British Skating Legends

Unsung British heroes of roller speed skating

JOHN MULLANE

 

THE "QUARTET" - FEETHAM, MULLANE, FRY, McGEOUGH AND TEAM MANAGER BOB HALFORD

1975 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS - MAR DEL PLATA, ARGENTINA

John Mullane (No.31 in the list of male British team members) was born in Birmingham on 2nd December 1950.  He lived with his mother and sisters in the Ladywood area of the city, just a stones throw from the building that in 1965 would become known as the Mecca Olympic Roller Rink.

Like many kids at that time, Mullane frequented the rink and during breaks in the general sessions would watch races that were held by the local Midland Olympic club. He would then take to the track in the general speed sessions and try and keep up with some of these elite skaters.  It wasn't long before he got himself noticed and was asked if he wanted to join the club.  This was in 1967, and on 25th November, a week before his 17th birthday, he took part in his very first race, the Half Mile Championship, held on his home track.

Mullane wouldn’t come anywhere in that event but it was the first British Championship victory for a certain John E. Fry. This was the first time Mullane and Fry stepped on to a track together in the same club colours, and would begin a “skating partnership” that would last almost 20 years and a friendship that would last a lifetime.

Mullane would always be there or thereabouts in races, but his first major medal did not come until 1970 when he picked up silver in the British Open Handicap Championship for the Jesson Cup. Still, his performances were getting him recognised and in 1973 he was rewarded with a call up to the British team to take part in that year’s European Championships to be held in Grenoble, France.

He finished a creditable 6th in the 500 metres time trial and again 6th in the 1000 metres knockout. He was beaten by eventual winner, Cantarella, after having beaten Frenchman, Jaques Bouchet, in the previous round.  Bouchet would go through on a time, though, and the luck of the draw would see the Frenchman finish 4th.  With odds stacked against him, Mullane went for the time against Cantarella and although beaten he set a new British Record for 1000 metres which stood for almost 30 years.

These Championships saw the world renowned “quartet” begin to form. McGeough had been in the team since 1968 and Fry since 1969. The fourth member on this occasion was Gerrard Bissett in his one and only time out in a GB shirt.

His next major competition was the 1974 European Championships , in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, in June.  His first race was the 500 metres time trial where he would finish 4th - only a few hundredths of a swecond separating the first four places.  His next race, the 5000 metres, he fell heavily and dislocated his elbow, bringing the Championships to a premature end for Mullane.  Later that year and despite previously never having won a medal, Mullane won his first British Championship, the 1500 metres, at Tatem Park, London.

In 1975 he skated his first World Championships in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on the track. With him were Fry, McGeough and for the first time, Patrick Feetham. The quartet was complete, and together with Team Manager, Bob Halford, Britain was once again a force to be reckoned with.

Mullane’s first World Championships was literally a “wash out”. After just two finals further racing was abandoned due to bad weather.  However, Mullane does have a "claim to fame" from thsoe Championships, albeit one he would probably rather forget.  He would not qualify for the 5000 metres final and so would have to take part in the "placement final", which he duly won giving him 13th place. Unfortunately the final was one of the races that was abandoned making Mullane the highest placed skater in the ‘Championship that never was’.

Later that year would be the World Road Championships in Sesto San Giovanni, Italy.  Mullane did not go to this event, instead it was Tom Bartlett who gatecrashed the party and went in his place.  This is how Mullane remembers it…

“The trials were held on a school playground in London and I remember the weekend well it was the week Jeanette [his first daughter] was born. I told the selection committee at the time that I would not be attending as I wanted to be there for the birth of my first child. You guessed it, they said not a problem. The next week I turned up for the trials and recorded the fastest TT time of the day and beat the previous week’s fastest time.  We then were told that we would be doing a 5000 metres and that your dad [John E. Fry] would not be taking part in it. Turned out I was taking on all the London skaters who were skating for Tom Bartlett to get him into the team.  I got on the track after being up all night as Jeanette was born on the Friday and I had not had much sleep.  After a few blocks and breakaways by the London skaters I stood up left the track and told the committee that I had got what I wanted, a new baby daughter and was not prepared to bow to their bullshit and walked away. Probably on reflection a wrong choice, and don’t forget the baby girl became a British Champion!"

There were no major championships of any sort in 1976, but in 1977 Mullane became a double silver medallist and bronze medallist at the European Championships in Salerno, Italy, finishing second overall.  Then in 1978 he went one better.

At the European Championships that year in La Roche-Sur-Yon he struck gold when he won the 5000 metres, cementing his name in history as one of Britain’s great skaters.  John tells the story of his victory here…

“I was in the front half of the pack about halfway through the race. Mick [McGeough] came up the outside of the pack with Marotta on his back. Mick said to me “John get this w**ker off my back” (I think that is word for word) so I did that and that’s when I ended up toe to toe with Marotta at the barrier trading punches.  The pack was almost a lap up on us when I gave chase.  John [Fry] went to the front to try and slow the pack down with other countries hitting the front to stop me catching them.  With about 5 laps to go I caught them up. John let me in and passed me again saying hang on we’re going for it. I was stuffed but he led me out to the bell then De Persio came on the outside. John moved into his line to stop him and I just put my head down, skating the longest lap of my life and just making it in a photo. Well done JF. Marotta must have thought the race was on for Mick that’s why he wanted his back”.

Mullane was regarded by some as the “bad boy” of skating. The truth was he was a hard skater, in every sense. Bob Halford once remarked that Mullane was the best “team” skater he had ever seen, and by that he meant that Mullane would consistently put himself on the line and “take one for the team” for those he considered his team mates. His win in the 5000 metres was just typical of that.

Mullane had also made the last four in the 500 metres knock-out when the team were withdrawn from the competition in protest at a judging decision involving Fry and Cantarella.

Shortly after his return from France, Mullane was the instigator of a pivotal moment not only in British skating history but in global terms for the sport. Mullane had approached Derek Morris (Managing Director of Morris Vulcan) about the possibility of working for him. Morris Vulcan were an enterprising business who had seen an opportunity to cash in on a new craze sweeping America, skateboarding, and bought some of the first skateboards to Great Britain. Mullane noticed that the wheels on these “skateboard” things were not made of plastic or wood or rubber, but were made of a different type of material…polyurethane (or urethane). Having acquired some of these wheels Mullane set out to try them on his skates. Initially he kept it to himself. The results of his tests showed that they were better, but he could not come to accept that this really was the case, so he confided in his best friend and team mate, John Fry. Together they tested these urethane wheels against wheels made from more established materials. The test were pretty basic (one of the tests included the pair holding hands and free rolling down the steep hill at the Mallory Park motor racing circuit) and each time the test showed that the urethane wheels were better. However, the acid test was to use them in a race.

Not wanting to show their hand too early back home Mullane and Fry, along with new found club mate, Pat Feetham, entered a race on the continent. Feetham wasn’t told of the plan until the three of them were on the ferry. When Mullane produced the wheels from a bag Feetham squeezed them and simply laughed. He was a strapping guy and there was no way he was going to use these “squidgy” wheels to race on. Mullane and Fry insisted and bowing to his two team mates, reluctantly agreed. That race meeting was a turning point. Mullane, Fry and Feetham demolished the opposition and realised they had something very special strapped to their feet. These wheels remained a closely guarded secret right up until the next European Championships in Ostende, Belgium, where the British team, now aware of their existence, used them for the very first time.

In 1979 Mullane went to Ostende to defend his title on the track, but unfortunately injury played a part and he was unsuccessful in his attempt. The team as a whole, however, enjoyed considerable success. Fry won the 5000 metres, Feetham the 20000 metres and McGeough retained his 10000 metres with Gerry McGrath finishing second. Other medals were also won including silver and bronze for the men’s and ladies relay teams respectively.

AN INJURED MULLANE SETS OUT TO RETAIN HIS 5000M EUROPEAN TITLE - OSTENDE 1979

Mullane’s position in the team for the road Championships a few weeks later was taken by Ian Cocks from Portsmouth. Resting up, he returned to form and again was selected for the World Championships that year in Como and Finale Emilia.

In 1980 he was selected for the European Track Championships in Spoleto, Italy but due to illness he did not compete. He was then dropped from the team in controversial circumstances for the European Road Championships on his home soil in Southampton. The Championships were sponsored by Morris Vulcan and the Roller Speed Committee did not feel it “ethically right” that Mullane should be selected for a competition that was sponsored by his employer. It was a cop out for them. Selection was always going to be tough with the likes of new boys McGrath, Downing and Cocks also vying for a place on the team, but the decision to leave Mullane out meant one less headache.

Mullane returned to the team for the 1980 World Championships in Masterton, New Zealand. These Championships will be remembered mostly for the emergence of one man – Tom Peterson from the USA, who took three gold medals on the track. Mullane was pitched against Peterson in the 500 metres knock-out firmly believing that in an out and out sprint he could beat the American. Mullane had watched the Peterson in the early rounds and saw that he always used the same tactic, dropping across the bend at the apex. Mullane’s tactic would be to stay high and sweep off the banking and beat Peterson with the speed gained off the "hump".  For whatever reason, Mullane did not stick to his guns and dropped across the bendearly trying to shortcut the track.  It was to be his undoing.  In the sprint for the line Peterson just pipped Mullane which meant that he had to settle for 6th place.  Peterson went on to take the silver medal behind De Persio of Italy.

Those Championships would also see another turning point for Mullane as it was here that he met his future wife, Ann Burke, herself a national champion and representing her country, Australia, at these Championships.

1981 would effectively see the end of Mullane’s international career. Since his first European Championships in 1973, in just 9 years the sport had moved on considerably. Italy were no longer the sole dominant force, they now had serious competition from across the Atlantic in the form of Kaiser, Peterson, Van Patter and Huffman. The world was also now using urethane wheels, thanks in no small part to Mullane. Mullane would later say that urethane would really be the one single thing that ended his international skating career. He was always a technical skater, handling slippery tracks and being able to “dance” his way through a pack, but urethane meant that there was more grip, passing was easier and they favoured the power skaters rather than the technical skaters, especially in the early days.

The 1981 World Championships were in Ostende, Belgium, but despite his misgivings regarding urethane Mullane was in top form and found himself in a scrap in the heats for the 20000 metres with one of the local Belgian heroes. The crowd were incensed and then word came out from the centre that Mullane had been disqualified. It was an era before skinsuits and still rolling around the track Mullane dropped his shorts to the crowd and the judges and showed them exactly what he thought of the whole thing! The “bad boy” was well and truly living up to his image

On the back of that disqualification, recently retired and newly appointed Team Manager, Patrick Feetham, left Mullane out of the 10000 metres, a race he fancied doing well in.  Feetham then selected Mullane for the final event, the relay, but with emotions still running high and feeling more than a little let down, Mullane refused and decided to hang up his “international” boots.

Having retired from international skating he concentrated his efforts domestically, skating more for fun than for any serious goal. However, when Britain’s first banked track was built in Birmingham in 1984, Mullane showed the rest of the country that he still had what it took to be a Champion. At that year’s British Championships he showed the youngsters how to skate a banked track properly and duly won both the 1500 metres and the 5000 metres and bronze in the 300 metres time trial. On the back of those victories Mullane came out of international retirement and set about trying to make the British team once more. In 1985 he was successful and once again put on a British jersey and skated in the European Championships in Cassano d’Adda, Italy.

Later, Mullane himself would admit that this was probably a mistake. His highest position would see him 12th in the 5000 metres on the track. In the four years he had been away from the international scene the sport had gone up yet another notch and he realised that his international successes were never going to be repeated.

His last race was 22nd June 1986. In a heat for the Burditt Cup on Tatem Park he fell badly. Whilst painful at the time he did recover, but the fall made him realise that perhaps the enjoyment he once got out of the sport was no longer there as a competitor and in that moment decided to call it a day.

For a while he ran a roller rink in Northampton and helped coach the local club, but for the last 22 years he has lived in Adelaide, Australia, with his wife Ann.

British Champion, European Champion – as an individual he was a great skater. As a team mate riding shotgun for you, there was none better.

JOHN MULLANE AT BIRMINGHAM WHEELS - 29TH APRIL 2011