Words by Joe Ward
Pictures by Jonathan Moore
Shortly after Toby Mullarkey enters the room, armed with a cheery grin, the conversation turns to a time when smiling did not come quite so easily for him.
The Altrincham defender’s career may be scaling new heights, following his elevation to vice-captain in the summer, but he freely admits it nearly didn’t get off the ground.
“When I signed my first-year professional contract at 20 years old with Crewe Alexandra, it was absolutely massive for me,” he says. “But in that first year, I struggled a bit and couldn’t make it into the first team. It was probably the worst season I’d had, and I had to drop out into part-time football.”
Now at 26 years old, Mullarkey is part of the first full-time outfit in Altrincham’s long and triumphant history and is once again able to call himself a professional footballer, a position most can only dream of.
However, it’s been anything but a straightforward journey for the 6ft 3in centre-back. “In the past, I’ve broken my leg, that happened when I was 22 and just starting to kick on again, so that put me out for a little bit. It’s a case of just trying to stay mentally strong and physically fit so that when you do come back, you’re able to develop.”
Being from Warrington, Mullarkey did what most kids do in the North West, an area rich in football heritage, and started playing for his local team, Grappenhall Sports FC.
Before long, he was turning heads to such an extent that an invitation to the famed Crewe Alexandra academy system came his way at just six years old. It was here where he spent the next 14 years of his adolescent life before falling into non-League football.
After joining Leek Town at the age of 20, Mullarkey explains it was difficult to transition to only playing part-time. “For the first couple of years, I really did struggle to be fair. Playing on bad pitches under managers you’re not used to playing for and only training twice a week, it was hard to adapt. So, I had to work hard off the pitch; in the gym and off the ball et cetera, to get myself back up to where I wanted to be.”
However, it was to be his next move to Nantwich Town which Mullarkey pinpoints as the defining moment in his fight back to professional football. It was whilst at Nantwich that he met, and began to develop a strong working relationship with, his current manager Phil Parkinson.
Two years after Parkinson’s appointment as Altrincham’s first team manager, rumours began to circulate that the club had ambitious plans of moving to become fully professional. It was at this point, in 2019, that Mullarkey got the call from his old gaffer.
He says, “I was lucky enough to get the call up from Phil and that’s where it all began. He allowed me to come to Altrincham, and knowing the plans that were in place and having the chance to be able to call myself a professional footballer again is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve worked hard to get here.”
“I always play my best football when I’m full of confidence and that’s something the gaffer has spotted in me. The coaches know what I need to be able to play well, and I think last year is where I started to mature as a player, and that’s where my confidence came on in leaps and bounds.”
So much so that the commanding and composed centre-back attracted widespread interest from Football League clubs at the end of an outstanding 2021-22 campaign.
Nevertheless, Mullarkey’s undoubted respect for the fans and the history of Altrincham saw him agree to remain at The J.Davidson Stadium as an integral part of their new professional era.
“The whole project that Altrincham are trying to achieve is what sold it to me and, as I said, I’ve never looked back since.
“My brother owns two coffee shops, one in Stockton Heath and one in Altrincham, so we used to share the workload around there last season before I moved to full-time. We also used to have a couple of fans come into the shop, which was always quite nice, maybe not so much if you lost the day before, but it’s always good to be involved in the community. We owe them a lot.”
But what next for Toby Mullarkey? Despite currently enjoying yet another successful season, the ever-dreaded thought of retirement lurks at the back of his mind, just as it does for all professional footballers.
“It’s something that you do think about, but I’m trying to push it to the back of my mind and focus on my football. What will I do after playing? I’m not too sure yet, but it will be based around football. It’s taken up my entire life”.
Focusing on his football is exactly what he continues to do. This season, Mullarkey has already captained his side 17 times in the league and it’s an honour he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s a big weight to carry, but I’m hoping the fans can see that I’m relishing and cherishing each opportunity I get because it doesn’t come much better than being able to walk out with the armband on in front of 2000 fans. It’s a great privilege and source of pride”.