Hibs kid Cody Mulhall didn’t recognise the number that had flashed up on his mobile phone – but the voice on the other end of the line was unmistakable, that of Irish legend Roy Keane.
Gobsmacked he might have been, the call couldn’t have come at a better time for the teenager, who was at his lowest ebb last year having shattered his right knee just months after joining the Easter Road club.
The 18-year-old from the Irish town of Kildare was starting to establish himself in the Hibs Under-20s team last year when he suffered a horrific injury against Dundee United at Arbroath’s Gayfield Park, falling awkwardly on the pitch. The impact ended up rupturing his cruciate ligament, tearing the ligaments on the outside of his knee and ripping the hamstring from the bone. However, a year on and Mulhall is on the comeback trail, scoring the equaliser as he earned Hibs’ Under-20 side a draw against Celtic at Cappielow earlier this week, a result which stretched the youngsters’ unbeaten run under new coach Joe McBride to seven matches.
And no-one will have been happier to have heard the news than Keane, the former Manchester United skipper, now assistant to Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill while filling a similar role at Aston Villa alongside Paul Lambert.
Recalling those dark days after suffering his injury, Mulhall, in an exclusive interview with the Evening News, said: “I’d only joined Hibs last summer, done my pre-season and was beginning to find my feet and becoming comfortable with my new surroundings.
“I’d started a few games, scored six or seven goals and was feeling more confident so the injury was obviously a massive blow. It was very tough to start with and I have to admit I did have thoughts about just going home, but everyone at the club helped me, the staff, the first-team lads, the boys in the under-20s.”
Even so, Keane’s unexpected call was just the tonic Mulhall needed after then Hibs manager Pat Fenlon asked his friend to lift the youngster’s spirits.
Mulhall explained: “I’d noticed a missed call on my phone. It was an Irish number, but I didn’t recognise it so I just left it. But about 7.30 that night it rang again, I picked it up and all I heard was ‘It’s Roy’. That was it, just ‘It’s Roy’.
“I knew, though, who it was. I recognised the Cork accent, but I was stunned. I was still getting to grips with what had happened, but Pat had asked Roy to call me as he’d gone through something similar himself.
“He must have spent 15 or 20 minutes speaking to me, explaining it was going to be a long hard year, but that I had to work hard and get back to full fitness as quickly as possible, to get back playing for the under-20s and to start pushing for a first-team place.
“It was quite something to get that call. Roy is an Irish legend, an Irish hero and one of my heroes as well, so it meant a lot.
“I know he comes across as a terribly fierce character, someone who doesn’t shirk from speaking his mind, so initially I wasn’t quite sure what he’d be saying to me, but I saw a totally different side to what you see in the press. He was a real gentleman, a genuine guy.
“I called my parents right away to tell them what had happened, but they wouldn’t believe me at first. It took the rest of that night and the next day to convince them, they were just as shocked as I had been.”
Keane told Mulhall to save his number and to call if he needed any further advice or wanted tickets for games down south, but, he revealed, he’s used it only once, calling him a month ago to tell him he’d returned to training and wasn’t far off playing again.
Since then, Mulhall has returned to action, getting over the psychological barrier of facing Dundee United again as McBride’s team crushed the Tannadice side 6-2 before notching that goal against Celtic.
Now the youngster, who had been an ever-present in Ireland’s Under-17 side the previous season and was beginning to make his mark in their Under-19 side having returned to Dublin to play Norway twice in friendly internationals, is determined to make up for lost time.
Keane expressed his belief that Mulhall had a bright future ahead of him after making that call, an opinion backed by the fact a clutch of English clubs were on his trail, with Fulham close to clinching a deal before Pat Fenlon stepped in.
Mulhall said: “I was playing in Dublin for Stella Maris Boys Club, training twice a week and playing on a Sunday. I’d been down south, there were nine or ten clubs watching me and I was due to go back to Fulham, who were just about to put an offer on the table.
“I’d just turned 17, but I spoke to Pat and when I came over here I just loved it. My mind was made up – I wanted to come here and be part of this club.
“I had to get fit and even coming in for the first couple of games of the season I wasn’t at my peak. I was just about as fit as I had ever been when I picked up the injury and that was the most heart-breaking thing, knowing I was going to have to start all over again. It was a real kick in the teeth.”
When Mulhall first arrived at Easter Road he was surrounded by a good number of his fellow countrymen, Fenlon having signed a few Irish players, while Hibs’ head scout at the time, David Henderson, also hailed from across the water.
Now, though, he only has the Dublin-born pair of Paul Heffernan and Gareth McCaffrey, who joined Hibs at the same time as he did, to fight the Irish corner ahead of tomorrow night’s European Championship qualifying match between Scotland and the Republic at Celtic Park.
He said: “It has the makings of a great game. Scotland are going well, but Ireland are flying with that John O’Shea equaliser against Germany. Being Irish I have to say I think we will win. I’m sure there will be a bit of banter with the Scottish lads in the dressing room, but I’m sure we’ll be able to give as good as we get.”
As he spoke to the Evening News, Mulhall admitted he hadn’t managed to get tickets for the match. He does, however, have the number of someone who might just be able to help him out.