When Sparky met Sparky; Marc McNulty on Griffiths, maiden Dundee derby, being given the V-sign from Hearts-supporter pals and finally cutting ties with Reading

Although the Dundee derby rarely fails to deliver drama, electricity seems especially guaranteed this afternoon.

Striker Marc McNulty (right) in training with Tam Courts, his Dundee United manager. The pair hope to get a win over Dundee this afternoon  (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
Striker Marc McNulty (right) in training with Tam Courts, his Dundee United manager. The pair hope to get a win over Dundee this afternoon (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

With Leigh Griffiths back in dark blue and Marc McNulty eager to get his season up and running with United there is one subplot in particular to be relished. When Sparky met Sparky – both players go by the same nickname.

They even benefited from the same Livingston grounding though they just missed out on playing with one another. Griffiths left for his first stint at Dundee when McNulty was just about to step up from the Under 17s.

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They also have something else in common: both are currently unwanted by their parent club. Griffiths’ circumstances at Celtic have been well documented. But to anyone on the outside looking in, McNulty’s situation seems utterly baffling. Handed a four-year deal by Reading in 2018, he has made just four starts for the Berkshire club in that time.

Marc McNulty can't bear to look after sending his penalty wide against Hearts while playing for Hibs in an Edinburgh derby in April 2019. It finished 1-1
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Most of this contract has been spent elsewhere, largely in Scotland. Two half-season loan spells at Hibs were followed by a season at Dundee United. He’s even become a full Scotland international in the meantime yet remains an outcast at Reading.

The 28-year-old has also continued to score goals though last season proved undeniably frustrating for someone who considers himself a natural No 9. Lawrence Shankland’s presence meant he was used primarily as foil for the centre-forward in a team that wasn’t set up to create abundant chances.

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McNulty scored five times in total and is yet to open his account this season after landing the responsibility of being United’s chief marksman following Shankland’s departure for Belgium.

Today's first top-flight Dundee derby for over five years would be a good time for McNulty to re-discover his shooting boots. He can’t remember the last time he played in front of a capacity crowd after last season’s rather bleak experience of performing in soulless stadium after soulless stadium. He is still awaiting lift-off this season. “Not having a great pre-season affected my first couple of games,” he explains.

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He knows he should have got off the mark last weekend against St Mirren but struck a post after being put clean through in the goalless draw.

“I would back myself nine times out of 10 to put it away,” he says. “But this weekend is the game you look forward to as a player. These are the kind of games I normally turn up in.”

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There is no great mystery as to why he might be slightly behind his teammates in terms of match fitness. Obligated to return to Reading in the summer, he was sent to train with the Under 18s. It was a further sign – if one was needed – that there was no prospect of relaunching his career at the club, who are on to their third permanent manager since parting company with Paul Clement, who recruited McNulty.

The striker was relieved to learn that despite a change in management at Tannadice, where Tam Courts replaced Micky Mellon, there was still a desire for him to return.

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“We had a great relationship,” he says with reference to Courts. “I used to speak to Tam when he was taking the youth team quite often. The relationship was already there, it was nothing new.

“Coming in felt pretty comfortable. What made it even more comfortable is that (assistant manager) Liam Fox was here as well. Foxy was my captain at Livingston and I was actually on Foxy’s boots for a number of years; I had to clean his boots as a youth team boy at Livingston. I was sick of his moaning back then and I am still sick of it now!”

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After a depressing reminder of feeling unwanted this summer, McNulty is relishing the hubbub of a first-team dressing-room. Come January, he will be free to sign a permanent deal with another club. He is reconciled to moving on from the Royals, where he scored once in 15 appearances. He has already written off any further contact from Reading.

“Absolutely! 100 per cent,” he says. “It is one of those things. I am not too bitter. I am not going out to show them what they are missing. I am going out for myself and my family and my club first and foremost.

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“I do not need too much motivation other than I am out of contract in the summer and I have a family. That’s enough motivation to turn up every day and try to provide for them.”

He won’t need to get up for a challenge such as his first Dundee derby. He has been asking others about it and knows what to expect. He also has mixed experiences of playing in Edinburgh derbies, contributing to Hibs’ win at Tynecastle in April 2019 but later that same month hitting a penalty wide in a 1-1 draw at Easter Road. He also played in a 3-1 defeat in his second loan spell.

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“Two of my best pals are Hearts fans and I got them tickets for the game,” he recalls. “They were in the Hearts end - sticking their fingers up at me after I missed it!

“They remind me pretty often about that. Being a local boy, I obviously knew a lot about it. I have got a lot of friends and family on both sides of the city, so it was great.

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“We beat them at Tynecastle which doesn’t happen too often. That is a game in my career that sticks out because we won. But the atmosphere from the kick-off to the end was electric, it was brilliant.

“I am excited for this weekend. I have heard a lot about this one. It’s a sell-out and I have seen what the home fans are like, so I am sure it will be extra special.”

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