Sometimes, a birthday or anniversary can come along that makes you feel very old, or very young. Confirmation this morning that today is the forty-sixth birthday of the former Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Steve Bull managed both of the above, simultaneously. A lot has changed over the last twenty years, not least of which is a greater appreciation of the finer technical aspects of the game. Even twenty years ago, however, Bull was something of a throwback, the cropped hair and unassuming manner seemed to invoke a bygone era even before the brave new world of the Premier League.
The phrase “Boy’s Own” was thrown around a lot when referring to Steve Bull. He was an onomatopoeic player, as blunt as the two vowels that make up his name, and was almost the very last of a generation that is now all but extinct. In addition to this, there was something of the comic book character about his entire career. He didn’t call to mind the clean cut golden boy Roy Race, of course – he was far too gritty to draw such a comparison – but there was something about his demeanour and gait that was more reminiscent of a hero that didn’t even play football, Alf Tupper, Victor magazine’s “Tough Of The Track”, yet these comparisons were as much about his back story as they were about his demeanour on the pitch.
Discarded by Wolves’ most loathed rivals, West Bromwich Albion, for just £65,000 in 1986, there is something vaguely cartoonish about even his career statistics in a gold and black shirt. He scored 306 goals in 561 appearances for the club, including an almost incredible 102 in two seasons as Wolves pulled themselves from what had looked like a terminal decline during the late 1980s with two successive promotions from the Fourth to the Second Division. Yet his only appearance in the top division came as a substitute for West Bromwich Albion at the start of his career, and the latter stages of it saw Wolves miss out on promotion to the Premier League in the play-offs twice with an expensively-assembled team that frequently flattered to deceive. His final match came at Molineux in 1999 against a Bradford City side which spent the end of the afternoon almost incredulously celebrating promotion into the Premier League.
Even Bull’s England career was punctuated by moments that would not have looked out of place in the pages of Roy Of The Rovers. He was called up to the national squad – as a Third Division player – for the first time to play Scotland at Hampden Park in 1989, and marked this achievement to come from the bench and score the winning goal – the last that an English player would score at Hampden until Paul Scholes managed two there in a European Championship play-off match more than ten years later. He managed a total of thirteen caps for England, including four appearances at the 1990 World Cup finals that could be described as being something akin to, somewhat pleasingly, letting a bull loose in a china shop.
Towards the end of his career he was hampered by a knee injury that proved to be unresolvable but, during his prime, he was as unique a presence on a British football pitch as has been seen in anything like modern times. He was a strong, physically assertive (rather than aggressive) player, perhaps not blessed with the greatest first touch of all time, but tenacious enough to often be able to nip the ball off the toes of opposing defenders and with an unerring finishing ability. He also brought about the best in players around him – his strike partnership with Andy Mutch saw Mutch score 96 goals in 239 appearances and Mutch’s successor at Molineux, David Kelly might have had a similarly fruitful relationship with him had injury not started to blight Bull’s career by the middle of the 1990s.
Steve Bull’s legacy is clear enough – he was awarded an MBE in 1999 and, in 2003, the club renamed its John Ireland Stand after him. What is also striking about him, more than a decade after his retirement as a player is the regard in which he is still held at the club and the humility with which he has acted in the time since he built his legacy. Also, in an age during which the idea of the professional footballer as a mercenary has – even if it was ever true – finally become a generally accepted part of the culture of the game for us as supporters, Bull has, it has mostly been felt, been respected by supporters of other clubs as an honest professional who stuck by the club that offered him a chance when he was discarded by their near neighbours. There may be more to the widely accepted narrative of Steve Bull’s career than meets the eye, but the inner child of the football supporter still occasionally needs that Boys Own figure to remind us that our game still has a soul.
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