By Ryan Ferguson
If a normal person walked past Steve McNulty in the street, professional footballer wouldn’t immediately spring to mind as his occupation. He looks more like a carpet fitter for the council than a central defender of impressive renown. But, if the truth be known, Steve McNulty is not only a professional footballer; he’s a very good one, too. In fact, there are few players in the lower leagues who can match his effectiveness, which opens up an interesting debate about perception versus reality in football.
When Steve first joined Tranmere in October 2015, it was difficult to believe the rave reviews emanating from Luton, his previous club. At that time, we were all hopelessly pessimistic as Rovers fans, and the sight of such a corpulent journeyman did little to lift the mood. By his own admission, McNulty struggled in his first few games at Prenton Park, and he obviously lacked match fitness. Seeing his heft as a weakness, opposing managers tried to target Steve by deploying pacey strikers, and at first they got some joy. At times, it was difficult to watch. The future didn’t look great.
Yet once the big man settled into his new home, a fresh order was established and he quickly became a colossus. With commanding performances and instinctive leadership, McNulty hauled Tranmere back from the brink of despair into a race for the playoffs. And while that pursuit eventually failed, Rovers were greatly improved in the final twenty games of last season, as a sturdy foundation was built. Lurking at the back like a huge fire blanket, Steve McNulty was intrinsic to that, and the continuity he provides has been a key ingredient to our early success this season.
While not the greatest athlete, McNulty is swift of mind. His positional sense is phenomenal, born of immense experience in the roughest leagues England can muster. Soon to be 33-years old, Steve has enough pace to get by, while any opponent wishing to compete with him must possess a fine football brain. McNulty reads the game exceptionally well, and his powers of anticipation bely his bulk. It may never be pretty, but defensive duties are carried out in uncompromising fashion with such a juggernaut in the team.
In this regard, McNulty is also a tremendous leader. Steve Jennings is still officially the club captain, but McNulty takes the most hands-on approach to cajoling high standards from his teammates. During a game, he barks constantly at his colleagues, pulling them into solid shapes and motivating them to play without fear. That natural guidance, that figure of authority, had been missing on the field at Prenton Park since Ian Goodison was released. Tranmere fans can only dream of having those two as a central defensive pairing in their respective primes. They would have been impenetrable.
Contrary to external perception, Steve McNulty is also very capable on the ball. Yes, he will clout it up field to relieve pressure when need be, but many Tranmere attacks can be traced back to his imaginative distribution from the back. Sometimes Steve will thump a raking ball across field to an open winger, and other times he will knock a beautiful pass through midfield into a vacant striker. He’ll also toss the ball in behind and spray it across the backline, depending on the time and space on offer. And that’s what makes him so effective: his internal calculus of what to do in any given situation is incredibly reliable and spontaneous. That enables him to be ruthlessly efficient and delightfully creative, depending on the situation.
On social media, some fans have likened McNulty to a sophisticated libero, or ball-playing centre-back capable of sweeping through different positions as a roving destroyer and creator. And while it’s slightly premature to place Gary Brabin alongside the great football philosophers, it’s fair to call McNulty his Bulky Beckenbauer or Burly Baresi. When Steve takes the field, a certain kind of poetry is made. We’re just lucky Birkenhead is home to his football revolution.
On a more serious note, every player has flaws, and McNulty is no different. Some pacey forward will probably get the better of Steve one day, and he’s bound to be at fault for goals occasionally. That’s just human nature. Ajax aren’t about to lob five million quid on the table for his Total Football services, because this is all relative. In this league, it’s difficult to find a more accomplished central defender. Reda Johnson was a sensational signing for Eastleigh, and he could challenge Steve, but that’s mere speculation. McNulty does all his talking on the pitch, and the results are there for everyone to see.
Steve has been a commanding presence this season as Rovers have won their first five league games to streak ahead in the National League. Of course, the latest of those victories came at home to Maidstone, when McNulty crashed home a late minute winner in front of the Kop. Pandemonium ensued, as Prenton Park was consumed by the ubiquitous chants of Steeeeve! from his adoring public.
Here, we see how McNulty is fast becoming the latest Tranmere cult hero. As a fanbase, we tend to love eccentricity, be it in the form of Ian Goodison scissor-kicking his way out of danger or Eddie Sonko somehow remaining relevant despite a paucity of skill. Steve McNulty fits that bill. He’s an ideal face of Tranmere Rovers: rough, ready and no nonsense to the death.
So, where can he lead us? Well, Steve already has four non-league promotions under his belt, including two from what is now the National League. He was Luton’s Player of the Year as they won the title in 2014, and we’d all love history to repeat itself on Merseyside this season. Without doubt, McNulty will do everything in his power to make it happen, because he’s a man of great pride and ambition. And if Rovers are found lifting the league title next April, his will have been a mammoth influence.
Without the belly and grey hair, Steve McNulty wouldn’t be playing for Tranmere right now. His raw attributes belong at a much higher level. Yet that’s the nature of our cynical world: people don’t often look beyond the initial facade to understand the story beneath. As Tranmere fans, we know all about people prejudging and not bothering to penetrate the lazy stereotypes. This entire site is an attempt to change that. So Steve McNulty is fine just the way he is, and he’ll always have admirers at Prenton Park, where we cherish his skill rather than focus on his physique.