Sheffield United: Reading's Marc McNulty on fatherhood, the future and why he will always admire and respect his former club
He used to play football simply because he loved it.
Marc McNulty is still living the dream, still enthralled by goals, technique and tactics. But now, following the birth of his young son Freddie, there is an extra purpose to his work.
"I've got to put food on the table for the little one," he says. "I've got to look after my family. I want to make sure they enjoy a comfortable life in the future. The thought of doing that, making sure they're okay, really drives me."
Sitting on the sofa at his new home near Ascot, McNulty is oozing contentment. Surrounded by toys and other childhood paraphernalia, the Reading centre-forward cuts a happy, relaxed and utterly carefree figure as he discusses fatherhood, life and settling in the south-east. The scene is a million miles away from the one set to confront him on Saturday eveningÂ when Sheffield United, the club he represented for three eventful seasons, arrive at the Madejski Stadium.
McNulty, whose present employers sacked manager Paul Clement thisÂ morning, looks back on his time in the north of England with a mixture of happiness and regret. Proud to have been a Blade, appreciative of the opportunities Bramall Lane provided after signing him from Livingston, the Scot is nevertheless frustrated by how his time there ended. Not to mention some of the social media narrative surrounding the reasons behind his departure 18 months ago.
"Obviously it's a place I've got lots of affection for," McNulty admits, a smile spreading across his face. "I made lots of friends there who I'm still in touch with now, including quite a few of the lads.Â
"The only thing that bothered me was seeing some of the things people, a minority of people, were saying I was up to. It was horrible to read.Â I'd be staying in, doing nothing but resting, but there'd be this stuff appearing on the internet about me being out and about in the pubs and nightclubs.Â
"It's ridiculous, a lot of the things that get written on there. What I want to make clear, though, is that I loved the fans and I loved the city. It was an honour to play for their team."
Scoring 13 goals in his first season with United, McNulty appeared destined for stardom. But when Nigel Clough was sacked and replaced by Nigel Adkins, it marked the beginning of the end of his spell in South Yorkshire. Loaned out first to Portsmouth and then Bradford City, McNulty's career was in desperate need of direction by the time Chris Wilder, who had expressed an interest in honing his talents, recalled him for the second-half of United's League One title winning campaign.
McNulty eventually found the certainty he was longing for at Coventry City before Clement, attracted by his role in their promotion from League Two, brought him to Berkshire last summer.
"I was a young lad when I first came down to Sheffield," McNulty, now 26, says. "Okay, like most footballers, I enjoyed a night out with the boys but only at the right time and nothing stupid because we're all professionals.
"Becoming a dad, though, has changed my life and changed it for the better. I think we're all a little bit selfish when we're growing up but that's not the case now. If any of the boys say they're going for a meal, I'd rather go home to be with my boyÂ and the missus. I want to make a comfortable life for him.
"I don't put myself first now. I put them first. It's given me a lot more focus and, to be honest, because of that, it's made me a better player as well."Â
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McNulty is not the only person in his house making sacrifices. Partner Jade has made her fair share too.
"She was saying this the other day," he continues, "Mentioning how much we've moved around. But she accepts that's part and parcel of football."
The transfers, however, have brought sporting benefits.
"I've been lucky to always play for terrific clubs, really big clubs," McNulty acknowledges. "United, Portsmouth, Bradford, Coventry and Reading. The other great thing is that I've worked under really good managers. I've been able to soak up so much knowledge, different little bits from them all."
It is a measure of McNulty's maturity that, despite being nine months short of his 27th birthday, he is already making plans for life beyond football.
"Well, not after it exactly," he counters. "I'd love to go into coaching eventually, it's something I've thought about.
"Like I say, I've been really fortunate to play for really good ones so I'm keeping a little notepad, writing down the ideas I've picked up, in that and storing them away. Other than some community work, I've not actually done any yet but it's something I really enjoy."Â
After a slow start to life with Reading, McNulty scored his first goal for the club on only his third Championship start against Stoke last weekend. Although the draw with Gary Rowett's side did not save Clement's job, it proved sixth-placed United's latest opponents are still prepared to battle, scrap and fight. Mo Barrow's injury-time equaliser, after efforts from Benik Afobe and Tom Ince had cancelled-out his opener, kept them out of the relegation zone.
"One of the things I've learned is never to get carried away, either for good or bad, because it's better to block out the noise," McNulty says. "Don't let anything get into your head, that's something I've picked up along the way.
"My first season at United went really well, everyone was on side, then things happen and you get questioned. When I was at Coventry, I was taking pelters from the crowd to begin with and rightly so as well because I couldn't hit a barn door. But I kept my head down, backed myself to score, and eventually I did."
In one sense, the meeting with United represents an opportunity for McNulty to demonstrate the professional progress he has made. But it will also be deeply personal; for a variety of different reasons.
"They're going really well and it doesn't surprise me, knowing some of the people up there," he says. "Because it's United, I've got family and friends coming down to watch so that will be great and I'm looking forward to catching up with the lads afterwards who are still there.
"I honestly wish United and the fans all the best for the rest of the season and I hope they get to where they want to be. But people won't be surprised to hear me say only after this this one. I've got great memories of my time there."