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Undaunted Red Dragon battles to 2:1 victory

03 Jul 2008

Wrexham FC midfielder Conall Murtagh is graduating from The University of Manchester with an upper second class Honours degree in Physiology after a rollercoaster year both on and off the pitch.

Conall Murtagh of Wrexham FC
Conall Murtagh of Wrexham FC

Conall, 23, has mastered leading two very different, very demanding lives – one at The Racecourse in Wrexham and one in the Faculty of Life Sciences in Manchester – even sitting an exam just before driving fifty miles to the biggest match of his life. But, he says that it was worth it.

Conall started his football career at Ballymena United and Crusaders FC, at home in Northern Ireland, before joining Scottish League club Hearts on a two-year contract in 2003. After he was released by Hearts in 2005, he played for League of Wales club Connah’s Quay Nomads, Rhyl and Southport before being picked up by Wrexham two years into his University course in 2007.

Conall had applied to University on the advice of his mother, who wisely observed that football careers can be fleeting and not always well paid in the lower leagues. He chose Physiology as he had always been interested in how the body functions, from a molecular level to the organs.

His final year research project combined both his passions: investigating the exercise benefits of the Nintendo Wii. “It did benefit users – depending on how much effort they put into it,” Conall explained.

His degree had a heavy workload but, with the support of Conall’s parents, his friends, including those on his course, and his tutors Peter Brown, Donald Ward and Liz Sheader, he worked hard to gain his well deserved 2:1.

“It’s tough, staying in the library ‘til it closes, sitting at the computer cluster until 1am before getting up early for a training session, trying to catch up with the notes when you’ve had to miss a lecture, and not going on nights out,” he explained.

“But I was lucky; everyone was so helpful and supportive. I shared a house with six lads and they would come and watch the matches or make my tea when I was busy, plus the banter in the house meant I didn’t miss the crack of going out.”

The Red Dragons were also very supportive, not only agreeing to Conall completing his course but also giving him a two-year contract.

“When I signed up with Wrexham, I had achieved half my goal of playing professional football and getting a degree,” he said.

“When I told them I wanted to finish my course and they agreed, I really appreciated their support and understanding. It was a high point.”

It came to mean a lot in the coming months.

Conall started his final year on a high: pre-season matches included Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers and he won Man of the Match in the latter game. His highlight was scoring the winning penalty in the penalty shoot out of a Carling Cup match against Port Vale.

But the next Carling Cup match, against Aston Villa, proved much tougher – Connell had to sit one of his exams at 2pm the same day, then drive to Wrexham for “the biggest match of my life”.

“I started out OK,” he recalled. “Aston Villa had just paid £8M for their midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker that summer so that’s who I was up against. There was a great crowd – around 10,000, including my Dad – so it was a good experience. But by the end I was very tired and did not play brilliantly. I had not asked the Faculty for another exam date and maybe I should have, but then I didn’t know that I would definitely play and I don’t like to ask for special treatment. It was surreal but I did learn a lot from that experience.”

A few days later, Conall suffered a serious thigh injury in training and was out of the squad for three months.

At the end of this season, Wrexham were relegated after 87 years in the League. Now Conall is looking forward to being part of their promotion efforts.

“This year I am looking forward to focussing completely on my football,” he said.

“I have got more to offer this year – I will be training more, I will be more rested, fresh, and with my degree completed, the pressure is off. I will be a better player. Plus working so hard at both my degree and football has taught me good time management and I now appreciate all the time I have.

“Wrexham are going for promotion next season and hopefully I will be part of that.”

His tutor Peter Brown said: “His degree is a magnificent effort, and has justly recognised by the award of a Faculty Student Achievement Prize. Conall was a dedicated student who completed all his work on time, and not once tried to use his footballing activities as an excuse. In fact we didn’t even know about the football until the end of his second year. Everyone in the Faculty is very proud of him.”

Notes for editors

Conall Murtagh graduates at 2.30pm on Monday 7 July 2008. Photographers are welcome to attend a photo opportunity with him, his family and tutors Drs Peter Brown & Liz Sheader at 3.30pm in The Quadrangle, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester. Anyone who wishes to attend can contact Media Relations Manager, Jon Keighren on 0161 275 8384 or Jon.Keighren@manchester.ac.uk. There are also images of Conall playing for Wrexham available.