BULLY FOR ENGLAND
Words: Owen Blackhurst
Image: Offside Sports Photography
If you found yourself within spitting distance of The Molineux on any given Saturday of the 1988/89 Third Division season, you'd have heard that headline roared to the heavens.
Five bellowed syllables followed by the same tune banged out on the grand old stadium's decaying wooden seats; the battle cry of an army saluting their leader and telling the world to watch out.
On and on it went—ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at a time—as this warrior, shorn of hair and with only arse, hip and elbow for protection, fought for territory while the twelve-studded gorgons who marshalled enemy lines hit him with a constant stream of two-footed filth. But he was more than mere frontline resistance. Much more. Sure, he'd drag himself up off the grassless field and go at them again, but just when they thought they had him beat, just when they imagined they'd blunted the Pride of the Black Country, he'd roll up his sleeves, replace cudgel with rapier and do what he did best.
Steve Bull scored fifty goals that season as Wolves were promoted from the old Third Division to follow the fifty-two he'd banged home the season before to help drag this club, still the tenth most successful in English history, from the doldrums of the old Fourth. 102 goals in two seasons is a ridiculous amount. It's no wonder the fans wanted to send him to take on the world with a wolf on his chest.
Even amongst the cluttered history of football, Steve Bull's story is pretty unique. He himself sees it as 'Roy of the Rovers stuff', and while the narrative might have a similar arc, it is there that the comparisons end. Melchester's finest was a pen and ink playboy, a cartoon for kids to dream about. Steve Bull's story is sketched in blood, sweat, and a few halves of Banks's Mild.
It's the story of a striker told aged 17 that he'd never play professional football because of floating bone in his knee. It's the tale of a kid bombed out by West Brom after three goals in five games for having 'no first touch'. It's the redemption of joining their most hated rivals and lifting them from oblivion.
It's the pride at being the last player from outside the top two divisions to represent England. It's the glory of scoring on his debut against Scotland at Hampden Park. It's the ballad of a folk hero who robbed from the pitch and gave to the poor. It's the story of Steve Bull, the raw, old-fashioned centre forward who went from Tipton Town to Italia 90 in six seasons and broke a shitload of records along the way.
Here's how he remembers it.
MUNDIAL: You started the 86/87 season in good form for West Brom before Ron Saunders sold you in November. How did that feel?
BULL: I don't know whether he had to clear the decks or what. He had Imre Varadi, Garth Crooks and George Reilly at the time and I was there as the fourth striker. I broke into the team, scored three goals in five games, and I thought I'd landed. And then he tells me that I basically couldn't trap a bag of sand and it deflated me, absolutely killed me. But I joined Wolves and just got on with it.
Two seasons later and you're approaching 100 goals, and the fans are singing 'Bully for England'?
Starting from day one here the fans took to me, and despite where I'd come from, I think they saw straight away that I was a local lad who just wanted to score goals. That was good enough for them. But to be scoring so many and hearing them sing that?
Someone must've been listening. Do you remember the first time Bobby Robson or one of his staff came to see you?
One of the first times he watched me was against Leicester, and I got sent off, but he grabbed hold of me in the tunnel after and said, 'You don't worry about that son, keep going and you'll have a good chance'.
And did you believe that, did you think you had a chance?
Listen, I didn't think I was going to play for England or go anywhere near a World Cup.
After firing Wolves to a second successive promotion, Bull joined up with the England U-21s in Albania only to get the call to fly to Scotland to replace an injured senior squad member.
Nervous and a world away from the Third Division, he remembers being in awe of the tracksuits and golf clubs laid out on arrival and feeling like Billy No Mates before Gazza and John Barnes left their card school at the back of the bus to come over and say hello.
MUNDIAL: That first training session must've been pretty daunting?
BULL: No disrespect to the lads at Wolves but this was on another level—the players were pinging them, and it was bouncing off me. First, it was ten yards, then eight, then six, then it's two, and I'm thinking hang on, I have got a first touch. I can do this. I started banging them in the training matches, and that was it, the players took to me.
When did you find out you'd made the bench?
I was sat on the bus after training, and the gaffer got up. He'd already named the starting side, and I watched him walking down the aisle thinking there's no way he'll talk to me. Ten minutes later he's walking back down, comes up to me and says 'Move over Bully.' He tapped me on the leg and said: 'You're on the bench tomorrow, mate'. I was dumbstruck. He left, and I'm punching the air going 'Get in!' and got straight on the phone to my mom at the hotel.
Then you get to Hampden for the game? The atmosphere must've been something else.
The bus got pelted on the way in, and as soon as we got off Terry Butcher ran into the changing rooms. When we were in there, he came out smashed the toilet door and screamed: 'Right lads, we're gonna kill these Jock bastards'. Walking out was crazy—86,000 people, 80,000 who want to kill you and 6,000 England fans up in the corner. About 3,000 of those England fans were Wolves fans. They'd found out the day before I might be playing and had turned up wearing T-shirts saying 'Let the Bull loose' and 'Bully's gonna get ya'. Saint and Greavsie had been promoting the fact I was on the bench and the Wolves fans had flown up as soon as they heard.
So you're on the bench. How do you remember the match?
John Fashanu went down with a bruised toe or something, and the gaffer told the strikers to get warmed up. Tony Cottee, who was number one, basically ran over the top of me to get out first. Ten minutes later Fashanu goes down again, and the gaffer says 'You two, get out there, one of you is going on'. Cottee ran over my toes again, and I'm doing my stretches and waving to the Wolves fans, and they're all singing my name. Then Bobby shouts 'Come here'. Cottee's gone flying past me, and I've just heard, 'Not you, Bully.' So I ran past Cottee and gave him a friendly V-sign. 'Right,' says Bobby. 'Get out there, get your arms up and get stuck in.'
If I remember rightly you hardly touched the ball for the remainder of the first half.
Gazza wouldn't pass it to me. He had two chances, one for a near-post tap-in which he crossed to Waddle, who missed, and then another two minutes later. After Bobby Robson did his team talk, I followed Gazza into the toilets, grabbed his elbow and just said, 'Pass me the fucking ball'. 'I will, like, Bully, mate,' he says. 'I promise.'
The goal is there for everyone to see on YouTube, but how do you remember it?
Me and Alex McLeish jumped, and the ball hit me on the shoulder. We both fell on the floor, and I was straight up. I just thought hit it, and the microphone shot out from the corner of the goal. I've scored, I thought. Fuck me; I've scored. I just started running, and I realised I was heading towards the Scottish fans, so I just turned and slid with my hands in the air. And who came first to me? Gazza. And I said 'I told you to pass me the fucking ball', but it was incredible. I've got Bobby Robson saluting me, Neil Webb running towards me and I just couldn't believe it. I still can't.
The next season was another goal-laden one: 27 for Wolves and a brace for England against Czechoslovakia, both assisted by Gazza. The first, a screaming volley after a sand wedge of a pass, was voted as the 37th best England goal of all-time. Then came the call that he'd made the final 22 and was off to Italia 90 as the understudy to Gary Lineker. He started one game against Egypt, made three other appearances from the bench and was one of five substitutes for the remaining matches.
His memories of the minutiae of the matches are sketchy, minutes here and there straining to fashion a chance and terrorise opposition defenders. Above all what he remembers is his pride at being part of it, and the camaraderie of 22 players who went there to do a job for England on the back of hideously negative press and returned to a heroes' welcome.
As we talk about the tournament, Bull's pride fills the room. He's heading balls in his seat, raising his elbows at imaginary defenders and pointing at the goose bumps on his arms;
MUNDIAL: Six years after turning out for Tipton Town and you're going to the World Cup?
I was playing three or four games a weekend for Tipton and a couple of pub teams, the Red Lion, and the Newey Goodman, and despite being around the squad and my performances for Wolves, when the gaffer phoned to tell me I was going, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't get me hat on about it—me in the final 22 for Italia 90. I can't believe it to this day—it was weird then, and it's still weird now.
There must be a few stories from the plane ride over.
The one thing I really remember is the uproar surrounding Bobby Robson over the affair with his mistress. All the players stuck together, got a load of black bin liners on the flight and chucked all the papers away and said 'That's it, we're sticking together. He's our gaffer, and we're behind him'. And that was it. It was over as far as we concerned. We were going there to do our jobs for our country and do it properly.
Did he ever get your name wrong? He was notorious for it.
He never got mine wrong, but his team selections were absolutely brilliant. It took him 20 minutes to name the side. He'd be standing there pointing, going 'Erm? Erm?' pointing his fingers and clicking for ages before shouting, 'Gary, you're upfront with, Erm? Erm?' then he'd turn to me, and the pointing and clicking would start again before he remembered.
So you get to Sardinia, and thousands of police are following England everywhere. How was it from your perspective?
We were very shielded; we just had a fantastic time. It was six weeks up and down Italy-we didn't see any cities or towns, but we all got on and made the best out of every second of it. I cannot believe players moan about being bored at a World Cup. One thing I'll never forget is that my local paper, the Express & Star, came over to follow me for six weeks, and they turned up with two black bin liners full of cards and messages from the people of Wolverhampton wishing me luck. I opened every single one. Thinking of it now is giving me goose bumps.
You came on in the war against the Republic of Ireland, and you're now Steve Bull, World Cup striker. What do you remember of the game?
Mainly the size of Mick McCarthy's thighs. It was a tough game, I hardly got any chances because it was really physical, but I had to pinch myself—what are you doing here? And I still feel it. I've got my medal, I've got a shirt signed by the whole squad in my hallway, and I've got my 13 caps on the wall at home, and I look at them every day and think, Jesus Christ.
Everyone seems to have a different story about the switch to a sweeper system. How do you remember it?
The manager did it—it was all him. Nobody in that side picked themselves. I've read stories about players saying they didn't want to play here or whatever but no, none of it. Robson and Don Howe dictated how we played and set up against different opposition, and that was the end of it.
There are a lot of stories about players having to take turns to look after Gazza, but how was he on a day-to-day basis?
Gazza was brilliant. Of course he got on our nerves because he just went on and on and on. Sitting around the dinner table with him, we had to switch every ten minutes so that you didn't hit him. But, god, he was so good. I remember Gullit in the Holland game. Great player, big presence, skilful, but he didn't get near Gazza. I took no notice of the Germans, Italians, Maradona, whoever because none of them came close to Paul in that tournament. He was the outstanding player, and we saw it every day in training. He was a level above and the best player I ever got near. I've tried calling him a few times recently, but he must've got rid of all of his numbers in the last couple of years and be keeping himself to himself, which you can understand. It's incredibly sad, what's happened. He did this country proud. Fingers crossed he can get himself through it, and all I can do is give him best wishes and say if he ever needs me or needs a phone call, I'll be there like a shot.
It was Gazza's birthday when you were there?
It was all very light-hearted, really—that was when he got Jim Rosenthal with the cake in his face. I think we had one drink. It wasn't the first of the trip, but it did take us ages to get one.
You had to pack enough shampoo and toothpaste for the six weeks, and by the third week, Terry Butcher and Chris Woods were asking me if I needed replacements. At the end of that week, I'd actually run out, so I went to see them. There were five or six of us and off we went, a left turn here, a right turn there, and we came to a chemists. What was next to it? A pub. They'd been having a crafty drink while I'd been bone dry in training for three weeks. We had the odd half here and there, but nobody abused it. We popped in on our days off, and it probably helped make us even more close-knit. Nobody took the piss or got drunk; we just had a laugh.
Did you nearly get on in the semifinal?
With 15 minutes to go the Gaffer told me I was coming on so I started warming up, and just as I was about to take my tracksuit top off, Lineker scored the equaliser. Bobby told me to sit down. I knew my time was gone. I'd have given him the best ten minutes of my life, and I knew I'd have got one chance. I always sniffed out one. I still think now what would've happened if I'd come on and scored that goal, but it didn't happen and just to be part of that World Cup still feels like a dream. Even after the game, Gazza couldn't stop crying, and I went up to him and said 'what are you crying for, you daft sod? You've done brilliantly. Look how far we've come'.
After the penalties, you were one of the first to Waddle. What did you say to him?
What can you say to him? I put my arm round him and told him to look at the fans and to be proud of how far we'd come as a squad after all the negative press we'd received. And I know he blamed himself, but we didn't feel like that, we won and lost as a team—a squad. And you could see that afterwards when we were all there together, hugging each other, kissing Gazza. Bobby Robson stood up after the game and just told us to be proud. He told us how much we'd done for each other and the country and for him. He told us we couldn't have given anything else and that we were a credit to the nation. And that was it. We picked ourselves up and went and had a few glasses of wine and champagne and realised what we'd achieved.
The bus journey from Luton airport looked like a riot?
That's the most people I've ever seen welcoming any sports team back from anywhere. We've gone at half a mile an hour for hours. I was next to Gazza with his fake tits hanging out, and we're all wearing hats and waving flags, smiling and laughing. We just couldn't believe the impact it had on people. We had no idea the country were that into it. And to think the government were saying we should've boycotted that tournament. Imagine if we had?
Within six months of the World Cup, Bull's England career was over, cast aside by Graham Taylor, but his club career was far from finished. He played another eight seasons for Wolves, finishing as their record scorer in all competitions with 306 goals in 561 appearances to add his 4 in 13 for England.
Sitting in a conference room at Molineux, we're overlooking a Premier League stadium. Yet when he joined Wolves, this ground was a dilapidated mausoleum with only two stands open. Dragged down to the Fourth Division by financial mismanagement, the club that had been England's glamour team of the 50s and 60s was on its arse. It was a hideous time to be a Wolves fan, and it's no surprise that when you speak to any who remember that time, they will end their lament with, 'and then we signed Steven George Bull from them lot down the road.'
MUNDIAL: You're a Vice-President of the club, have a stand named after you and received two testimonials. It's fair to say you're a legend here.
BULL: I can close my eyes and picture how the club was when I arrived. The Waterloo Road stand with tiles cracked and missing; water coming through the ceiling with cockroaches everywhere. But I don't get it; I really don't. I don't feel like a legend. All I did was score goals. That's what they paid me to do so I did it.
You must have an idea of the impact you had on them, though?
I do, of course, but nobody feels like a legend, surely? I knew when the crowds started flying up. When I first came there was probably just under 3000 coming; then it rose to five, then seven, then nine then jumped to 17, then 20. Once I scored one goal here, they loved it, and I loved it. They gave me the confidence to go and do it, and that's why I managed to score 306 goals. They showed me that love, and I wanted to score more and more and repay them for that support.
There aren't that many of your goals on YouTube, but I remember you scoring every goal in the book?
My main strength was hitting the ball early. A lot of players now want to score the perfect goal, cutting inside and bending it into the top corner, but unless you're a top player, you aren't going to do it. I caught so many keepers on the hop over the years by taking it early. They're thinking he ain't gonna shoot from there, and before they knew it, the ball was already past them. It sounds simple, but even if my first touch wasn't there, the next one ended up in the net.
Does it still hurt that Wolves didn't get up to the Premier League when you were there?
Of course it does, but these people who bang on about me not playing top flight football—I played for my country and scored. How much more top-flight than that is there; People always say I should've gone to the Premier League, but I was happy here. They took to me, I took to them, I loved scoring goals, and I loved scoring goals for Wolves. I still am happy here 30 years on, and that's much more important to me than a couple of seasons somewhere else chasing glory.
But you must've had opportunities to leave?
I had four chances to leave. I could've gone to Torino in Italy after the World Cup, but I didn't fancy it. I'd done six weeks in Italy, which I loved, but I was happy at Wolves. The second one was Newcastle before Andy Cole went, I was first choice, but I'd just had a baby boy and honestly didn't want to move. Third one was Coventry with Big Ron—he put a five-year deal on the table and only offered what I was getting at Wolves for three years, so that was never going to happen. And the last one was Celtic, and I knew it was too wet up there for me. No regrets at all.
You scored 18 hat-tricks for the club and followed each one with the aeroplane celebration. Was it planned?
No. I was ecstatic after the first one and just thought, go on; you're floating here—enjoy it and took off.
There was the famous one in a 4–1 thrashing away to Newcastle on New Year's Day 1990?
We went up the night before on Hill's Coaches, and about 3000 fans chartered a Monarch flight so they could come and watch. At twenty to eight the gaffer said 'Right, I want you to bed by five past twelve. Wish your wife Happy New Year and then to bed with you'. He walked away ten yards, turned around and said: 'Oh, and you can have a couple of halves' 14 halves and a bottle of wine later, we got to bed. We went out there the next day, and it's sleeting. All of the fans have turned up dressed as reindeers, snowmen and Santas and they're absolutely soaking wet, and I felt so guilty for getting drunk. At half-time, it was 0–0, and I'm thinking we'd do well to get a point. I honestly don't know what happened; I must've sobered up because I went out second half and scored four goals in 20 minutes. I wasn't half relieved.
You suffered increasingly with knee injuries. Did you have to adapt your game?
I probably should've, but I didn't. When I was 17, I had to have an operation on my right knee to remove a floating bone. I went in, and just before the anaesthetist was going to put the needle in, the surgeon looked at me and said: 'Steve, I'm going to take this piece of bone out of your knee, and after that, I'm afraid you'll never be a professional footballer'. Seventeen years later, I was playing here against Villa in my testimonial, and it just popped back out. They hadn't been able to find it when I was 17; then at 34, I had to have two pieces of bone the size of my thumbnail removed. I managed to defy the doctors for 17 years for all that to happen. Both my knees are bowing now, and I've got to have them replaced, but I'll wait until my elbows are touching the floor before I do it. But that's the price I paid for doing what most people would pay to do; so I won't complain. Seventeen years I had, and I count myself lucky every day.
With the interview finished, we're walking across the car park to the Waterloo Road and stand to say our goodbyes by the statue of Billy Wright. There must be 40 cars in a traffic jam and, from at least 30, spring the heads of well-wishers. Horns beep, thumbs are raised, and Bull takes time to thank every one of them.
'We used to train on that car park out the back there when I first came here,' he says getting into his car. 'We had to move the cars and set up cones; we never had a training ground. My hands and knees were scarred with grit and gravel, but I wouldn't change it for the world'.
If you like football writing that's unlike any other, subscribe to our magazine.