From Old Trafford to the Vatican – the road less travelled by Phil Mulryne
The former Manchester United player and Northern Ireland international turned to the priesthood after retiring from football.
The dilemma for all professional footballers at the end of their career is what to do after hanging up the boots.
Many remain in the game at some level through punditry, coaching or management. Most decide to get into business ventures of some description, while some make a clean break before assessing the next step.
Some struggle to find enough satisfaction away from the pitch, desperately failing to recapture that buzz of the team environment.
We have seen more than our fair share of public episodes in recent years that could be categorised under ‘Fallen Footballer’.
It would be fair to suggest that enrolling in the Pontifical Irish College in Rome to become a Dominican priest doesn’t fit the conventional post-retirement route.
This is the curious case of Phil Mulryne.
The Belfast-born player quickly came to the attention of scouts in the UK during his youth and Manchester United would be his destination of choice.
The club under Alex Ferguson was placing a greater emphasis in youth development. The famed class of 92 featuring the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt and the Neville brothers were beginning to make forays into the first-team and in 1995 the club won the FA Youth Cup for the first time since that star-studded side.
Mulryne played midfield in both legs in the win over a Spurs side that featured Stephen Carr, though was equally as comfortable up front.
The Northern Irish man struggled to get Alex Ferguson’s attention with such competition in the first-team and made his international bow against Belgium in February 1997 before making his debut for United in the Coca-Cola Cup the following October.
He made his one and only Premier League appearance against Barnsley at the end of the 1997/98 season, one of three players to make his league debut with Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Nicky Butt also in the side.
The 2-0 victory that day consigned Barnsley to relegation, but for Mulryne, it too marked the beginning of the end.
In search of playing time, Mulryne joined Norwich City in March 1999, two months before the historic Treble was sealed, for £500,000 and spent six years at Carrow Road.
Despite a broken leg, a Division One play-off final defeat and just a handful of Premier League appearances after the Canaries were promoted as champions in 2004, Mulryne was a fans’ favourite and made 161 appearances at the club.
Spells at Cardiff City, Ipswich, Brighton, Legia Warsaw, Barnsley and Leyton Orient followed and in 2008, with 27 international appearances to his name, he called time on his playing career.
Mulryne had been involved in various charity activities post-retirement and it is believed that Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor invited him to join the priesthood on foot of his volunteer work.
Sally Mulryne confirmed the news in 2009 that her son would begin a two-year philosophy degree in Rome, followed by a four-year theology degree before finally be qualifying as a priest.
Many of his former teammates were naturally surprised with the news. The thoughts of Phil become Father Mulryne would take some adjustment.
Mulryne once dated model Nicola Chapman and was sent home from a Northern Ireland squad after breaking a curfew to go drinking. Not exactly behaviour out of place in the world of a professional footballer, but not exactly early signs of a theological calling.
Former Norwich City team-mate Paul McVeigh spoke of his “amazement” and “shock” when he discovered Phil’s decision and travelled to meet his friend in Rome during his initial training.
“I know for a fact that this is not something he took lightly,” he said at the time.
“When I arrived in Rome, I was met by a very contented looking Phil,” he added.
The Dominicans decided on enrollment that the student would not speak publicly about his new profession, at least until he qualifies, so we will have to wait to hear the incredible story in his own words.
From Fergie Fledgling to Dublin Dominican, it has been a unique journey for the Belfast man.