Regardless of how the rest of the season unfolds, Marc McNulty has already experienced Paradise, writes James Shield.
“My dad’s from Glasgow and he’s a big Celtic fan so he used to take me there,” the Sheffield United centre-forward recollected earlier this week. “Before my own career started to get serious.
“Henrik Larsson was my favourite, he was the player who inspired me to really try and make a go of it. I used to try and be like him but I stopped short at the dreadlocks because I don’t really think I could pull them off.”
McNulty might joke about fashion tips. But when conversation switches to football, his demeanour turns deadly serious. And for good reason too.
Nigel Clough’s side enter tonight’s game against Peterborough fifth in the League One table with 14 games left to play. With eight points separating them from seventh placed Chesterfield, any false step could have serious consequences.
McNulty, though, is looking upwards rather than down.
“We’re not giving up on automatic,” he told The Star. “We’re not ruling anything in or out.
“All we are doing, as the manager keeps reminding us, is concentrating on trying to win our own matches. Then, hopefully, the rest will take care of itself.
“It sounds boring but you’ve just got to stay focused and not look to far ahead. Just try to overcome every hurdle that’s put in your way.”
Clough, as McNulty can testify, is a hard task master. Despite scoring 12 goals following his summer move from Livingston, the 22-year-old has frequently been chastised by the former England international. Both privately and in print.
“I’m a big boy now and I can take it,” McNulty continued. “It’s a man’s business and you’ve got to be able to take the rough with the smooth.
“I’m certainly not going to cry about it. Why would I?
“To be honest, other people make a lot more of things like that than I do because I know he only wants the best for me and has got my best interests at heart. It certainly keeps you on your toes.”
His suspicions are correct. Away from the television cameras and dictaphones, Clough has been at pains to stress his often brutal critiques are designed to ensure McNulty realises his potential. Makes the most of the talent which, earlier this term, prompted goalkeeper Mark Howard to describe him as “the best natural finisher” among United’s squad.
“The gaffer was a brilliant player,” McNulty said. “You don’t represent your country, like he did, without being one of the best of your generation so there’s tons I can learn from him and also the rest of the lads here.
“Even when I’m on the bench, I stay focused and take on board what he’s saying and asking people to do because that’s how you learn what he wants and how he reads the game.
“If you didn’t then, you’d be wasting a real opportunity. I’ve still got lots to get better at and work on.
“And I know, if he didn’t rate me or think I had it in me, then he wouldn’t have brought me here in the first place. At a club like this, you can never stand still or take things for granted.”
McNulty’s performances at Almondvale, alongside his now United team mate Stefan Scougall, first attracted Clough’s attention during his tenure at previous club Derby County before the Scottish Championship club allowed him to begin training at Bramall Lane towards the end of last term.
With Matt Done also making a huge impact after joining United from Rochdale four weeks ago, McNulty conceded there are no guarantees of a starting role against opponents ranked 10th and without a permanent manager after parting company with Darren Ferguson recently.
“At Livingston the squad wasn’t as big so there was always a much better chance of being in the eleven,” McNulty said. “It’s different here and nothing is certain for anyone.
“That’s part and parcel of being somewhere like this. It comes with the territory if you like.
“But that’s one of the things which makes me believe we can get to where we want to be. The squad. Everyone has to work hard to be in the team and ready to contribute because we’re a strong, tight-knit group.
“Nothing is decided yet. We’ll never give up because that’s not in our make-up.”