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'I feel I can enjoy my football a lot more over there' - babies, bereavement and a new chapter in America

After a difficult time at Hearts, Jake Mulraney is preparing for a debut Major League Soccer season with Atlanta United.

Image: Oisin Keniry; ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry/INPHO

WHEN JAKE MULRANEY answers the phone and we swap pleasantries, it turns out that it’s probably not the best time for an interview. 

“I’m just tryin’ to get the bleedin’ baby seat into the back of the car,” he says with a laugh.

“Can I call you back in ten minutes?” 

The glitz and glamour of professional football inadvertently eviscerated by four-month old Ella, who has remained completely oblivious to the constant rushing and racing around her in the last few days. 

It’s been a whirlwind and her Dad has only just landed back home after spending three weeks with his new team-mates. There’s still a few bits to tie up and then it’s back to Atlanta together. As a family.

Jake, Aoife and the new arrival.

Major League Soccer. 

There’s been a lot to digest in a very short space of time.    

“The next few days will be my Ma’s last days with the baby until November or thereabouts, unless she can get time off work and I can fly her over,” Mulraney says. 

“That’s a bit mad because I’ve only ever been 40 minutes away on a flight so it’s very different being on the other side of the world.”

The rumours started in November that Atlanta United – Major League Soccer champions in 2018, just their second season – were keen on 23-year-old winger Mulraney but he took it with a pinch of salt. Just talk. Idle gossip. However, by the beginning of the following month, the overtures became more concrete and his agent pitched it to him. ‘Would you genuinely be interested?’

And that’s when everything started to gather momentum.

“It was a bit nerve-wracking because it’s so different and so far away,” he says. 

“My girlfriend is only 21 so it’s a bit mad for her. She didn’t really dwell on it much at the start because she was probably thinking, ‘We’re more than likely going to stay here’ but when it turned into something real, she was nervous and then excited and then nervous again. But I can understand. There’s the distance involved, she’s very close to her family and so am I.”

“Discussions went on for about a week and once they were done and personal terms were agreed, I had some things to do in Edinburgh before flying. I’ve never been so stressed in my life. Once those bits were taken care of, I was there in about 24 hours.”

It was too good an opportunity to ignore. The atmosphere had turned toxic at Hearts and although he featured in a number of games following Daniel Stendel’s arrival as manager in mid-December, he was banished to the reserves after the winter break.

He’s quick to admit his form was patchy but also stresses the mood in the camp was nothing like he’d ever experienced before. 

“Things were up and down at Hearts in terms of form,” he says. 

“We were struggling and I think we’d won two league games since the start of the season. So I was interested in Atlanta and it went from there”.

“When I’d arrived in 2018, my aim was to have a good few seasons and maybe get a move down south. I started off poorly but when I got a bit more settled, I felt I was doing well. I signed a new deal and then Craig Levein ended up going. I’d got on well with him and he understood me as a player. He knew me a lot more than I thought he did and I thought I did alright under him. When Stendel came in, it was probably the worst I’d been playing. I started two of the first four games under him and I had two stinkers and he obviously wasn’t having me. That’s football I suppose. But it was a little bit disappointing in terms of how it ended.”

At certain stages, the mood around the camp was one of the worse I’ve felt. It was like, ‘Fucking hell, we’re after losing again’. And it was one of the best squads I’ve been involved with. Individually, there were some serious players in that Hearts team. And that’s why it’s such a shock and a surprise that they’re still bottom now, to be honest. It was a little bit of a downer. The first season – on and off – was a bit of a struggle. But we got to the Scottish Cup final [Hearts were beaten 2-1 by Celtic in 2019) and spirits were much higher than when I left. There was a boost when we beat Hibs in September but it was just a little bit of a dampener over my last couple of months there."

"Sometimes people have the wrong perception of footballers. Some think we can't feel like that at certain stages. Everyone is different but it helps a lot when the mood is high and everyone is feeling good. It makes a big difference. When the mood is down, it can also make a big difference going the other way."

heart-of-midlothian-v-celtic-william-hill-scottish-cup-final-hampden-park Jake Mulraney in action for Hearts during the 2019 Scottish Cup final against Celtic. Source: Jeff Holmes

Mulraney wasn’t the only Irish player Stendel didn’t fancy and Glenn Whelan was also released in January, much to his frustration. The veteran midfielder branded the club ‘amateurish’ after being released four months into a one-year deal with Stendel having publicly questioned his leadership qualities.   

“The things that were said about him were a load of shite, if I’m being honest,” Mulraney says. 

“If there was someone to stand up in the changing room, it’d be him, Naisie [Steven Naismith] or Christophe [Berra], our captain. So what was said about Whelo was very unfair. He was only there a wet day and he was already moaning, you know what I mean? So to say that stuff about him was mad, in my opinion.”

Despite how things ended, Edinburgh will always have a special place in Mulraney’s heart. In early October, Ella arrived.

“It puts a big perspective on things,” he admits. 

Before she was born, football was everything. If we lost, I’d be on a downer for the whole weekend. The missus would be chewing the ear off me because I was in a bad mood for 48 hours. I remember the game against Hibs on Stephen’s Day and we lost and I’d had a bad, bad time. It was one of the worst games I played for Hearts. And I was in a horrible mood on the way back. But I got in the door and the baby is smiling at you and you just forget about it. It’s something I never experienced before and it’ll definitely help me going forward.” 

Mulraney, who is a former Republic of Ireland Under-21 player, already had a taste of the action with Atlanta, who are managed by Frank de Boer, coming on as a second-half substitute in a pre-season friendly victory over Birmingham Legion – and the main focus is on establishing himself in the starting XI and winning more silverware.   

“The mad thing is that I was watching two MLS games at the end of last year and I remember saying to my missus, ‘This is a very good league’ and then the interest from Atlanta started up,” he says. 

“I did speak to a lot of people about it and everyone had positive things to say about the league. The only down side is the distance and the travel and being so far away from home with a young family. But people definitely underestimate the quality, even though I’ve only been there a short time. I was taken aback a little bit by the players. Some of the South American boys…very technical, really nice on the ball, composed, good range of passing, unbelievable first touch. It’s very different to what I’ve been used to seeing.

By the looks of it, we have a couple of systems and I might play a bit further back. But I don’t mind at all, to be honest. The past three weeks with the team were good and I don’t mind playing wing-back, left-back, left-wing. Whatever the manager wants from me. It’s just about going over now, trying to win a few titles, enjoying my football and trying to get within a chance of  call-up to the Ireland squad. Please God, I hope Mick will keep an eye. He’s taken boys from the Scottish Premiership so I can’t see why he wouldn’t have a look at MLS. In terms of quality, it’s probably a bit better than Scotland – with the exception of the Old Firm.” 

Mulraney is particularly looking forward to 7 March and the team’s home opener at the Mercedes Benz Stadium against FC Cincinnati. Since arriving in MLS, Atlanta’s hardcore attendance figures have broken a litany of records. Last year, for a regular season clash against LA Galaxy, over 72,500 fans showed up.  

orlando-city-at-atlanta-united Mulraney is looking forward to playing in front of Atlanta's renowned support. Source: Curtis Compton

“All the boys have been saying it to me – ‘Just wait until you see the stadium’ and I did a bit of research when the move first came about and looked it up,” he says. 

“70-odd thousand? It’s just mental. Like, we had that pre-season friendly against Birmingham but the Atlanta fans were still out in force. So I’m just looking forward to seeing what it’s like in the rest of the league too.” 

“At first, I was interested in signing but then it really started to happen and I was thinking, ‘Is it right? Am I doing the right thing?’ Now that I’ve gone over there, I know it is. It is very different, even with the supporters. Before the friendly, we were walking in and the Birmingham fans were saying hello to us. Usually you’re getting dog’s abuse. But there’s more of a chill vibe. I feel I can enjoy my football a lot more over there.”

There has been one issue, though. The heavy Dublin accent.

Can anyone understand him?

“Not at all,” he says. 

“I have to talk so slowly and posh – I never had to do that before. But, I was only there for a week and the staff were only short of helping me go to the toilet. They help you out so much. They just want to make sure you’re settling in. They understand. [Atlanta's Technical Director and former Fulham, Rangers and Rennes defender] Carlos Bocanegra understands – he did it the other way. The liaison staff, the players, the coaches – they want to make you as welcome as possible.” 

Mulraney is excited. A new adventure. A new baby. He’s full of gratitude.  

He peppers the conversation with phrases like ‘God willing’ or ‘With the help of God’. And there’s a reason for that.  

“It’s really important to me, my faith,” he says. 

“I try and pray at least three times a day. I try and get at least a verse of the Bible in every day. I take it quite seriously, though I know I’m still miles off. I have a few friends who are chaplains and they keep me straight. It’s definitely something that helps me out, big-time. There’s always banter and people will say it’s a load of shite but I find it very hard to explain it to people. The only way to describe it is that you just need to do it yourself.

“My Nanny used to always bring me to mass and get me my rosary beads. She definitely started it off for me. Before every training session I’ll say a prayer – looking for protection and to give thanks, basically. Before a game, I’ll wait until I’m on the pitch and I’ll say my prayer and it’ll be the same again: protection, asking for guidance during the game.”

His grandmother, who he was immensely close to, passed away in 2014. But Mulraney feels her presence, always.   

“It’s weird because I had some of her ashes in the apartment in Edinburgh and the baby would always be looking over at the urn and breaking her shite laughing and my girlfriend was terrified,” he says, chuckling at the memory.  

“But she was almost like me Ma. I grew up living with her so we used to always call her Ma as well. And I definitely feel that she’s here and watching over us.”                                   

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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