There are not many men in football like Steve McNulty. Luton Town’s unmistakeable captain is one of the English game’s great cult heroes, not just for what he looks like – unlike most other professional footballers – but for what he has done and what he represents.
McNulty, along with manager John Still, has dragged Luton Town out of the doldrums. He was their best player last season when they were promoted back into the Football League. He has been captaining them with success this year, taking them to fourth in League Two, and the third round of the FA Cup, in which they face Cambridge United on Saturday.
Luton sold out their 1400 allocation for this game in days and McNulty has a relationship with those fans that could be the envy of other clubs. When Luton confirmed promotion from the Conference in April, McNulty took the players to local pubs – the Bricklayers Arms and the White House – to drink with supporters. It might have been a small detail but it meant a lot.
The story shows how clearly McNulty understands a footballer’s responsibility to his fans, a sense of perspective which owes to his own career, in and out of football, in and out of the Football League. He reflects on all this with the same honesty and emotional intelligence that defines him.
“I have always had a good relationship with the fans,” McNulty told The Independent this week. “At the end of the day, they pay their hard earned money to come and support us, they pay our wages. So it’s only right to go and give something back.”
The story of McNulty’s time at Luton is the story of a club healing itself after a traumatic few years, in which they were deducted 30 points and were relegated out of the Football League. “When I first came there was a massive divide between the fans and the players,” he said, “the fans felt hard done by about what was happening, and were taking it out on the players. When John Still came in, he united the fans and players again, and now we get their full backing.”
No-one gets more backing than McNulty himself. He is loved for his inspirational captaincy, organising and cajoling his team-mates, but also for the quality of his play at centre-back. Rejecting characterisation as a lumbering pub player, his touch and vision is better that most defenders in his division. He scored Luton’s goal of last season, a dipping 30-yard volley against Southport. The video has 222,000 views on YouTube.
There is another video with 200,000 views called “Steve McNulty showboating v Wrexham” but most of the clips are just intelligent defending. McNulty’s grey hair and ample frame might make him look older than his 31 years, and out of place in professional football, but the opposite is true.
“People look at you and they don’t give you a second chance,” said McNulty, who is called ‘sumo’ by Luton fans and worse by the rest. “But if they do work with me for a couple of weeks, they find out that the way I look isn’t the way I come across on the pitch.”
McNulty accepts that his frame has stopped him from playing at a higher level, not because he is not as quick or fit as he needs to be – “I don’t miss a game all season” – but because of negative perceptions. “If I weren’t the way I looked – with the ability I’ve got – I think I could have played at a higher level. People judge a book by its cover. They don’t give you that chance.”
Although McNulty believes those judgements have held him back, he feels proud of how he has come to be here. McNulty is an Everton fan from Bootle but joined the old Liverpool centre of excellence as a boy. He was one year below Neil Mellor and John Otsemobor and two below Stephen Warnock. McNulty’s flair for leadership was quickly identified, he captained the under-19s and signed a professional contract.
McNulty never made the jump into the first team, though, and at the age of 20 he was released. “I’m not bitter,” he says, “it’s a really fine line”. There were unsuccessful trials at Bury and Blackpool – after the collapse of ITV Digital it was a difficult time for unemployed players – and McNulty admits he “fell out of love with the game”. So he started work driving a white van, delivering parcels.
Eventually an old Liverpool coach of his, Owen Brown, took him to Vauxhall Motors. Brown remembers that McNulty as a “massive character, a ferocious competitor and a natural captain”, and he quickly rediscovered his talent for the game. From there he joined Barrow, whom he led to promotion, and there to Fleetwood Town, who he dragged up into the Football League. He left Fleetwood for Luton Town, back in the Conference, two years ago.
It was never easy playing for those sides but McNulty looks back on that time with respect and some gratitude. “I’ve done it the hard way, in the Unibond North and the Unibond Prem,” McNulty says. “You’re going to grounds that aren’t really grounds, and you’re getting changed in portacabins. But I’d never disrespect the Unibond, that is where I started again.”
That journey is one that McNulty would now recommend to any released youngster trying to find a new grounding in the game. “The young lads have too much too early,” he said, “and if they are released then they fall by the wayside because they can’t cope with lower league football physically. They should be sent there for a month to toughen up. It’s an eye opener, but it puts you in good stead.”
Those were the challenges that made McNulty who he is. He does feel that his career might have gone differently but for his appearance, but he does not think he has peaked yet either. Luton could be in League One next season and McNulty is confident in his ability to perform there was well. “I have played against two good League One sides already, Swindon and Peterborough, and I’ve more than held my own. If you don’t believe in your own ability, other coaches are not going to believe in you.”
This is the optimism and honesty that has already endeared McNulty to so many people, and which has already taken him this far. “If you said to me five or six years ago I’d be sitting here, captain of Luton Town in 2015, I’d have said you were a liar.”Reuse content