For David Mulligan, being released by Wellington Phoenix at the end of the 2009/10 season not only put his FIFA World Cup™ place in jeopardy; it threw his entire future into doubt. And while the New Zealand midfielder eventually made it to South Africa, questions about his club future remained unanswered.
That was when Auckland City came calling, eager to slot the Liverpool-born schemer alongside his veteran international team-mate, Ivan Vicelich. After ten years as a professional with Barnsley, Scunthorpe United, Port Vale and the Phoenix, dropping into an amateur league might have proved difficult to accept. Not for Mulligan.
“I really enjoy playing at Auckland City,” he told FIFA.com. “We’ve been very successful, both in the OFC Champions League and domestically. Everything the club does is excellent and the Club World Cup gives us a massive stage to play on.”
Mulligan wasn’t with the New Zealanders when they proved to be the sensations of the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup, claiming shock wins over local favourites Al Ahli and last year’s finalists, TP Mazembe Englebert. That was then, however, and this is now, with Japan having replaced UAE as hosts and Auckland City facing a tough tie against the as-yet-undecided J.League champions. For Mulligan, clearing that first, imposing hurdle is all-important.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Two years ago we had a great experience in Abu Dhabi. We made it through to the next round then and if we can do the same we’ll all be delighted.”
With Auckland City the only amateur club competing at the upcoming club showpiece, Mulligan knows exactly what Oceania’s champions will face in Toyota City when they come up against their Japanese opponents on 8 December. He said: “Professional teams train full-time, and their tempo, the speed they move the ball, their first touch – everything they do is of an unbelievably high quality. But we’re not daunted - all we can do is try our best to bridge that gap.”
In bidding to repeat their 2009 heroics, Auckland City’s players have been training every day for over a month, and the results speak for themselves, with four wins from as many matches. Those victories have included a 3-1 friendly win over professional opponents, Australia’s Central Coast Mariners, with Auckland’s players dedicating themselves to a demanding schedule despite full-time professional and study commitments.
“Some of our boys have had university exams and there are guys who work full-time in our squad,” explained Mulligan. “But as a squad we get on together and support each other – we’re a tight group. Although we play in an amateur competition, we have a lot of players with professional experience – our mentality is very strong.”
A quick scan of the Auckland City ranks backs up Mulligan’s claim. Ivan Vicelich spent seven years with Roda JC in the Netherlands; Manel Exposito and Andreu Gurao have played in La Liga with Atletico Madrid and Sporting Gijon; goalkeeper Jacob Spoonley, defenders James Pritchett and Chad Coombes have been capped by New Zealand.
But can the club’s class of 2011 emulate their predecessors and spring a surprise? Mulligan says coach Ramon Tribulietx’s eye for detail could be a deciding factor. “New Zealand has previously had a very English-style influence in its football but Ramon has developed a style closer to a pass and move approach,” he said of the Barcelona-born coach. “Ramon always makes sure we are well prepared and briefed on our opponents, and it’s been working for us so far.”
Mulligan’s football career has already taken him from one side of the world to the other, and Japan is familiar to him too. The 29-year-old’s last stop in the land of the rising sun was with Wynton Rufer, who played with JEF United, as part of the former All White and Oceania Footballer of the Century’s youth project.
“I went to Japan as part of an age group side but didn’t really take it all in at the time,” he recalled. “From what you see on television and in the media it’s an amazing country and very different to home. I love Japanese food – sushi and sashimi – and I even have a Japanese tattoo, so hopefully when we are over there I get a chance to take a look at some more art work.”
His career has had its ups and downs. But with the challenge of the FIFA Club World Cup looming ever closer, Mulligan believes he is living the dream of every child. “Football is what I have wanted to do all my life,” he said. “Training everyday and playing as often as possible is my aim. I just can’t wait to be in Japan.”