With the sale of Marc McNulty, Ian Wallace – way back in 1978 – remains the last striker to have scored 20 goals with us to have been retained for the following season. Perhaps more pertinently though, it means that Maxime Biamou – who scored nine goals in all competitions last season – is the top-scoring player for us from last season to remain at the club.
On the one hand, to have received upwards of £1 million for a 25 year-old striker who has only scored over 20 goals in a season in League Two represents reasonably good business. On the other, goalscorers tend to be the players that are the most difficult to replace. The question is whether the money that can then be re-invested into the squad is worth more to us than losing a player who looked set to be our chief goalscorer heading into this season.
It is difficult to speculate on what kind of player, or players, Mark Robins has in mind to replace Marc McNulty. Before we consider who to sign though, it’s worth bearing in mind that the squad is still relatively large, at the time of writing. Jonson Clarke-Harris or Jordan Ponticelli are possibly capable of stepping up to the plate in place of McNulty, while new signing Reise Allassani appears to have played most of last season as a striker and Tony Andreu offers the option of switching away from an orthodox strike pairing and playing with a natural ‘number 10′ behind a lone striker.
While the aforementioned squad options could well step into McNulty’s mantle, from a fans’ perspective, the sale of McNulty is an undoubted dent into the momentum and goodwill that has come with promotion. Just when you think this club has changed by doing something it hasn’t done for 51 years, it reverts to type by doing something that it has almost always done.
You can be philosophical about it – every football club, bar an elite few, is a selling club – but there was that hope that we had the core of a side that could kick-on from last year’s promotion and put together a more sustained era of success. To lose possibly the most important player of that core, means that Mark Robins will probably have to alter the dynamic of the team, which is another blow to momentum.
Even going out and making a feted ‘statement’ signing could well only serve to further knock us off this all-important sense of momentum. Whatever the logical rationale behind taking decent money for McNulty – who may or may not have continued to score for us this season – the ‘statement’ that keeping one of your prize assets makes is the kind of boost that even a big-name signing to replace that player would struggle to quite provide.
Of course, there was no guarantee that Marc McNulty would have scored at a similar rate this season in League One as he did last year in League Two (which is why I think Reading are taking a huge gamble in signing him to play in the Championship, especially with such a defensively-focused manager in Paul Clement) but it is surely much better to enter a season with a striker off the back of a 20-goal+ season than it is with strikers who have only really impressed in patches, in a lower division, or a new signing who is in need of integrating into the side.
While the club seem to have held out for a good fee for McNulty, the value he would have been to us, I would argue, is more than the value we’ve achieved on the market. Admittedly, that may well be because it’s difficult to place a precise value on things like momentum and goodwill.
From the player’s perspective, this may be the best opportunity in his career to play in the Championship. It remains to be seen whether McNulty is good enough to step up to that level, but I would imagine that most players will back themselves to play at the highest-level possible – certainly, that kind of confidence is why McNulty eventually came so good for us.
Importantly, the indication from Mark Robins and the club is that they were desperate to keep McNulty – having reportedly offered him a new contract. However, if McNulty really had his heart set on leaving to test himself at a higher-level, then there’s only so much that Mark Robins and the club can do – aside from trying to convince the player that we’re a better shot at him progressing his career than Reading are.
Of course, no-one wants to lose one of their best players, but it ultimately comes down to how much the player wants to stay at the club. If not, the club have to try and get the best deal possible and hope that the money can be re-invested adequately.
Let’s remember McNulty as the player who led us out of League Two – a division we probably couldn’t have afforded to stay in for much longer than one season. Let’s hope that the money we’ve got for him goes on to help put together another memorable campaign. Once we get over the realisation that he didn’t think we were the best option to progress his career, let’s also hope that he can show at Reading just why he became such a key player for us.