'My name is Jimmy Bullard. I'm a Premiership footballer...'

Seven years ago he was a non-league player working as an apprentice decorator. Now he is at home among football's élite. As he prepared to face Chelsea today, the Wigan midfielder told Andy Hunter his remarkable life story - one of loans, rejections and, finally, vindication
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The Independent Football

The weather at Christopher Park is an accurate gauge of recent results at Wigan, and has taken a sudden turn for the worse. A torrential downpour adds to the discomfort of a second, unscheduled training session and when Paul Jewell finally ends the torment his players require no further invitation to sprint for the sanctuary of the changing-room and the warmth of the showers. With the exception of one.

Word has reached Jimmy Bullard, the "marathon man" of Wigan's midfield according to Arsène Wenger, that he has another appointment with an increasingly attentive media and so he jogs to the annexe of the modest training facility that houses the Premiership's story of the season thus far. By the time he reaches the doorway Bullard's usually tousled mane has straightened with the rain. He stops to take off his boots, a small pool of water forming at the feet of the 27-year-old, declines the offer of a towel, exchanges pleasantries with the office staff and declares himself ready for the interview. It is as though Peter Kay's advertisement for John Smith's has graduated to the Premiership. No nonsense.

"You can talk in here," Matt McCann, Wigan's industrious head of communications instructs as he opens the door to a small kit-cum-storeroom hidden in the corner of the building, "This is the Jimmy Bullard Suite." A throwaway line but a fine analogy none the less. Having been consigned to the fringes for so long Bullard, like his surroundings, now finds himself at the hub of a successful Premiership operation, although if Wigan supporters had their say on a worthy tribute to the ebullient character they have adopted from London's East End it would be far more grandiose than a pile of training kits.

Since signing from Peterborough for £275,000 in January 2003 Bullard has made 123 consecutive League appearances for the Latics, a new club record, but he represents more than a reliable presence at the JJB Stadium. This is a man who embodies the story of Wigan's remarkable rise from what is now League One to the coat-tails of Chelsea within four seasons.

Seven years ago Bullard was combining non-league football with an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator in his father's firm. Today Jim Snr will be among the crowd at Stamford Bridge to watch his son extend that appearance record to 124 against the reigning champions, decorating duties permitting.

It was against Chelsea that Bullard and Wigan announced themselves emphatically to the Premiership on 14 August, when Hernan Crespo's injury-time goal gave Jose Mourinho his most fortunate victory of the campaign and Jewell's side appeared instantly at home.

If Wigan have come full circle since that day it is only because successive losses to Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool have inflicted their only disappointments since the opening two games of the season. Otherwise their campaign remains on the upward trajectory that collected 25 points by the first weekend in November and destroyed the notion of promoted clubs suffering only toil and torment once they reach the top.

"The moment I realised what the Premiership was all about was when the Chelsea lads walked out on to our pitch for the first game of the season," admits Bullard, evidently a fast learner given how swiftly he has adapted since. "We were already out there in our suits and then the Chelsea mob turn up in their tracksuits.

"There's big Drogba, Crespo strolling out, Frank, then Petr Cech, who's a monster, and I thought, 'Jesus'. That was the moment I realised we were facing seasoned, established internationals, and the moment I realised what this level is all about was when Crespo banged one into the top corner in the 92nd minute.

"We should have scored at the other end but their keeper cleared it. As I was running back from the counter-attack I asked the ref how long was left and he told me that was it. Then it dropped to Crespo and I just knew. He knew he was going to score too, as did Thierry Henry when he took that free-kick against us the other week. One hundred per cent belief, you've got to have that." It reveals the strength of Wigan's own conviction that they were not demoralised by such a cruel introduction to the Premiership and, despite their last three reverses, confidence remains high ahead of the reunion at Stamford Bridge.

"That first game did us the world of good," reflects Bullard, as effervescent a personality as you could wish to meet. "John Terry grabbed me in the corridor after the game and said we'd be fine in this league if we continued to play like that and then Frank Lampard patted me on the back and wished me and the boys all the best for the rest of the season. That gave me a buzz.

"Chelsea met their match that day. They knew they didn't deserve to win - even Jose admitted that. It was our first game in the Premier League and we set ourselves the benchmark that day. We were all seething in the dressing-room afterwards and feeling down for a few days but looking back that set us up for everything that has happened since.

"I know people will look at our last three results against and say we've been found out, but anyone who saw those performances will know we acquitted ourselves well against three of the best teams in the league."

However, the satisfaction Bullard eventually garnered from that first defeat did not stem from a defining team performance or a magnanimous platitude from the runner-up to Ronaldinho in the recent European Footballer of the Year award. That was the day that he realised he had arrived, and that the years of sacrifice, dedication and rejection had brought a significant reward.

Bullard's birth certificate, accent and boyhood allegiance should have dictated a part on the West Ham production line that rolled out so much promise at the turn of the millennium. His grandmother, Rose, still lives near Upton Park, though is German-born and has recently forwarded her birth certificate to the midfielder in the hope he can make Jürgen Klinsmann's World Cup squad.

Her grandson's years in non-league football were ended by the Hammers in January 1999 when they paid Gravesend £30,000 for his services, the same day Paolo Di Canio and the tragic Marc-Vivien Foé joined the club, and he soon found himself alongside the emerging generation of Lampard, Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson. The script was in place but it never came to fruition, and it would take another six years, several loan moves, a free transfer to Barry Fry's Peterborough and two promotions before he rejoined his esteemed former team-mates in the Premiership.

"I was still playing for Gravesend at 18 and it seemed that every other kid had been snapped up except me," he recalls. "And then at West Ham I had the feeling that I would never break into the first team. They were knock-backs that still stand out, so it was a great feeling to see Frank, Joe and Glen again as a Premiership player.

"That's when it struck me that I'd finally reached the level I always thought I could. I always knew it would take me longer than them to reach the Premiership, mainly because of my frame and my size. I struggled to get into any sort of team as a kid, but I struggled along and, though it's amazing how long it has actually taken me, I am finally in the Premiership and to play against my old mates from West Ham, the team I supported as a boy, was unbelievable."

To patronise Wigan is to guarantee the collapse of their manager's humorous persona, which has been as much a welcome addition to the Premiership this season as the romance of his team's success. Before attempts began to pigeon-hole the club as flat-capped upstarts they were labelled the Chelsea of the Championship thanks to the patronage of their chairman, Dave Whelan. Yet while the success of the last three years has been built on consummate professionalism and ambition there is a truth to the humble origins from which Jewell is keen to distance the club. Bullard personifies them.

He explains: "There were times when it was a real struggle but my mum and dad always helped me through, especially my dad. He said I would make it, but only if I really wanted it and spelt it out in black and white for me. He told me I had to train hard.

"I was a painter and decorator with my dad for four years and he gave me a lot of time off to train and to play non-league football and that was where I was finally spotted. I started off rubbing down skirting boards, in fact I finished up rubbing down skirting boards as well thanks to him always giving me the hardcore jobs. I learnt through him and I still do a bit around the house. It's a good trade to have but it frightens me to go back there and that is another motivation for me to train as hard as possible every single day.

"I just don't want to go back there. That job is always in the back of my mind and that's why I am always aware that I've got to take this opportunity. I think I appreciate it more. No disrespect to the players who have always grown up in football but I've always said to them that they wouldn't believe how hard it is out there compared to their YTS days. Maybe that's reflected in the kind of 100 per cent player I am. I've always had a good energy level but, hopefully, people can see I can play a bit now as well."

Reports that Liverpool, Everton, West Ham, Middlesbrough and Birmingham are all monitoring Bullard suggests his quality has been recognised outside the JJB; not that Jewell would entertain the idea of allowing his boundless energy and invention to leave.

Sol Campbell is another who can testify to Bullard's development, having been sold an outrageous dummy by the Wigan No 21 before his outstanding goal against Arsenal. "People were talking to me afterwards about putting Sol on his backside but it happened so quickly I didn't realise what I'd done," he says. "I was more excited about the goal because my mum, dad and brother were in the crowd."

The upturn in Bullard's fortunes can be traced back to the decision to sever his ties with West Ham and join Fry at London Road in 2001. He can still recall every detail and every touch he had on his senior debut at Swindon: "That game sticks out in my mind even more than Chelsea, there were only 7,000 there but it felt like Wembley to me. I could have scored too but I shanked it. Nerves."

The chapters of his career are not only confined to memory. Bullard has a library of around 40 videos of himself in action at home. "There would be more but I only keep the good ones", and they chart the fierce application that is now in evidence every week in the Premiership. He adds: "I've only just realised how much I have come on as a player over the last few years. I watch videos of myself when I played for Gravesend and the other week I watched one of me playing for Peterborough and it struck me how much I've come on in terms of awareness, intelligence, touch, power, pace, everything. The further I've gone up the leagues I've had to."

The failure to take that elusive next step at West Ham may have increased the insecurity of the young Bullard but he left Upton Park with an insatiable appetite to learn and for self-improvement. Lampard set the standard for a commitment to training that Bullard brings to Christopher Park each day, Cole showed the need to work on strength as well as skill, while Di Canio was a law unto himself, but a role model for dedicated professionals all the same.

"I sat next to Paolo every day and he was crazy," Bullard confirms. "He would come in singing Italian opera songs, and in dodgy clobber that still looked smart. He'd be shaven head to toe, which was frightening a few years ago, but now a lot of them shave their legs, don't they? Same with the ice baths, too. I still look at that clip of him pushing the ref and I don't recognise that in him, though once he crossed the line he was a winner."

Bullard is as lively and competitive off the pitch as on it, taking up matchplay finishing in response to Jewell's advice to find a more effortless pastime than golf, and yet he remains as far removed from the volatile nature of Di Canio as it is possible to be. He turns red with embarrassment at the suggestion that, just as the Italian orator was an inspiration to him, now he is the example for every despondent, scorned footballer in the country and the proof that defies many a Premiership manager's notion that there is no talent in the lower leagues.

"That's what my pals say," he admits. "When I used to play for Peterborough I played against loads of players who, now I've stepped up into the Premiership, I believe could have played at this level. You just need to have the rub of the green. I believe that if you've got the ability and you keep dedicating yourself to the game then you will get spotted one day. I know."

And with that it is back into the rain for Jimmy Bullard, part-time painter and decorator, now full-time Premiership footballer.

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