The former Hibs loanee believes he is at his sharpest when operating under pressure and views the Stadium of Light as the perfect place for him to kick on and continue a fruitful 2019 after his productive stint at Easter Road earlier in the year helped him gain Scotland recognition.
McNulty, remarkably, hasn’t seen the renowned Netflix documentary ‘Sunderland Till I Die’, but the 26-year-old hitman is under no illusions about the level of intensity around the football club he has joined on a season-long loan from Reading.
Having plummeted from the Premier League to League One in consecutive seasons before failing to win promotion under Jack Ross last term, there is severe pressure on the Black Cats to make sure they get out of England’s third tier this time round. McNulty, the man charged with getting the lion’s share of the goals, is perfectly comfortable with this scenario.
“There’s massive expectation on us after just missing out last year and because of where the club should be,” he told the Evening News. “I knew that before I signed but that was part of the reason I signed because I knew we’d be expected to be up there challenging and I like having that extra pressure on me. I’ve been lucky enough to be at a few clubs before that are expected to challenge near the top of the league and it usually brings out the best in me.”
McNulty already has a grasp on what is deemed acceptable by the passionate Sunderland support after they were held to draws in their opening two league fixtures of the campaign, at home to Oxford United and away to likely promotion rivals Ipswich Town.
McNulty set up his side’s equaliser in last Saturday’s match at Portman Road and then got off the mark in Tuesday’s 3-1 Carabao Cup win at Accrington Stanley while also assisting another for Charlie Wyke. “It’s been really enjoyable so far,” he said. “It’s a really good group of lads with a great coaching staff and a great set-up. It’s obviously a massive club, so it’s been very enjoyable. The objective is to get promoted and we’ve got a great squad and a great coaching staff so there’s no reason we shouldn’t.
“We’re obviously not happy with the start we’ve made in the league. With the size of this club, we want to be winning every game. The first game at home to Oxford was very disappointing and then at Ipswich, although some people would maybe have been happy with a point because they’re likely to be up there challenging, we were terrible in the first half.”
McNulty has encountered some familiar faces at the Stadium of Light, including another popular former Hibs player. “I knew Dylan McGeouch, Chris Maguire and another couple of boys I played with at Coventry so that helped me settle in quite quick,” he said. “When I was at Celtic, between age ten and 13, Dylan would sometimes jump up an age-group and play in my group, so we were chatting about that the other day. Last year was a bit stop-start for him but he’s been brilliant for us in pre-season and he’s started the first two league games so he’s delighted.”
McNulty is aware of the importance of settling in quickly as this is, remarkably, the fourth different club he has represented in a little over a year as he continues to get used to the trials and tribulations of carving a career in the increasingly volatile world of modern football. In total, the Edinburgh boy has played for seven different teams since leaving Livingston to join Sheffield United five years ago, changing clubs in six of the last seven transfer windows.
This nomadic existence is far from ideal, particularly with the added responsibility of a young family to look after.
“The constant uncertainty is a nightmare, to be honest, not knowing where you’re going to be playing next,” he said. “It’s not great. In the transfer window, you go in every day not knowing where you’re going to be told to go next. It’s not just about me, it’s frustrating for my family because you have to move around a lot.
“It’s part and parcel of football. It’s been the case for me for most of the past few years, either through doing well and getting a move or getting sent out on loan. I’m getting used to that feeling but it doesn’t make it any easier because you just want to get settled somewhere. You just don’t know where you’re going to be from one transfer window to the next.
“Football changes very quickly. You need to stay open-minded and expect the unexpected at times because managers can change quickly and opinions can change quickly.
“I’m in a hotel at the minute still trying to find a place to stay, which is another problem of having to move clubs all the time. My missus and the little one are still in Edinburgh until we find a place down here.
“There’s so much more to football than just signing for a new club. You’ve got moving out an old house, settling everything up, removals, finding a new house, moving into the new place. Some people only do it two or three times in their life but I’ve already done it about seven times since I moved to England. My missus says she’s a master at removals now but it still doesn’t make it any easier.”
This craving for a slightly more settled existence underpinned his desire over the summer to remain at Hibs on a longer-term deal.
After moving to Easter Road in January, he found a sense of harmony both on and off the pitch, scoring eight goals in 17 appearances, developing a rapport with team-mates and supporters alike, and earning a maiden Scotland call-up.
“I was pretty open at the end of the season in saying that I’d have wanted to come back,” he said. “Hibs said they wanted me back and, although people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, they did try hard to get me back. They offered what they felt they could go to but, as happens in football, Reading wanted to wait for a better offer. As more offers came in, it was getting more and more difficult for Hibs to make something happen. In the end, when Sunderland came up, it was a bit of a no-brainer for me. You’re not going to get many opportunities in your career to play for a club the size of Sunderland. When the chance comes up, you grab it with both hands.”