In Praise Of… Steve Bull

By on Dec 16, 2008 in English League Football | 0 comments

The recent departure of Steve Bull from the managerial job at troubled Conference North club Stafford Rangers was, according to the club itself’s press statement, “No reflection on results achieved on the field play or Mr. Bull’s managerial skills, but is based purely on the cost cutting operation currently being undertaken at the club”. There can be little doubt that Bull will find gainful employment as a coach or manager elsewhere, but now seems as good a time as any to review the career of a player that is often overlooked when the “legends” of the game are examined.

I watched a lot of First Division (now the Championship) football during the 1990s, and many of the goals are lodged in my head, somewhere between my memory and my subconscience. One of the goals, from some time in the mid-1990s, was a Steve Bull goal. It was a wet Tuesday night at Southend United or similar. The ball arrived at Bull’s feet on the edge of the penalty area. Bull’s first touch seemed to let him down, spinning the ball away from him at an unlikely and, it appeared, ireconsilable angle. There was a flurry of legs and arms, Bull span and turned away from his marker and, seconds later, the ball was nestled in the corner of the net, with the scorer having already turned away, index finger in the air. It was some sort of milestone goal – his two-hundredth or somesuch. Who wouldn’t want a striker that team leading their front line for thirteen years?

Steve Bull was a throwback, even by the standards of the late 1980s. He gave the impression, with his brutal crop and strong physique, of having walked straight out of the pages of a 1950s comic book. Straight from his National Service to playing for the club that he loved. He was, in some respects, a limited player. Almost entirely one-footed, he lacked the vast majority of the refinements of the modern professional player. His style could be best be defined – if such a thing can be imagined – as an unreconstructed Alan Shearer. He made the most of these limitations by playing as if they didn’t exist. He had a lightning turn of pace, a right foot that seemed to have a right foot infused with TNT and a bravery that bordered upon being reckless. What’s more, he was a one club man. One of the last.

If you could imagine the best signing that your club could make, Bull’s move to Wolverhampton Wanderers would probably mirror it pretty closely. He had shown promise at West Bromwich Albion as a teenager with two goals in four matches, but was shuffled out of The Hawthorns with midfielder Andy Thompson for a combined fee of £65,000 in 1986. Bull stayed at Molineux for thirteen years and Thompson for eleven. Between them, they played over 900 matches in all competitions for Wolves, scoring not far short of 400 goals. Not a bad investment, considering that Thompson converted to full-back not long after moving. During the 1987/88 season, Bull scored fifty-two goals as Wolves stormed to the Fourth Division title and won the Sherpa Van Trophy (now the Johnstones Paint Trophy) at Wembley, beating Burnley 2-0 at Wembley.

Such form led him to a surprise England call up for a match against Scotland in 1989. The decision was widely vilified in the press, questioning Bull’s ability to score goals at the highest level, but he silenced the Hampden Park crowd by scoring on his debut and going on to score four goals in thirteen matches. He made three appearances from the substitutes bench at the 1990 World Cup, where, amongst other things, he hit the post against the Netherlands in their second group match. He fell out of favour with new coach Graham Taylor, however, and soon returned to the England ‘B’ team, where he went on to make a total of twenty-three appearances, scoring a further nine goals.

Taylor’s appointment as Wolves’ manager in March 1994, following England’s disastrous attempt to qualify for the World Cup finals in America. Expectations were high that Wolves, who had been on the point on bankruptcy just eight years earlier, would get promoted to the Premier League, but after losing out in the play-offs in 1995, Wolves had a disastrous start to the 1995/96 season and Taylor was sacked. But was it as simple as that? Rumour had it that Taylor didn’t rate Bull and that he had accepted an offer for him from Premier League club Coventry City. Bull, according to this rumour, didn’t want to go (some have even said that he wasn’t being offered as much money at Coventry as he was earning at Molineux), and Taylor’s position became untenable. Whatever the truth was behind that particular episode, Bull stayed until 1999, but his last two seasons were ruined by injury. A brief spell as player-coach at Hereford United brought his playing career to a close. He was awarded the MBE for services to football in 1999.

After finishing his playing career ended, he studied for the UEFA ‘B’ coaching licence and was appointed as the manager of Stafford Rangers in February of this year. Stafford had been promoted into the Conference in 2006, and their survival the following season had been a considerable surprise. However, they were anchored in the relegation positions when he took over, and was unable to keep them up. This season, their form on the pitch had been reasonable, and he left Marston Road with the club in a mid-table position. On top of Bull, Stafford have lost five players over the last ten days or so. The club’s survival is at stake, and Bull would undoubtedly have been a cost that the ailing club could no longer maintain.

During last Saturday’s Premier League match between Spurs and Manchester United, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes came on as substitutes and commentator Jon Champion commented on the fact that those two players had made over 1300 appearances between them for United. Whilst such an achievement is obviously deserving of note, surely Bull’s achievement at Wolves approaches it as being as great. Over three hundred goals in thirteen years, including over fifty in one season, and becoming the man that will surely be the last player from the third tier of English football to score for his country. To turn down the “bigger” offers (regardless of the reason) strikes me as being showing a side of the character which is increasingly rare in anyone, never mind a modern professional footballer. We’ll probably never see his like again. But, then again, they were saying that in the Black Country over a decade ago.

A compilation of Steve Bull goals:

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