Football: Bull keeping up with new generation

Wolves' record scorer has found a fresh spur thanks to Molineux's influx of striking talent. By Peter Lansley
WITHIN THE lineage of great Molineux strikers, Robbie Keane will surely net Wolves their greatest modern-day prize, either through promotion to the Premiership or a multi-million pound transfer. But the teenage Republic of Ireland international still has some way to go to match record marksman Steve Bull or 1970s hero John Richards in Black Country hearts. In the meantime, old gold and black goalscorers past, present and future are melding promisingly for the First Division club.

Richards, these days the club's managing director, may ultimately have a casting vote in deciding when Bull's number is up and when - if - the numbers add up to sell Keane. But on Tuesday night Richards was at Molineux, simply delighted to witness his 18-goal League Cup scoring record equalled as Bull plundered his 18th hat-trick. For good measure, Keane scored the other two as Barnet were well and truly routed.

"I thought Bully was outstanding. He's actually had a very good start to the season and is looking as sharp as he has done for a year or two," purred Richards, who first joined Wolves 30 years ago and bagged six hat- tricks amongst his 194 goals. "Now I'm looking forward to him breaking the record.

"Records are there to be broken. I'm here at Wolves as a director and as a supporter: I want to see goals in the back of the net and there's nothing better than seeing Steve score them. My heart's at Molineux and always will be and seeing Bully notch hat-tricks is great for the supporters.

"Steve's been here a long time and he's taken the club a long way. But really we do want promotion. That is the priority: it's nice to have a cup run but when it comes down to it, we want to get in the Premier League. It would be nice for Steve, coming towards the end of his career, to have a season in the Premiership."

The next morning, Richards was on a plane to Rotterdam to convince David Connolly, Keane's international colleague, to join Wolves on loan from Feyenoord until the end of the season. But the way Wolves and Bull, four goals in four games, have started, the new boy's best hope today is a place on the substitutes' bench for the visit from fragile Swindon. Victory would give Wolves their best start for 29 years.

Bull has fine-tuned his lifestyle to keep up with the Keanes and Connollys of this world and Richards, whose own playing career at Molineux ended acrimoniously in 1983 amid rows with his erstwhile striking partner, Derek Dougan, who had taken control of the ailing club, sees no reason why a 33-year-old has to consider retiring just yet.

"Bully has always been a quick healer and now he's got someone like Robbie Keane alongside him, that will take some of the pressure off him as defenders are having to look at Robbie as well as Steve now," Richards said. "There's a lot more movement, a lot more variety, about the way the team plays now instead of the ball over the top which was Steve's trademark. He's now added a bit more to his game, coming short and linking up with the midfield. It's paying off."

Pounding the Staffordshire pavements in a summer search for extra fitness has boosted Bull, who broke Billy Hartill's 60-year-old club record of 16 hat-tricks at Grimsby two years ago: "In my mind and body, I feel as fit as Robbie Keane and he's 18," said Bull, who signed from West Bromwich Albion for pounds 64,000 in 1986. "I did actually think in the summer, with [Steve] Claridge, [Dougie] Freedman and the rest here, do they want me any more? Maybe I've done my job and it's time for me to get out of the way.

"I sat down with my wife and we decided to dig in, work hard and see how it goes. I've done more pre-season this year, running round the streets every day doing so many miles, and I'm fitter for it."

Mark McGhee, the Wolves manager, has sold four strikers recently to give Bull and Keane their head and landing long-term target Connolly does not signal Bull's demise. "He is the quality of player who will keep the pressure on these two," said McGhee. "He comes initially to try to displace them, or to get in the team alongside them.

"Bull's at the wrong end of the age scale," admitted the manager. "But he's done things to his lifestyle, and in his training and preparation. He knows he's got to keep fitter and sharper to keep up with the likes of Keane. Even if we were to spend pounds 500,000, pounds 1 million or pounds 2m on a player and he never plays a game because of the form of Bull and Keane, we'll be happy."

Bull, 304 Wolves goals under his belt, added: "I've seen strikers come and go here - another two or three won't bother me. I'm a serious Steve Bull these days, I get my head down, and if I'm looking after number one, they've got to take the shirt off me. But will you stop calling me an old warhorse, or a wily veteran? I feel young again and I'm still learning the game, whether I'm 33 or 23.

"Me and Robbie are starting to get a bit of a combination going now. I've said to him recently, if you work hard, the goals will come. It's taken a bit of time to sink in, but if he can keep his feet on the ground and listen, he'll go a long way.

"It's always been about `Steve Bull should score 25-odd goals a season' here at Wolves but now we're all starting to chip in and that's taken a load off my shoulders. I watched Fulham the other night and if Peter Beardsley is still doing it at 37, then there's no reason why Steve Bull can't."