Fabio Capello goes into England's first two World Cup qualifiers extremely concerned about the fragile confidence of his squad. Despite the achievements of players such as John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, the Italian is worried that England do not have enough strength of character. It is one reason why he called up Jimmy Bullard.
Including a 29-year-old who plays for fairly unfashionable Fulham – having ploughed a career from non-league Gravesend & Northfleet and Peterborough United before making it into the Premier League with Wigan Athletic – would not appear to be the obvious way to spread confidence. But Bullard possesses one other quality that Capello feels is in short supply: he plays, as the Italian puts it, "without fear".
In reality Bullard is unlikely to start against either Andorra or Croatia and also owes his place to injuries suffered by Steven Gerrard, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick, while Capello decided that Tom Huddlestone should remain with the Under-21 squad. But Bullard's self-belief and positive approach are refreshing.
He is certainly different. Capello has liked what he has seen so far and is also impressed by the fact that Bullard is unlikely to be a quiet presence in the dressing room or the training pitch. "I am who I am," Bullard said yesterday. "Be yourself and the boys help you along and give you guidance. It's quite easy. I hope that I'm liked. I play my football with a smile on my face. That's how I play my best football. I can't get too uptight. Some players go about it in different ways but I go out and enjoy my football and enjoy life. That's as simply as I can put it."
The England squad, however, is uptight. Training yesterday was muted. Capello is worried that the weight of expectation is harming performances. There seems to be a sort of paralysis that sets in for some players when they wear the Three Lions. As much as they speak of the "honour" and "pride" – and the eve of every England qualification match is usually punctuated with phrases such as "now is the time to deliver" – there is also an apprehension.
Yesterday Frank Lampard as well as Terry, Ashley Cole and Wes Brown sat out training with various minor injuries and ailments but all are expected to travel to Barcelona on Friday. Lampard, who suffered a dead leg against Tottenham on Sunday, is causing the most concern. Bullard will also be there having expected to being indulging in his two other passions – golf and fishing – this weekend.
His remarkable story – he worked for three years as a painter and decorator with his father, earned £60-a-week with Gravesend and was given a free transfer by West Ham – is all the more remarkable because there was, so recently, a career-threatening injury. Soon after joining Fulham in 2006, Bullard dislocated his knee-cap and three of the four major ligaments were torn playing against Newcastle. The surgeon who operated on him said it looked like his knee had exploded and it took him 16 long months to return to fitness.
"I was in the gym wondering whether I would ever play again and halfway through the rehab I thought I might have to hang up my boots," Bullard said. "There were a few dark times. So to finally get called up by your country is a great honour. I'm just overwhelmed." But not intimidated. "I wasn't nervous," Bullard said of his call-up. "I was anxious to get out there and feel comfortable on the pitch, playing football."
Understandably Bullard hopes his story can provide an inspiration to others. "You always have time," he said. "I'm 29 now. So never give in. I started in non-League and now I'm in the England squad so it has been a great education in football for me. It's been slow but there have been some great times."
Not least the vital part he played in helping to save Fulham from relegation last season –which first brought him to Capello's attention – and his performances so far this campaign, especially in the win over Arsenal, which helped crystalise the idea of bringing him into the squad. And help spread some confidence.