Ken Mulhall would never have described himself as a star. But he was the sort of rock-solid, honest player which every team needs.
Ken passed away on Sunday May 15 at the age of 94.
He was a man who always had a ready smile and loved to have a chat about the Saints. As this writer lived nearby, Ken would take a pause from walking his dog to have many Saints-related conversations over the years right up until several months ago when his health declined. His teammate and friend Neil Roberts reckoned Ken’s time on the exercise bike at home equated in kilometres to a trip to the moon and back!
His wry sense of humour was never far from the surface. He reckoned that he signed for St Kilda in 1945 almost out of sympathy for the recruiter who would cycle to East Malvern games to try and woo the husky teenager.
Ken also had a twinkle in his eye when he told of the end of his VFL career. He was used on the half-back flank for a day and happened to be in the right place at the right time whenever the ball came downfield. A selector came up to him after the match and said “I think we have found your position”. By then in his 12th season and with more than 100 games under his belt, Mulhall reckoned “it was a bit late to make a sudden discovery”.
Earlier in that final season – 1957, he had equalled his career-best of five goals in a game, but a rib injury put him out of action. When he returned via the reserves, coach Ken Walker asked if he would agree to drop down and qualify for the seconds who were in line to play in the finals. The Saints never played in a senior final during his time at the club, but the trusty big man was able to make his last appearance in a Saints jumper in the reserves' first semi-final against Melbourne on the MCG.
Unfortunately, the Saints of that era did not have enough players like Mulhall who would not take a backward step. When Mulhall arrived at St Kilda, the veteran Reg Garvin took him aside and offered the advice that when confronting a player he should take them to the ground, and if you had done something illegal, run hard to get away from the umpire.
Looking back he was self-deprecating: ”Not that I was tough. I just showed a bit of aggression which you need.”
When Alan Killigrew took over as coach in 1956 ,he recognised the iron streak in Mulhall.
Prior to a game against North he told Mulhall to “take care“ of Roos’ star John Brady. By three-quarter time, both players were off the ground – Brady with a sore jaw and Mulhall with a broken hand. On another occasion, Ken broke his hand on the cranium of Lou Richards. After the match Richards was behind the bar in the players’ room and greeted Mulhall by saying that if he ever did that again he would break Mulhall’s other hand.
In the early stages of his career, Mulhall played primarily as a key forward. The barrel-chested workhorse would be used in differing roles by the procession of coaches that ran the team during his time. He spent more time in the ruck during the second half of his career. He worked in tandem with the brilliant three-time best and fairest winner Jim Ross and was the perfect foil.
There is a famous picture of Ross flying high at a throw in, with Mulhall at the front of the pack at ground level which illustrates their styles perfectly. Looking through the yearly trophy list, the Mulhall awards of Most Improved, Most Unselfish and Most Determined titles sum up the way he went about the game. He was a man who would stand up at every contest across a 134-game career.
He shook his head at the off-field dramas that bedevilled St Kilda in the 1950s, stating that there was so often aggression being shown in the committee room than on the field. After retiring from League footy, he took on the role of captain-coach of local Federal League club Bentleigh. His introduction to the club at the annual meeting was far from peaceful as he looked on in amazement when a fist fight broke out amongst the players late in the evening.
Yet he was able to turn the club around as two years later it reached the Federal finals for the first time.
Ken Mulhall was proud that he stood in as captain for the Saints seven times and the team won four of those games. That was a ratio directly opposite to the overall success rate of the club in the 1950s.