Club Website chats to one of football’s real characters about the ups and downs of a journey from a “proper job” and non-league football to the Premier League – all with a smile on his face.
Jimmy Bullard is wondering what the next chapter in his life will have in store for him. Quite apt for a man who has a book out this month.
The 35-year-old is looking for something to replace the buzz of playing football after a roller-coaster of a career that saw him progress from the Ryman Premier League to the England squad in less than a decade, before injury struck the midfielder down in his prime.
His all-action midfield displays and an obvious love of playing the game helped the ex-Wigan and Fulham star become a favourite with his own clubs’ fans and beyond.
Never shy of an interview or an appearance on Soccer AM, Bullard loved a laugh and a joke as a player as much as he does in retirement. You could say he needs to be involved all the time, something that was obvious from his earliest footballing days in Bexleyheath.
His first team was YMCA, where he played at centre back for the under-8s. A bunch of small lads, like Bullard himself, they got beaten a lot in their first season but, as the players grew, so did their ability and a young Jimmy soon realised he was playing at the wrong end of the pitch.
“We started off getting drummed six or seven nil every week but, playing at centre back, I was always involved. I used to see a lot of the ball. But within just a couple of years we started beating other teams easily ourselves, which meant that I hardly got a touch!”
This frustrated youngster felt it was time to have a word with the manager, a task made slightly easier by the fact that the gaffer was also his dad. After a polite request to be moved up the pitch was turned down, Bullard demonstrated that player power isn’t just a 21st century construct.
“I told him ‘Dad, if you don’t move me into midfield I’m going to another team – simple as that!’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Despite his initial reluctance to play his son in the position where he would eventually make his name, Bullard says he would never have got where he is today without his father’s influence.
“He never saw me have a bad game,” Bullard recalls. “He was a very positive man. He’d never dwell on negatives. He would keep my confidence up, which was key for me. I wouldn’t have any fear. I wouldn’t care who I was playing against.”
Along with self-belief, Bullard Snr. also taught his son the importance of being in good shape.
“My Dad was an old fashioned coach. Even at a young age he always went on about fitness, which sounds diabolical these days really. I was always really fit and took it as a given, but it was an attribute that really helped me into my professional career.”
Bullard progressed from YMCA to Corinthian FC and a first team appearance in the Kent League, aged 16 – “my first experience of senior football” – before moving to Dartford FC – “my first contract, £30 a game!” – and then onto Gravesend & Northfleet FC, now Ebbsfleet United.
Having already worked as a Sky TV fitter and a trainee fireman, Bullard was by now plying his trade as a painter and decorator by day and wondering, aged 20, if time was running out for him to make it in the career he dreamed of.
His dad, who was also now his boss, kept the faith and always ensured that his son gave himself the best opportunity to perform to his potential on the pitch, in front of potential scouts..
“My dad would always give me a day off to save my energy for an evening game. A lot the boys had to go out to work at six or seven o’clock, get home at four or grab, grab their boots and get out. Whereas I’d prepare like a professional – have a lie-in, eat properly, rest up, fluid up and get my head on the game. That really was an advantage – I prepared twice as well as them.”
His dad’s belief was justified. Bullard played a blinder in front of a watching West Ham scout and the club the family all supported gave Jimmy a two-week trial and the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
It was an opportunity seized. In February 1998, Harry Redknapp offered Bullard a contract and “before you know it, there I am in training on a Monday morning with Frank Lampard, one on one!”
The kid with claret and blue walls got to spend two years at the club he’d dreamed of joining and, despite not breaking into the first team, Bullard got a taste of life as a professional footballer and he knew it was something he didn’t want to give up.
Compared to life as a painter and decorator, there was absolutely no contest.
“I felt like I knew the real world a bit. I never called football my job. I knew what the real world was like and I never wanted to go back there. When you’ve had a taste of playing at the top level you don’t want to go back.”
A free transfer to Peterborough United in July 2001 gave Bullard the chance to make a name for himself, before a move to Wigan Athletic in January 2003 and promotion to the Premier League two seasons later helped to establish himself as a top flight player.
Big money moves to Fulham and Hull City followed but, wherever he played, Bullard became known for playing with a smile on his face, whilst off the pitch he loved a laugh and a joke.
“I think this just happened naturally. As a kid I used to cry when I lost at anything, particularly football. I used to find myself getting so restricted and so tight because I was worked up about the result, that I’d kick myself for not playing as good as I should.
“When I was about 16 or 17, I taught myself to start playing more relaxed and I really came into myself. I thought ‘I play better relaxed. I don’t really care about the result’, do you know what I mean?
“So I just carried on playing like that. I tried to smile and enjoy everything. I’d been given a chance to play professional football, so I took the whole experience in. I knew how lucky and privileged I was.”
But life as a pro was not without its challenges and in September 2006 – just weeks after Fulham boss Chris Coleman described him as “the best £2 million we’ve ever spent” – Bullard tore his cruciate knee ligament and his football world turned upside down.
After sixteen months on the sidelines, he returned and helped Fulham to avoid relegation and then earned himself an England call-up – “the highlight of my career without a doubt” – but that injury marked the beginning of a rollercoaster for Bullard that continued until he was forced to hang up his boots.
There were further highs along the way – including a record £5m move to Hull and a Barclays Player of the Month award – but a string of injuries, including one on his Hull debut, saw the Bullard rollercoster take more downs that ups in his thirties, as a journey back down the divisions to Ipswich Town and, finally, MK Dons saw headlines for off-the-field incidents as much as action on the pitch.
The fact that injuries had become such a curse was ironic for a player who had always prided himself on his fitness and who had only ever missed one game through injury – a broken toe at Peterborough – before his first big injury at Fulham.
“I used to look at other people who were always injured and think I’d never be one of them. I’d wonder how that could happen, think ‘that could never be me’ and then ‘wallop!’ It finally happened and I struggled from then on. Injury, injury, injury, injury.”
His final visit to the treatment table at MK Dons was just one too many and, after 13 years as a professional, Bullard knew was time to call it a day.
“That was that. Game over son. 34 years of age. Good night Vienna. But at least I got the chance to do it. That’s what I always say. I was lucky.
“Even during the tough times, I still had a contract, I’m financially fine, I’m still in with a chance of playing football again at a great level, I’m training every day.
“So when we talk about lows, that’s just in a footballer’s life. It’s not really a low – there are wars going on out there, do you know what I mean?”
“In the greater scheme of things, I’ll take it, broken leg and all. I’d take it all again with a broken leg three times over. I was lucky.
“It just goes so bloody quick and I miss it. I miss the buzz.”
Like many ex-pros, Bullard has found it hard to replace that buzz since he hung up his boots and he admits to being a bit lost. He holds the UEFA B Licence but isn’t ready to get into management yet, knowing the work involved to get to the level he wants to manage at.
He’s worked as a pundit – most recently for BT Sport at the FA Cup Final – and has tried his hand as a professional golfer on the EuroPro tour but, having after missing out on qualification for his second season, he hasn’t picked up a club in three months. “What’s all that about?” he asks.
His book has provided the best focus of late and it has also helped Bullard to look back on his career with fondness.
“I needed a bit of pushing to do it, but it was one of the best things I’ve done – listing all my achievements, all my ups and downs. There are loads of stories and it’s funny too.
“It’s a bit quirky. It’s not like a normal autobiography. It’s all over the place – a bit like me really!”
So it’s onto the next chapter in the life of Jimmy Bullard, even if he doesn’t what that might be yet. At least while he ponders it, he has the World Cup to distract him this summer and he is hopeful for England’s chances.
“There’s less pressure on them, less expectation and these kids don’t see what England have been through in recent years and worry about it. They are fresh. They are new to it and I think they are a bit more ballsy now. Got a bit more attitude about them.
“I think we’ll go and have a right good go.”
Remind you of anyone?
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
Rapid-fire Bullard – 10 quick questions
Who was your football hero as a kid? I had a couple: George Best and Paul Gascoigne.
Your first pair of boots? A pair of Puma Peles.
Favourite position as a kid? Centre midfield.
Best place you’ve played football? Anfield
Best goal you’ve scored? Peterborough vs Bristol City – 35 yard screamer, top corner.
Toughest opponent you faced? Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lassana Diarra. Not bad is it?
Favourite player to watch? Zidane or Riquelme. Playing today, Adam Lallana.
Favourite team to watch? Southampton. Or Swansea. Or Barcelona. Or Bayern Munich.
Who’s going to win the World Cup? Brazil.
Where are England going to get? I think we’re going to do awesome. Semis? Maybe final.
‘Bend it like Bullard’ is out now, priced £16.99 RRP. It is published by Headline Publishing Group.
Images courtesy of Menwhostareatbooks.co.uk.