Kevin Mulholland with his wife, Alicia, and son, Cillian, after Southampton’s final home game of last season. (Pic: Matt Dawson/Southampton)
Mention the names of Virgil van Dijk or Dusan Tadic to a colleague and you’re almost certain to spark some sort of reaction. ‘Beast’ or ‘what a player’, or something along those lines. Bring them up in conversation with Kevin Mulholland and he just shrugs it off as though their profile makes no difference. Water off a duck’s back given the nature of his current role.
Taking a slurp of his flat white amid the lunchtime coffee rush, the Knockbridge man gathers his thoughts.
“It’s a privileged setting to be in, but you don’t really acknowledge it,” he says, reaching for the mug again.
“You’ve got to remember that your priority is the welfare of the players, while also realising the success of the team relies on having key players available throughout the season. You’ve got your professional standards.”
Though there’s an element of passion to his daily practice, too.
Who knew about the day-to-day routine of a Premier League physio, or, more specifically, a ‘lead performance and injury prevention physio’, which is Kevin’s title at Southampton?
Kevin Mulholland (right) with Virgil Van Dijk during his days at St. Mary's. (Pic: Matt Watson/Southampton FC)
He’s back in Dundalk for a week, he says, as we meet for the first time, Kevin and your writer. It’s a get-together that’s been over a year in the pipeline, with Relish on Jocelyn Street the setting. We convene just before noon, and finish quite a while later.
At least now there is someone who knows the daily schedule of a Premier League physio…
THERE IS A STORY…
How he got to where he is is a tale typical of the route footballers take. Develop a dream, move to England, gather experience, work your way through from the bottom, earning promotions, moves, a reputation, until you reach somewhere in the region of the top.
If you were to spin a yarn about a fella who started off at League Two Crewe Alexandra, ahead of spells at Stoke City and Sheffield Wednesday, all the while improving and progressing up the grades before eventually settling at a Premier League first-team, it would be automatically assumed that you were speaking about a player.
But while Kevin may be a medic, the sacrifices remain as intricate. Others, he concedes, have had to alter their lives, as the demands grew.
“She’s sacrificed quite a lot over the last 10-12 years.”
Piece with @SouthamptonFC’s ‘lead performance and injury prevention physio’ @kevmulholland, a Knockbridge man, in this week’s @DundalkDemocrat. A great story of a local fella making it in elite football, without playing. A trailblazer. pic.twitter.com/lYnrBkjfoG— Caoimhín Reilly (@CaoimhinReilly) July 23, 2019
He is, of course, talking about his wife, Alicia, an Australian who moved to Staffordshire in her mid-teens. The pair met while studying their mutual discipline at Keele University and have been together since, welcoming their first born, Cillian, into the family last January.
“He’s a great little one, always happy; he just needs to sleep a little bit more,” he quips.
Indeed, ‘the little one’ is something of an alarm clock, Kevin’s normal working day entailing a pre-7am rise time and 12-hour day.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way, it seems. After all, getting to the top in the field he’s pursued is what he left home for, it’s why he abandoned his teenage dream of becoming a professional golfer, the purpose behind missing countless family occasions.
It’s why he did placement stints at Crewe where a man by the name of Nick Oakley proved to be “a good mentor”.
It’s why he got in touch with Dundalk Gaels clubman Ciarán Murray, the Irish senior soccer team physio, for advice a decade ago, advice which Kevin states has shaped his career to date, a move which opened the doors of the international scene. And, for the last five years, he’s been Ireland U21s’ physio.
It’s why he took the job at Stoke’s U18s, later moving up to their U23s, before deciding that he’d “hit a ceiling” and taking a position at Sheffield Wednesday, as assistant first-team physio.
It’s why, in 2016, he decided to go for a similar role at The Saints.
All the while Alicia has followed him, from Stoke to Sheffield to Southampton, on the other side of the country from her family.
“That’s the support she’s shown me, which is massive to me personally, and it’s really important that I show appreciation for what she’s done because she realised how important this career is to me. It’s what I left home and went to England to study for.”
Mulholland tends to Southampton striker Danny Ings. (Pic: Matt Watson/Southampton FC)
THE STEP UP
Like with any career ladder climb, hurdles are there to be overcome. Kevin may only be just over a decade in the game, yet the environment is an ever-evolving one.
He finds himself listening to medical podcasts on his morning commute to Southampton’s training base, though it’s there, on the ground, where the majority of his work is done.
The men who hired him, Steve Wright and Tom Sturdy, continue to coach and drive his career progression, like first-team manager Ralph Hassenhuttl does with his players. Same cycle, different setting.
“When I moved to Southampton I probably thought that I knew quite a lot, having been in football for eight seasons, but I’ve got to put my hands up and give credit to Steve. Since arriving on the south coast, Steve has been a mentor and more importantly a good friend who helped the family settle in the area.
“The stuff I’ve learned since coming to Southampton is extremely advanced compared to what I previously experienced, everything down to the finest detail is planned and critiqued to help maximise staff and, most importantly, players’ performance.
“My previous clubs, I feel, developed me as a physio, but Steve has developed me as an individual, as a leader of other people, as a person who’s able to critically reflect on my own practice and to be able to accept change. He’s been very influential; really important in my career, as a boss and as a good friend.
“He’s probably one of, if not the best physio I’ve worked with.”
Indeed, that type of intertwined relationship is key at what is a highly “progressive club”, who hold the needs of their staff in high regard, which, in turn, feeds towards better levels of output. The Saints’ winning of the Premier League’s Performance and Medical Sports Science Team of the Year is significant in this sense.
“The club try and promote mums meeting other mums at the club. They offer the little touches, like sending flowers and a Southampton shirt after Cillian was born. It’s appreciated massively, especially by Alicia.”
The gong brings a sense of satisfaction, as well, given that its categorical breakdown is multi-faceted and awarded based upon the club’s overall achievements within the sports science and medical domain, ranging from recent research and publications to injury rates and player availability statistics.
“It’s a very, very rewarding post, even if it is a hard environment. A lot of people only see the team on a Saturday and winning on a Saturday as what matters. However, there is so much more to it than that, our priority is to make sure the players are as close to 100 percent as possible in order to perform to their maximum capabilities.
“Yes, it’s great to win on a Saturday, but it’s also great to see the manager having a full squad of players; so, basically, we’re giving him a selection problem.
“It’s two-fold: we get the honour of the players performing on a Saturday, and then the honour of the players being grateful and respectful for the services we provide them with while fit or injured.
“This award just tops it off.”
AN ONWARD PROCESS
Later, the conversation takes an off-course turn.
Kevin: “Are you asking if I want to be a football manager?”
Democrat: “Well, would it be a possibility?”
The answer: It’s not something that he foresees, in spite of having his UEFA B coaching badges. Although that degree merely serves to underpin his employers’ commitment to the cause.
“They (coaching courses) probably help me in terms of understanding the game more,” he says.
“What you pick up a lot of is the tactical and technical elements of the game and how different managers want to play the game, because it’s really important.
“For example, if a manager wants to play three at the back with wing-backs, you need to be aware of the demands a manager has of that player (wing-back), the outputs he expects of them and to make sure their week is tailored towards those demands.”
It’s interesting that he mentions wing-back, considering that’s where Brian McGuinness, his former manager at Dundalk and Seatown in the schoolboys’ league, tried him once or twice…
“I didn’t do enough running for Brian!”
But the question still stands, in some form, as to the next step for him?
“In terms of football, I’m not a coach, I’m not a manager, I don’t get involved or give opinions on players.
“Personally, I just want to keep developing as a physio. Football management is not a thing I’ve ever dreamed of or ever see myself getting into.”
Though he has learned from all of the many coaches and managers he’s worked in tandem with, Stephen Kenny, as Ireland U21 supremo, being one of the newest.
His path to date has encompassed a series of regular moves, but he’s content at present, possibly even settled.
“I’m in a really good place, working with a good club and a really good team. I’m living in an area that we, as a family, like and, obviously, I’ve got Alicia and the little one at home so life is good at the present moment.”
It’ll all come to an end one day. Ultimately, he envisages, that’s when it will hit him, the privilege of involvement in Ireland’s game with England at Wembley in 2012, Sheffield Wednesday’s play-off final against Hull under the same arch, Southampton’s League Cup final clash with Manchester United. And likely more big days to come.
“The original dream was probably to play professional golf.”
But this is the real dream.