Football: A legend in black and gold

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Phil Shaw meets Steve Bull: a master marksman with a mission to take his beloved club into the Premiership; `If I'd come on the scene when Lineker was fading out, I might have had more of a run'

Phil Shaw
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:59
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Steve Bull does not have to search too hard for a word to sum up his 10-year rampage through Wolverhampton Wanderers' scoring records. Slipping into the Black Country vernacular, the man universally known as Bully says really that it has been "bostin".

While the term does not appear in any dictionary, all Wolves supporters worth their salt will recognise it as meaning "great". Bull used it recently when revelling in a derby victory over West Bromwich Albion in his column for Birmingham's Sports Argus. "Iwan Roberts' header," he wrote, "came from a bostin cross by Jamie Smith."

To the world beyond the land of Banks's bitter and pork scratchings, it might read as self-conscious folksiness. To his adoring public, it is confirmation, as if it were needed, of his status as the truly local hero. Some fans make cult figures of flamboyant foreigners who alight in their midst like exotic birds: witness Cantona, Kinkladze and Zola. Part of Bull's appeal is his very ordinariness.

Not ordinary as in plain; rather as in uncomplicated or, as he puts it, "down to earth". When you come from the run-down Lost City estate in Tipton, so nicknamed because the inhabitants feel cut off by its isolation between a canal embankment and a railway line, you tend not to be burdened by pretensions.

According to Wolves' manager, Mark McGhee, the supporters see him as "one of us". They sing his name like a mantra and bombard him with mail. One woman asked Bull to sign her breasts ("I didn't do it!" he assures me). Then there was the who man called at his house for an autograph... at 11.30pm.

The identification with Bull - "the most extreme case I've known," says the well-travelled McGhee - is not unconnected with scoring sprees that make Alan Shearer look slothful. It also has much to do with the perception that he has an old-fashioned, fan-like commitment to Wolves; that his background means he understands the need to give value for money.

Bull recalls that he once worked 13 hours a day in a builders' yard. He paid his dues in a bed factory, gluing and screwing frames together, and used to earn barely pounds 100 a month. As he approaches his 32nd birthday this month, his salary is reputed to be pounds 6,000 a week, but his behaviour and tastes still reflect his roots.

Holidays are often spent at Great Yarmouth. His accent is almost impenetrably broad (although he denies, with a mischievous hint of regret, the story that he once chinned Gary Lineker for mocking it). Even his agent is his father-in-law.

And while other players' sexual peccadillos litter the tabloids, Bull made news by driving from Wolves' overnight hotel in Norwich to be present at the birth of his second son. Ordinary, it might be argued, in that any dad-to-be might have done the same. What makes Bull extraordinary is that, after a sleepless night, he raced back to East Anglia and scored two match-winning goals.

So far this most single-minded of marksmen has amassed a staggering 286 for Wolves out of a career total of 298. McGhee, on becoming manager 15 months ago, made him captain. Now, in spite of another home disappointment against Ipswich on Saturday, when he was substituted for the first time this season, Bull's 18 goals have put Wolves on course for the Premiership. It is all a far cry from the day Graham Turner gambled pounds 64,000 to take him off Ron Saunders' hands at The Hawthorns.

"We were third bottom in the Fourth Division and facing a replay against Chorley in the FA Cup," Bull remembers. "Me and Tommo [Andy Thompson, who signed from Albion at the same time and is still at the club] were ineligible. We lost 3-0 and the pair of us sat in the bar, having a pint and eating sausage rolls, asking each other: `What have we done'?"

Turner paired him with Andy Mutch, still arguably the best partner he has had. Bull's serial scoring helped Wolves to successive championships. "We had a bond," Bull says, "an instinctive thing. I never felt Andy got enough credit. He scored over 100 goals here but could have had more if he hadn't been so unselfish."

When he was still a Third Division striker, albeit one in the process of scoring 50 goals for the second season running, Bull was called into the England squad by Bobby Robson. He won 13 full caps, scoring four times, but on reflection feels aggrieved to have started only five games.

"It was strange being thrown in among top-class players like Gascoigne, Barnes and Waddle. I was nervous to start with, but once I'd had a couple of training sessions they brought more and more out of me.

"Lineker was the boss's blue-eyed boy at the World Cup [in 1990]. Him and Peter Beardsley were at the top of their game so I can't complain. If I'd come on the scene later, when Lineker was fading out, I might have had more of a run. I felt I did myself justice, but I wish I'd had as many games as someone like Ian Wright."

Bull made the squad only twice after Graham Taylor took over from Robson. So when Taylor, scarred by the vilification which followed England's failure at Euro 92, came to Molineux, press and public alike were convinced his rejection of the home-town legend would count against him.

In the event, he was tolerated for as long as it seemed he might deliver promotion. But the graffiti was on the wall after his brave, some would say foolhardy, attempt to sell Bull to Coventry for pounds 1.5m in the summer of '95.

"I was very close to going. I'd already sorted everything out with Ron Atkinson [then Coventry manager] when I rang my wife to ask what she thought. She said: `Whatever you decide, we'll support you.' I just said: `Oh sod it, I've been here nine years - why move?' No disrespect to Coventry, but if it had been Villa, Liverpool or Man Utd it might've been different. They're not as big a club as Wolves."

He insists there was no bad blood between him and Taylor. "I never, ever had a cross word with him, despite what everyone assumes." Nevertheless, Bull was left in what he recounts as "an awkward position", playing for a manager who appeared not to want him. Why did he stay?

"Because I knew - know - that this club's going to get into the Premiership. When we do, Molineux won't be big enough to hold the people who want to watch us. I was here when half the ground was closed and falling to bits. I want to see the job through." Some detect a lack of ambition in Bull's reluctance to leave. Like Matt Le Tissier, against whom the same charge is levelled, he believes he can best achieve his aims in a working environment that gives him peace of mind. "I feel at home here," he explains, surrounded by mementoes of Wolves' old-golden oldies. "I've only got a 10-mile drive from home and travelling up and down motorways isn't for me. Why unsettle a rock if it's happy where it is?"

The rock has been rolling of late, taking a roadshow to clubs and bars as part of his testimonial year. Every venue has been packed, and Bull, who admits he has never been much of a talker, has found that a microphone brings out the wag in him. Pressed to name his most influential manager, the tongue was in a stubbly cheek as he replied: "Ron Saunders. None of this would have been possible if he hadn't got shot of me."

Another supporter wondered who he would join if he ever left Wolves. "Watford," he said, the straight face breaking into a laugh as the audience twigged: Taylor's club. Asked to nominate his most memorable goal, he cited: "Any with my left foot - I normally use it just for standing on". Pushed, he settled on the one on his international debut, against Scotland at Hampden Park. In truth, he has probably scored dozens for Wolves that were more exciting; too many to choose from.

McGhee regards his strike at Barnsley nine days ago as the "archetypal Bully goal" - the ball put in behind the defence, slightly to the right of the defence, with a yard between him and the chasing pack, topped off by a venomous low volley. Their mutual respect is reminiscent of Bull's rapport with Turner.

McGhee reckons his blowtorch in boots is "good for another hundred goals". Bull sees his manager as "a decent bloke" who, as a former striker, has helped improve his all-round contribution. He is confident that together they can fulfil his enduring ambition, to add to the solitary substitute's appearance he made at the highest level with Albion.

Few, certainly, would bet against his completing a triple century with Wolves, but could he sustain it against better defences as raging Bull becomes ageing Bull? "I know I can if I keep in shape. Look at Ian Wright or Chris Waddle. They're improving with age."

From the Lost City to the Premiership's promised land is quite a journey. For Steve Bull, the pounds 64,000 question is not whether Wolves will make it, but when. If they do, you can be sure he will have just the word for the occasion.

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