IT WAS last February 9, the penultimate home game of Paul Buckle’s reign, when the Kenilworth Road PA man read out the Luton team to take on Forest Green.
“Number five, Steve McNulty,” came over the tannoy, to which one of the more ignorant among the home crowd behind the Press box shouted: “RUBBISH!”
McNulty had made his debut at Barrow the previous Saturday, and I pointed out that he was writing him off without ever having seen him kick a ball on home turf in a Hatters shirt.
His reply went along the lines of: “Look at him, he’s overweight and can’t run.”
At which point I reminded him of the previous season when the Scouser had been part of the Fleetwood side that had beaten his club, and the centre-half had stuck the Luton forwards in his back pocket. “Sizeable pocket though it might be,” I added.
For the record, I gave McNulty man of the match that day.
It’s the same accolade I came close to awarding him during last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Welling, and on Tuesday, I saw him deservedly get the sponsors’ award, not only for a contender for goal of the season, but his overall totemic display in the 3-0 victory over Southport.
The 30-year-old has become a real cult hero at Kenilworth Road, just as he has been wherever I’ve seen him play in his decade in Non-League since leaving Liverpool, whether it be for Burscough, Vauxhall Motors, Barrow, Fleetwood or Luton.
After his 30-yard first-time volley flew past his former Highbury team-mate Danny Hurst, McNulty listened to the fans chanting ‘Sumo, Sumo’, and acknowledged their now-affectionate call.
“I fell out of love with football last year,” he told me afterwards. “I was getting booed by my own fans and I knew I had a point to prove, not just to them but also to myself.
“I’d fallen into the comfort zone at Fleetwood, probably because I was too pally with the manager (Micky Mellon). So I came out of that comfort zone, but I wasn’t happy.
“I’d signed a two-year extension here at the end of the season but hadn’t got that love for football back.”
It is manager John Still, who replaced Buckle less than a month after McNulty signed, who takes much credit for building his defence around someone else’s acquisition.
Seeing the 63-year-old banter his centre-half about “having scored better” himself demonstrates another close relationship building, with Still admitting: “He’s been terrific for me.”
Not only does Still love the fact that nine times out of ten it’s McNulty’s head that clears the ball from danger inside Luton’s box (their second goal in midweek started thus), he admires the fact that he is confident and classy enough to play out from the back, while knowing when the time is right to find Row Z.
“John is like Micky,” says McNulty. “He’s got an aura about him and knows how to get the best out of his players.
“He’ll happily talk about football 24/7 with you. He’s the kind of bloke the lads can’t help but love listening to.
“It was while we were away in Portugal in the summer that I sat with him and Gary Sweet, the MD, and talked about how I was going to prove people wrong.
“I got myself properly fit, and I’m not stupid; I know that out of 6,500 people, a percentage are going to have the opinion that I’m rubbish and overweight, or whatever.
“I played for Liverpool for 13 years, and I’m sure if I wasn’t someone who looks bigger as soon as they throw a football kit on, it might have been longer.
“It’s one of those first impression things that I’ve always had to work against.
“Hopefully I’m doing that successfully here now, but what people think of how I look doesn’t bother me. I’m big enough and ugly enough to take it.
“I’m just here for one reason, and that’s to get Luton Town Football Club back into the Football League.”
With eight stitches in his eyebrow from Saturday, the ugly side is taking care of itself. And one defeat in 20, without really hitting top gear, suggests the Skrill Premier heavyweights are punching well.
After seeing their side go second, the home fans in the Oak Road sang late into Tuesday night how “We’re coming for you, we’re coming for you, Cambridge United, we’re coming for you”.
With the table-topping U’s, Kidderminster, Grimsby and Luton all in fine form inside the top four, it promises to be a bout to behold as the season reached the halfway mark.