Conference champions 10 years on | Steve McNulty

At the middle of the Town defence the season they returned to the Football League was a man who all Hatters fans took to their hearts. Player of the year and scorer of the goal of the season, Steve McNulty talks us through his career at Kenilworth Road.

Non-league to Premier League in the space of a decade?

Yeah, that’s us. We’re proud of our story since 1885 but the past ten years have been special.

This season we’ve been celebrating the first of our four promotions with the first – and probably most important – one: the 2013/14 season when, ten years ago, a team led by a lovable London boy got back to the Football League.

In this series we talk to those heroes who made it all happen.

Watch past episodes:

Alex Lawless | Paul Benson | Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu | Scott Griffiths | Jake Howells | Matt Robinson | Mark Tyler | Luke Guttridge | Jonathan Smith Ronnie Henry | John Still | Andre Gray

He couldn’t go 20 seconds without being stopped as he walked through the Kenilworth Road corridors on his first return since leaving in the autumn of 2015.

A guest of the club at our last home game with Everton, Steve – or Stephen as he always prefers – was happy to chat and reminisce with Hatters fans who idolised him during his successful time in Bedfordshire that saw us finally, after five seasons of hurt, end non-league purgatory.

Yet like the majority of players who have passed through our doors over the past ten years, McNulty takes the adulation modestly.

He’s as humble as they come.

“People say ‘you’re a cult hero’ and this and that, but I’m not,” he says. “I was just fortunate enough to come and play a part at a massive club and it was a privilege.”

As a player who had impressed against the Hatters in his Fleetwood days, McNulty had exclusively played his football in the non-league circles of the north-west. After coming through the Liverpool academy – where he captained the Reds’ youth team – stops at Burscough, Vauxhall Motors and Barrow followed.

Therefore it seemed unlikely that the Liverpudlian would decide to up sticks and move 180 miles down the motorway and settle in Luton.

“It was crazy really,” he explains as he looks out on the pitch before the Town hosted his beloved Toffees in the top-flight.

“I got a phone call from Mickey Mellon saying that Fleetwood were going in a different direction and that I’d not play for them again, which was fair enough.

“There were a few phone calls from a few other clubs but Luton was a real last-minute thing. I remember one minute I was in my house watching telly on the couch and the next thing I had the bag packed and I was on the way down to Luton in the car. I’d spent most of my career in the north-west and this was the first time I’d move away from home.

“I knew how hostile it was and I knew what I was getting myself in to when signing for such a big club. I played at Kenilworth Road before and used to love coming here and playing. When the fans are behind you, you know it’s a great club to play for.”

The Hatters faithful immediately took to the centre-half but the beginning to his career at Kenilworth Road was stop-start. The Town had beaten Norwich in the FA Cup but he was cup-tied. His debut was a 1-0 defeat at Barrow. Things were tough on the pitch.

Paul Buckle, the man who brought him to the club, then left. But slowly but surely McNulty began to get used to life in the south and, following the arrival of new boss John Still, things began to click in to place.

“I didn’t know I was going to be staying. Paul left and John came in and I didn’t know what was planned but John said he wanted me,” he says.

“John said he was going back to basics. A case of two or three passes and get the ball forward. He had a plan for the following season. We’d missed out on the play-offs but everything was encouraging.

“He wanted me to stay and he said he was going to build the team and that’s exactly what he did. He’s a great man and brought some really good players to the club.

“We already had good players but together we managed to turn the tide.”

Having been sold the dream by Still, hopes were high for a tilt at promotion the following summer. However, the first game of the season, McNulty was sent-off and the Hatters went down 1-0 at Southport.

“It wasn’t the greatest start was it?!” he says with a cheeky grin. “The slow start was a concern but we’d seen in training day in day out the effort and quality of the lads, and with John and his methods it took some time to get his ideas across and the way he wanted us to play.

Once we got it, there was no stopping us. We had some players who had come from higher levels and we were quietly confident.”

With a settled defence in front of goalkeeper Mark Tyler, the Hatters’ soon recovered and began to motor up the table.

McNulty’s moment of the season would come, ironically, come against Southport at the Kenny. After the visitors had cleared a free-kick, McNulty waited on the edge of the area. Watching the ball all the way he smashed it back with intent and saw it sail into the top corner. Stunned teammates engulfed the defender – their smiles telling their own story – while the Town fans celebrated one of the best goals they’d witnessed in recent times. Even now the goal is replayed. On YouTube it is nearing 350,000 views.

“It was a fluke!” he laughs. “Came off my shinpad. I could do that 100 times and none of them would go in. I got lucky. The best thing about it was that the Southport keeper was my mate.”

When your centre-half who is rarely among the goals hits one like that, you know you’re in for a season to remember – and so it proved as the Town roared to the title and with it a place back in the Football League.

For McNulty the promotion meant more. The season, the success, the team and the club had helped him fall back in love with football again.

“Obviously I knew I was coming to a massive club and it was the first time I’d moved away from home,” he says.

“I was living away from the family, which was tough, but I felt for the first time in my career that I had no distractions. Living away meant I could concentrate on football and it meant I felt I could play my best football.

“When I was down at Luton, I was playing for a good side, under a good manager and I really enjoyed it.

“In the end it was a tough decision but I think I’d played my best football of my career.”

However, the time spent up and down the UK’s motorways took its toll. In 2015, when Tranmere came calling, it was an opportunity too good to turn down to return to the north-west.

“I felt I was spending all my time on the M1 and M6 getting back home to see my family. I had a little one and another one on the way. It was really tough and it was a decision I didn’t take lightly but it was one I had to for the family. Sometimes I look back on it with a bit of regret but it was time to put the family first.”

Having won the Conference title at Fleetwood and with the Hatters, the centre-half used all his experience to lead Rovers to back-to-back promotions via the play-offs, earning himself cult hero status at yet another club.

During this time, the Town were also making their ascent up the divisions. Something which gave McNulty plenty of pride watching from afar.

“When people speak to me and they’re like ‘you used to play for Luton’ and I know I played for them in the Conference but it’s nice to have a played a small part,” he says.

“It’s nice to come back and see not much has changed and many of the same people are still here doing a good job. It’s great that they’ve gone up through the leagues still being the same and having the same values.”

Once he hung up his boots, McNulty dabbled in coaching and management in non-league, but these days football is playing less of a role in his life.

“As you can see I haven’t been in the gym since I finished playing!” he jokes. “But yes I’m working for a school on the Wirral where I live. It’s a school for kids that have been excluded from mainstream schools in the area. We just try and make them better kids, better humans and give them a pathway.

“It’s quite rewarding and it gives me a lift. I’m enjoying it and giving something back to the local community.

“I had a little go at managing in the lower leagues and it’s something I might revisit at some point – I’m just looking for the right opportunity but at the moment I’m happy at school and I’m free at the weekends.”

After a few pre-match words in the Eric Morecambe Lounge, McNulty watched the Town and Everton play out an entertaining 1-1 draw, a result which did not do much for the Hatters’ survival hopes. “I did want Luton to win, to be honest,” he says.

Then, with his brother and friends by his side, he said his goodbyes and slipped off into the night to catch the last train home – hopefully with reminders of how much he is treasured in this part of the world.

That concludes our Where are they now series for this season. Which players would you like us to talk to and remininse about their time with the Town? Send your suggestions to [email protected].

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