massive. I will make sure my head is right.
“I’m gutted about losing the derby but we need to get ourselves to a final. We can’t do anything about Saturday. We have to concentrate on the semi-final.”
This weekend surpasses everything and anything in Mulraney’s career to date. He used to watch showpiece finals at Hampden on television during his youth in Ireland. He has never been to Scotland’s national stadium to watch or play.
“Four or five of my family are huge Celtic supporters,” he said. “Any time they were playing big games or cup finals, they would be in the pub and I’d be there watching the games. I’ve watched the footage of Inverness winning the Scottish Cup [in 2015] because Aaron was involved in that. I’ve never been to Hampden, either to watch a game or play in one.”
There is more to this weekend than football for the young Irishman and his partner, Aoife. They are due to find out the sex of their baby, due in September, in the aftermath of the final. Excitement is building. Mulraney knows it could be one extended celebration if Hearts manage to oust their Championship opponents and reach next month’s final.
“My girlfriend hasn’t shut up about it,” he laughed when asked if the imminent news on whether they will have a boy or girl is dominating talk at home. “It’s a huge step for us but I have to try and put that to one side to concentrate totally on the semi-final. It will be a massive couple of days and I can’t wait.”
Any householders in Drimnagh tuning in will doubtless recall the breakages caused by Mulraney and his pals all those years ago. Even they would be likely to wish this softly-spoken Irishman well on the biggest day of his life so far.