Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Cambridge United’s Paul Mullin on His New-Found Enjoyment of the Game

Posted on 15 October 2020 by Sam Jacot
Paul Mullin against Birmingham. Photo courtesy of Paul Mullin.

League Two side Cambridge United have started the new season superbly, sitting second with three wins and a draw from five games, and one of the main factors behind this strong start is the form of striker Paul Mullin. 

Cambridge snapped up the 25-year-old on a permanent basis from Tranmere Rovers after his successful loan spell last season, and with six goals from five in the league and another in the EFL Trophy, life as an Abbey Stadium full-timer could hardly have started better. Mullin thus sits top of the League Two goalscoring charts, and was nominated for September’s Player of the Month award. Mullin’s diagnosis for this sudden case of goal fever is deceptively simple: “I put it down to hard work and enjoying my football again as the main reasons for the good start.”

For any footballer, consistent game-time  is fundamental, and at Cambridge Mullin is getting exactly that. This stands in stark contrast to his spell at Tranmere,  where he started  just 17 times in 18 months.. The forward, who grew up just across the Mersey from Tranmere’s Birkenhead home, found that this lack of minutes directly impacted on his enjoyment of the game.

“Yeah, it is frustrating. People say your job involves training Monday to Friday, but I see my job as playing on Saturday. If you’re not playing, it can get you down at times for sure.

“In the season we got promoted [2018/2019], James Norwood scored 30 goals that season and we played one up front, so you can’t get too annoyed at it really. The promotion was therefore bittersweet as I didn’t get on the pitch in the playoff final.”

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Nevertheless, Mullin stated he always remained focused and supportive of the side, which he hinted is not universal among those he has shared dressing rooms with in the past.

“In terms of the group, I have seen players annoyed before at clubs. I wouldn’t say it would create a divide in the group though as it is the manager that picks the team on a Saturday and not the players. So, when I’m not playing, I will still cheer the boys on from the side.”

After scoring two goals against Watford across two ties in the FA Cup third round in January 2020, which the former Everton and Liverpool youth product described as a ‘highlight’ of his frustrating spell at Prenton Park, Mullin swapped the comforts of home for the fens of East Anglia..The move south-east has worked out very well so far both on and off the pitch, with Mullin quickly developing a strong relationship with Cambridge manager Mark Bonner and the squad as a whole.

“I joined Cambridge to really enjoy my football again and so far, I have, and I get to see my little boy and my family pretty regularly, so it is fine really. Mark Bonner is level-headed. He is at the start of his career managerial wise; he has got ambition to do well like we do as a squad. Recruitment is important and the club have recruited the right kind of players this season which bodes well.

“While it was difficult this year for group days out in preseason, we bonded quickly and are a tight-knit group and work hard for each other. We socialise a lot outside of the game, playing golf which is good. It just comes naturally.”

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One of those recruited by the U’s over the summer was former Premier League and Republic of Ireland playmaker Wes Hoolahan. The 38-year-old midfielder has already lit up League Two this term and has linked up well with Mullin, providing him with two assists already. While they are now providing the goods for Cambridge as teammates, they have faced off against each other before back in 2017 in a Carabao Cup first round game where Norwich City won 3-2 against Mullin’s then-employers Swindon Town.

“I was chatting to Wes when he arrived about that match and I didn’t think he would remember it, but he did. He scored that game I think [He did, and provided an assist for James Maddison, though Mullin modestly does not mention that he too found the net.]. I remember him putting four players on the floor which just shows his ability.

“He is just a normal guy like everyone else. He’ll give me little bits that he wants me to do on the pitch, but I’ll tell him stuff back too, such as where I like the ball played. As a forward, it is great to have someone like him in the team and it shows where we can go with players like him in the squad.”

Supporters Absent

With supporters still not back in stadiums across the Football League in England and Wales, it is vital that teams have leaders such as Hoolahan on the pitch to provide that intensity and drive. The lack of fans is expected to have an increased impact on players’ performances and therefore the success of teams this season. On this issue and Cambridge’s aims for the season, with the lack of fans firmly in mind, Mullin is clear.

“When you are one up with twenty minutes to go or so that’s when you need the fans to push you forward so yeah, I miss it. When the game starts though, I am in the zone just focusing on the game, so it doesn’t affect me that much. We have said as a group whoever copes without the fans will be in a good place at the end of the season. The aim for any professional is promotion.”

Cambridge haven’t been in the third tier of English football since finishing bottom of the then Division Two in 2001/02. Back then, Cambridge didn’t win away all season, but a Mullin hat-trick against Morecambe in matchday two means that box has already been ticked, and in this most remarkable of seasons who can blame him and his teammates for thinking anything is possible.