Former City midfielder has found ‘deep contentment’ in his new life
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press ©2004
Phil Mulryne has recalled his ‘amazing’ time as a Norwich City player, as the former midfielder opened up on his journey from being a Manchester United prodigy, to becoming a Roman Catholic priest.
The former Northern Ireland international was ordained as a priest in West Belfast in 2017, having scored 20 goals in 178 matches for the Canaries between 1999 and 2005, before spells at Cardiff, Leyton Orient and King’s Lynn as his career wound down.
“That time was amazing, those five years that I had there,” Mulryne recalls. “We got to the play-off final (in 2002), then got promoted (2004) and relegated (2005), but all my memories are positive of that journey with that time and how I evolved over time - especially once Nigel (Worthington) took over and the success that we had in that couple of years.
“Especially that season when we got to the play-off final and then when we won the league, with Peter Crouch and Darren Huckerby coming in, that team spirit we had that year was just amazing, on and off the pitch.”
Mulryne stopped playing at 30 years old after injury troubles and he links that back to the broken leg suffered in the early stages of the 1999-00 season when Blackburn defender Christian Dailly’s heavy challenge inflicted a serious injury. That was just six months after being signed from United for £500,000 by Bruce Rioch.
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“I think with my broken leg, the effects after that had an affect on my game without me really knowing it,” he added. “I lost a bit of pace and I wasn’t really the quickest anyway. I started getting a lot of hamstring injuries and injuries around my core because my back was weak from the broken leg and a little bit of arthritis.
“So I was taking medication to get through training and games but was just so reluctant to take that step to come to an end, I wanted to stay in the game for as long as possible.
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“But I had 12 years in the game and I’m fully grateful for it, an amazing journey.”
When joining the priesthood in 2017 the former United trainee was continuing down the path less trodden by those fortunate enough to have played the game professionally and earn the money which comes with such talent.
Now however, aged 42, Mulryne has found “deep contentment”.
“Fundamentally it’s a journey of where are you going to find happiness in life and I started, I think towards the end of my career,” explains the member of City’s 2004 title winning squad. “We can touch on the social things, enjoying life a little bit too much off the pitch - to the detriment of my career.
“There are reasons for that, you are trying to fill an emptiness, it’s not just for the sake of it. I didn’t like to be alone and I’d like to be out with the fellas all the time.
“Then when I got to my late 20s I started to ask some really deep questions, not so much what am I going to do after the game, deeper than that, it led me on a bit of a journey and I started to read.
“I wasn’t a big reader but I started to read books and I had family members, especially my sister, who was a very devout woman, who would be phoning me all the time. And even though we had our Catholic faith growing up in Belfast, it was part of your identity, it wasn’t deeply rooted but at least it was there in some sense to return to it.
“But when I took a few months out of the game to come back to Belfast and reassess, with potentially going back to playing for a couple more years, it was really there that everything changed.
“I volunteered with the Legion of Mary, the homeless shelter, and my sister brought me to a prayer group and I started to notice with going to mass again a deep, deep contentment that I had never experienced before.”
Mulryne was chatting with his former Northern Ireland team-mates Paul McVeigh and Jim Magilton, as part of a series of online video conferences organised by former Canaries forward McVeigh to raise funds for NHS Charities Together during the coronavirus lockdown, as part of his career as a keynote speaker.
He continued: “That restlessness of being a footballer had ended, the highs and lows and the stresses of ‘nothing was ever enough’. When I was praying, reading and doing this kind of work I felt really as if there was a part of me that was made for this.
“After six months of this I felt a real desire and this draw to be a priest, from nowhere, and I had never thought about that in my life. We can joke about that, you guys can probably say that I was the most unlikely character possible to turn out to be a priest, but that was a confirmation as well because I knew this wasn’t something that had come from me - it’s something coming from elsewhere, asking me to do this, for my own good as well.”
Having made five appearances for Manchester United during his formative years, Mulryne received support from the very top of the game when his career defining injury arrived in 1999.
“I have to say my dealings with Sir Alex Ferguson were wonderful and even when I left, around my move to Norwich, he offered me a contract to stay, if I wanted to stay, but the decision was mine,” he continued. “When I realised I wasn’t going to breakthrough with the talent in midfield, I decided to go, but nevertheless that was on the table.
“And one story that was kind of amazing was that six months after I left, in my second game for Norwich, I broke my leg and one of the first phone calls I had was Alex Ferguson.
“He said to Norwich at the time that if I wanted to return to Manchester and do all my rehabilitation at Manchester United, because of the facilities, that was on the table as well. So it’s those little things that, even after I’d left, he was still watching out for players who used to be there.”
Those early years saw Mulryne training and playing alongside some of the world’s best players, leaving shortly before Ferguson’s team went on to win their famous 1999 European and domestic treble.
He added: “The likes of Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Peter Schmeichel - in a training session these guys are verbally leading things and demanding of each other, on each others’ back, to the point where the manager doesn’t really need to say anything.
“They’re basically giving team talks themselves because they are so self-motivated to be there. So you have different types of leadership. I would say Gary Neville, even though he was verbal, he led by example, with Phil Neville, out there half an hour before training every day, warming up, practising.
“Eric Cantona and David Beckham staying behind in the afternoons when people have gone home, going into the youth team changing room and asking for a couple of players to just come out and kick balls at them and help them.
“These things start to shape you that ‘this is what it takes’, the sheer tenacity and single mindedness of what it means to succeed.”
- McVeigh’s video conferences with former players have so far raised over £1,000 for NHS Charities Together. You can watch the full video above and contribute to that fund at justgiving.com/paul-mcveigh77