STRABANE’S Thomas Mullen has enjoyed a debut ‘Fall’ season to remember in America where he not only helped his Rich Mountain University of Arkansas ‘Bucks’ team to their Conference title at the first attempt, but he was also named striker of the tournament.
The 19-year-old freshman decided to turn his back on established soccer programmes at colleges in Kansas, New York and Georgia because he wanted to ‘make history’ as part of Rich Mountain’s first ever soccer intake.
And his decision has so far proved well made as Brian Bird’s charges defeated Rose State College 2-1 in the Region 2 Championship final.
Although he didn’t hit the target in that match, Mullen’s importance to the team was rewarded when he was named striker of the tournament. It had taken the former Holy Cross College pupil time to cement his place in the team, but once he did he was an ever-present when it mattered most.
During August and September, Mullen started just once in eight games, scoring one goal in the process. However, in October he started twice and scored twice before starting all three games in November, scoring three goals as they reached the showpiece and sealed the title.
Having come through the ranks of Sion Swifts, Dungannon United Youth and Finn Harps under-19s, which he described as being instrumental in his development, before taking up the chance of a scholarship in Arkansas, Mullen is delighted with how things have gone for him so far.
“I’m happy with how the first four months went and it was good to get the award, which I didn’t expect!,” he beamed. “No one expected the win, seeing as it was the first year of the programme, but it was great.”
Mullen had attended a two week trial at English side, Blackpool, after the Milk Cup – both experiences only fueled his desire to play soccer full-time – and after chatting to coach Bird his decision to move to Arkansas was relatively easy.
“The Milk Cup was very good, it was a great experience and that’s where I got scouted by Blackpool,” he added. “I had a two week trial, which was different class, training every day and being treated like a professional, which just made me want it even more.
“I’m getting on very well. Arkansas is nice, quiet and warm! The scholarship came about after I went for the trial with Blackpool. The First Point Scholarship people scouted me and then I went for a showcase when they videoed me and then sent that out to all the colleges.
“I had to do my SAT’s, which was hard enough and I got offers from Kansas, a college near New York, one from Georgia too, but this is Rich Mountain’s first year of having a soccer programme so I liked the ideal of making history.
“I got talking to the coach, Brian Bird, and he convinced me to make the move.
“I’d highly recommend a scholarship because if you enjoy playing football you’ll love it. You get to train every day.”
While he’s very much enjoying the life of a full-time athlete, Mullen admits that balancing training, playing and traveling up to eight hours each way to away games with his studies isn’t easy, but it’s something that has to be achieved.
“The traveling was OK, I didn’t mind that, but it’s very difficult to manage being essentially a full-time athlete and a full-time student, especially when we were playing two games a week,” he admitted.
“You have to use your time properly, make sure you get all your coursework done and that adds pressure to the experience, especially when you’re getting towards the final week and you want good grades!”