Rob Hulse: Blade runner

After a promising start at Crewe, Rob Hulse has taken his time to establish himself as a top-flight striker. But, he tells Phil Shaw, Sheffield United and Neil Warnock have brought the best out of him
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The Independent Football

In the reception area of Sheffield United's training complex, decked with red and silver tinsel, one of the club's Academy boys spots a set of calendars laid out for Rob Hulse and company to autograph. Sticking his tongue in his cheek he tells the switchboard lady he has come to sign them. "Oh no yer don't," comes the panto reply, a grin showing that she admires his brass neck. "In a few years, maybe."

A minibus-load of school children arrive to play on the indoor pitch. The senior squad promptly emerge from a meeting, and for a few seconds the generations mingle. "Ulse, Ulse," says an early teen in a red England shirt excitedly, not so much trying to attract Hulse's attention as to alert his pals to the centre- forward's presence.

United are scarcely an anonymous outfit, but if anyone at Bramall Lane possesses star quality or a national profile - apart from the manager and Independent columnist Neil Warnock - it is the £2.2m signing from Leeds.

Hulse has proved a successful acquisition for United after moving from Elland Road in late summer, a blond, 6ft 1in symbol of a shift in the balance of football power from West to South Yorkshire. Five goals may not qualify as prolific, but it represents more than a third of the side's total of 14 and a higher percentage than Didier Drogba, Louis Saha or Thierry Henry have contributed at their clubs. And no one, inside the camp or in the stands, questions his overall impact.

If the trainees and schoolboys did but know it, he is also the embodiment of their ambitions and dreams. At 27, he has 89 goals, two promotions and £4m of transfers to his name. Yet for Hulse, the road to the Premiership began at the age of nine when he entered the system at his home-town club, Crewe Alexandra (for whom Warnock used to play on the wing, albeit before his principal striker was even born).

Hulse's parents are not football fans. Nevertheless, they have supported his aspirations since the day in 1989 when they took him to a summer school organised by the Crewe manager, Dario Gradi. "I ended up with the 'most improved player' award," Hulse recalls. "It just went on from there, through schoolboy forms and YT to full-time professional."

It is seldom so straightforward, of course. Gradi, as well as being extraordinarily durable, is arguably the most dedicated discoverer and developer of talent in the British game. Among past and present players indebted to his patronage are Dean Ashton, Neil Lennon, David Platt, Seth Johnson, Danny Murphy, Rob Jones and Robbie Savage.

"Dario teaches people to play what I like to think is the proper way," says Hulse. "He insists you get the ball down and pass it. He also made us learn every position. I played everywhere except goal. That stood me in good stead for understanding what defenders are up to against me."

Shades of the Dutch concept of "total football". Coincidentally, Hulse's early hero was the current Netherlands coach, Marco van Basten. "I used to watch Serie A on TV when he played for Milan alongside Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. What a team they had. Later I liked Alan Shearer because he was unselfish as a target man and single-minded in front of goal, but Van Basten really got me started."

Hulse does not claim his idol's deftness. Nor, though, is he purely a six-yard box predator, often scoring from middle-range. By the time he turned 18, Gradi was sufficiently impressed to sign him on full-time terms, only for a spinal problem to be detected a week later.

"It was a double stress fracture from playing too much. I was too old by then for it to correct itself naturally so I needed surgery. I was worried I might not play again, and when I came back I was concerned it might go at any moment."

A spell on loan to Hyde United in the Northern Premier League was prescribed. "It was sink or swim," Hulse explains. "Fortunately, the manager, Mike McKenzie, made sure I didn't sink. One of the most enjoyable games I've ever played in was at Blyth Spartans when Hyde were 3-0 down inside 10 minutes but came back to win 4-3." With a smile, he adds: "The match ended in a mass punch-up."

Back at Crewe, he was soon paired with another fledgling forward, Ashton, a stocky foil for his aerial prowess. Gradi has since said there was little to choose between them, noting that while Ashton was the better marksman, Hulse's all-round game was superior.

"The balance was good," says Hulse, diplomatically. "We both started to get noticed after we linked up well against Bolton the season they went up. I'm not surprised Dean got in the England squad because he did really well at Norwich, then went up a gear at West Ham. It was really unlucky the way he got injured in his first training session with England."

Hulse was first to be snapped up. Now Warnock and Gary Megson are the Phil Mitchell and Ian Beale of management. Raised on opposite sides of Sheffield's footballing divide, they simply do not get on. One violent encounter involving their sides was abandoned. But they have one thing in common, each having splashed a substantial sum on Hulse.

Megson paid £750,000 to take him to West Bromwich Albion in 2003. His debut, a 4-1 defeat at Walsall, proved a shock in more ways than one. "It was totally different from Crewe because Albion played a lot of long ball. At one point I actually thought: 'What the hell's going on?'

"I settled well after that, getting plenty of goals, but then struck a patch of injury. I played through it on and off, which perhaps I shouldn't have done. We went up and I was top scorer, but I had to shut down over the summer and start again.

"Things never quite got back to where they were. Megson demanded a high work rate and my body just wasn't up to it at the time. The style he liked to play was a bit of a shock to me. I've a lot to thank him for, but to be honest it wasn't the way I'd choose to play football."

Hopes of a fresh start under Megson's successor, Bryan Robson, came to nothing. "To be fair, I was coming back from injury and I don't think he knew much about me. The team were struggling and needed to win games. I don't know if I'd have taken a chance on me. As it was, he did use me in left midfield in a 5-0 defeat by Liverpool, and I came on at right-back at Manchester City!"

Leeds, where Ken Bates had just taken over as chairman, offered the challenge Hulse craved, initially on loan. "The way I looked at it was that I was going to a bigger club," he says pointedly. "I just wanted to be playing every week and the manager, Kevin Blackwell, showed that they really wanted me. I scored two good goals against Reading on my debut - a massive relief after what had happened at West Brom."

Hulse's final goal for Leeds, in the play-off semi-final at Preston last season, put them within 90 minutes of a Premiership return. He reflects on their crushing defeat by Watford in Cardiff as a "terrible anticlimax" but does not buy into the theory that Adrian Boothroyd's team pysched them out with a Crazy Gang-style "noising-up" in the tunnel.

Instead he reprises his diplomatic skills by alluding to "things we would have changed if we could". Blackwell's cautious tactics? "I played up front on my own. It was a very big pitch and I felt very isolated. It was a frustrating day."

For much of the campaign, Leeds had vied with Sheffield United for the second automatic promotion place behind Reading. "Our games ended 1-1 and Sheffield were a tough side to play against," says Hulse. "From what I saw, they had a real chance of staying in the Premiership."

The chance to play a part in ensuring they did arose in the summer. Leeds doubled their money and Warnock kept him on his toes by declaring publicly that he still had a lot to prove. The club he left behind are now embroiled in a desperate struggle to avoid relegation to the third tier, a plight that mystifies Hulse.

"The Leeds squad is good. It's certainly capable of a lot better. I've been waiting for them to snap out of it and go on a run. But it never seems to happen. Something is obviously not right there at the moment."

In contrast, Sheffield United have togetherness by the barrow load. "What has been striking here is the atmosphere and spirit. Even when we couldn't get a win at the start of the season, the mood was still upbeat. That comes from the manager. He's a character and it's always [Hulse pauses] interesting [then laughs at his tactful choice of adjective].

"The Warnock humour comes through all the time, especially on the training ground. He likes to think he's quick-witted, doesn't he? And he is. He has definitely brightened up Match of the Day.

"He wants us to go out and show people we're good enough. He instils confidence. And his passion for the club comes through when he talks to us before a game and at half-time. He has been here a long time and has had his critics. But having proved them wrong by getting the club into this division you can tell he's determined to do it again this time."

A productive festive period - visits by Manchester City and Arsenal book-ended by trips to Portsmouth today and Middlesbrough - would go a long way towards securing United's status. Results like the victories at Newcastle, Watford (exactly six months after his chastening afternoon against them in the Millennium Stadium) and Wigan have strengthened Hulse's conviction that survival is eminently possible.

"But it's also the way we've been playing. You go into this division thinking you'll give it your best shot, which we've done. We're under no illusions - we know it's going to be tough - but the difference is that there are players who now know they can live with the best."

Rob Hulse, you sense, already believed he could. Coaching by Brian Kidd, a former England striker who now works for Warnock, has enhanced his confidence. Could he have done better this season?

"I think I could have been luckier. Against Charlton and Aston Villa I might've had a hat-trick each time.

"To score the winner at Wigan last Saturday was very pleasing after the run I'd had. Maybe they'll really start going in over Christmas."