How Paul Mullin – via a text from Rob McElhenney – ended his rare goal drought

How Paul Mullin – via a text from Rob McElhenney – ended his rare goal drought

Rob McElhenney takes the duty of care he has as Wrexham’s co-owner seriously.

When Phil Parkinson was still coming to terms with what remains the nadir of the club’s return to the EFL after a 15-year non-League exile, the co-owner reached out to his manager just moments after September’s 5-0 thrashing at Stockport County via text.

Hollywood actor and writer McElhenney did something similar with Paul Mullin during the latter’s recent run of eight games without a goal — comfortably the striker’s most barren period in almost five years.

The level-headed Liverpudlian’s response was no surprise. “I feel pretty good,” he told McElhenney, “it’s just a matter of time.”

The inner belief within Mullin that reassured his American boss is no act. Speak to anyone close to the player and they’ll wax lyrical about how adamant he was that the scoring tide would soon turn for him, even as Wrexham lost ground in the League Two promotion race.

There was no re-watching of old clips where he scored for fun, as many footballers do during such goalless runs. Nor did Mullin stew over the chances that had got away. He simply told anyone who asked, including McElhenney, that the next one was going in the net.

Such steadfast belief explains why, having ended his 649-minute wait for a goal with a stoppage-time equaliser from the penalty spot to secure a point away against Forest Green Rovers last Tuesday, Mullin celebrated his sixth hat-trick in less than three seasons with the north Wales club just four days later.

Ending that unwanted run was not only a lesson in retaining self-belief but also the need for timely reminders as to what a player does best. Mullin spent the day before that 1-1 draw with Forest Green taking part in a one-man shooting exercise that seemed, to onlookers, no more scientific than simply being urged to whack the ball as hard as possible.

To put himself through this additional exertion when he was still troubled by a back injury that required a pain-killing injection early this week underlined his determination to end what had become an unprecedented — in recent memory, anyway — drought.

Mullin scores from the spot against Forest Green Rovers (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Last season, for instance, the longest Mullin went without finding the net was two games (which happened three times). The year before that — his first with Wrexham — there had been a five-match gap between goals around Christmas, but the team won anyway on three of those five occasions so the focus was largely elsewhere.

This time, the 29-year-old’s goals temporarily drying up coincided with a poor run of results — five of those eight fixtures were lost, with only two wins, and without his dramatic 93rd-minute equaliser, Forest Green would have beaten Wrexham too.

No wonder a priority for the coaching staff during February was getting their talisman back to his instinctive best. Not just in terms of scoring goals but also making the runs in behind defences that are so pivotal to how Wrexham play.

These had become less and less frequent, meaning the chances of the ball sticking up front to allow the midfielders and wing-backs to move forward en masse also took a hit. The upshot was a team who looked as disjointed as their results suggested, especially away from home.

Cue that individual shooting drill after training.

It lasted barely 10 minutes, with assistant manager Steve Parkin on hand throughout, urging the striker to put his foot through the ball. Some shots flew past the goalkeeper into the top corner. Others went harmlessly wide of the target. But it didn’t matter. Instead, to those watching from the sidelines, the intention seemed simply to be reminding Mullin just how much power he packs in his boots.

Whether that played a part in the return to scoring ways the following evening we’ll never know, but there was a brutal savagery to his penalty — and an earlier shot that fizzed just over the crossbar — that had been lacking when facing MK Dons and Gillingham during the previous eight days.

The second goal of Saturday’s hat-trick in the 4-0 home win against Accrington was similar. Mullin hit his 25-yard shot with such conviction that goalkeeper Radek Vitek had no chance.

All the added extras that make Mullin such a key cog in the Wrexham attacking machine were in evidence too, including a darting run behind the opposition defence that led to the striker setting up Elliot Lee’s goal which completed the scoring just before half-time.

Their main man was back.

This weekend’s visit to Morecambe will see Mullin on familiar ground.

He spent three years there as a youngster, following his release by Huddersfield Town in 2014 at age 19 without making a senior appearance.

Mullin was never going to get rich at Morecambe. His first contract was worth just £200 per week. But those three seasons brought a valuable grounding. He also scored 25 goals in 122 league appearances — with more than half of those coming from the bench. Mullin felt he was worthy of a starting role.

Back then, as one of several members of the Morecambe squad — managed by Jim Bentley — who lived down the Lancashire coast in Liverpool, Mullin would regularly car share into training. Groups of four would take turns to drive.

To those who were part of those 150-mile round trips, an abiding memory is how the young striker attempted to channel that disappointment at not being selected positively. Where some might have blamed the manager — to this day, Mullin credits Bentley with being a good influence on his career — he instead did everything to try to force his way into the team.

Mullin’s recent goal drought was his longest with Wrexham (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

He did running sessions on the town’s beach in his own time, as well as gruelling work on the weights to bulk up. He wanted to be more in tune with the physically imposing lone-front man role demanded by Bentley’s system.

In time, Mullin realised his error. His game had always been about using skill and speed — but now, with the extra muscle he’d packed on, he felt heavy. He learned a lesson about the need to stick to your own beliefs.

This will no doubt have helped him navigate not just the recent barren run in front of goal but also Wrexham’s signing of fellow forward Jack Marriott on deadline day at the start of last month.

The arrival of Marriott, who was playing in the second-tier Championship as recently as two years ago and has over 100 career appearances in that division, was billed as a means of pepping up an attack that, even accounting for Mullin to reach double figures for the season by mid-January, has largely struggled for goals since the club’s return to the EFL. But, as has since been made clear via one replacing the other from the bench in six of Marriott’s eight appearances, the newcomer is effectively direct competition for Mullin.

Mullin had recently ruled the roost. He started on the bench just once in more than 100 league appearances for Wrexham — and even then this came when returning from the collapsed lung and four broken ribs he sustained on last summer’s U.S. tour. This was naturally going to jar.

But it also triggered the well-honed trait of wanting to prove people wrong. This has burned inside him since being released by his beloved Liverpool at 16. This desire perhaps explains why Mullin was ever-present at training despite the discomfort of that back issue. This problem led to the medical team taking advantage of a rare blank Tuesday this week to administer that pain-killing injection.

Those who know Mullin well will all say the same thing: what you see is what you get from someone who still lives just around the corner from his childhood home in Litherland, a northern district of Liverpool. So settled is life with partner Mollie and son Albi that even serious interest from Saudi Arabia’s second division last summer couldn’t tempt him. Family and friends long ago realised the futility of trying to contact Mullin after 9pm, knowing full well he’ll either be asleep by that time, resting up for the next day’s training or match, or not far off.

Even McElhenney, who once claimed only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were more famous as footballers in the U.S. than his No 10 thanks to the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Welcome To Wrexham, concedes: “Every once in a while, I want to get him to tell me how great he is. But it’s always the same (from Mullin): ‘I just put in a shift, I do my work and I go back to my family’. Every week!”

Mullin has been a key star for Wrexham owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

This level-headed attitude, however, again helps explain how Mullin came through that recent dry spell in front of goal.

It was his longest since going 16 league and cup appearances without scoring for Tranmere Rovers — either side of three months as an unused substitute or out of the matchday squad — across the end of the 2018-19 League Two season and the start of the following campaign in League One.

He also has the sense of perspective that four-year-old Albi’s autism diagnosis has brought. That said, there are those in and around the dressing room who insist the striker “looked six inches taller” after that point-rescuing penalty against Forest Green, suggesting there was a big sense of relief when the ball found the net.

So, what now? First, he’ll be itching to continue a remarkable scoring record against Morecambe, having scored eight times against them in the past three meetings with Cambridge United and now Wrexham.

Then, providing all is good following this week’s jab in his back, there are the twin targets of a second straight promotion and joining an exclusive club of Wrexham strikers to reach 100 goals. Mullin is joint-eighth on their list of all-time scorers, five short of three figures from 129 appearances.

Should he go on and reach that landmark this season, chances are Wrexham will be celebrating those first-ever back-to-back promotions and a return to the third tier for the first time since 2004-05.

It would be a fitting end to an eventful year for their on-pitch talisman.

(Top photo: Getty Images)