bully

I was in Stoke and knee deep in mud trying to lug big plaster boards across the building site into a row of 350,000 quid houses and some Albion doughnut stopped me. The wind was trying to pluck these heavy boards out of my hands and into the mud. He shouted something about two players his club had just sold us. 

‘We always sell you our shit’ he shouted as he went on his way back to his transit van. What the fuck. It was years before Twitter and the internet. Had to wait to get the Express and Star later. Find out who these Albion bastards were. Things weren’t good at Wolves. It wasn’t depressing but it was depressed. I carried on. The mud sucked one of my boots off and the next step was into the icy mud. Jesus fucking Christ.

The Stranglers famously asked in one of their songs ‘Whatever happened to the heroes…’ Well for fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club a generation of them had one, a bonafide hero in a certain Stephen George Bull – The Tipton Terrier. ‘Bully’ joined the club from a local rival in the Sandwell area of Birmingham; he was accompanied by fullback Andy Thompson as part of the deal in November 1986 for a combined fee of £65,000. He joined at a time of uncertainty; back-to-back relegation’s had seen Wolves languishing in the bottom tier of the professional football pyramid.

I wasn’t at Chorley..I was one of the nine Wolves fans who didn’t go. I was on ten quid a day and had just been sacked from a cushy job doing security on building sites for a company owned by an Ex Cop. I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me. He didn’t like me selling bricks and sand to some Travelers who would pop by at 3am in the morning. That’s what you get for paying £10 for a 12 hour shift. Creativity you bent bastard.

Financial mismanagement had taken the club to the brink of the abyss and going out of existence was a distinct reality. Only the intervention of the local council in August 1986 stopped the club from folding when they purchased Molineux and the surrounding land; Part of the deal included some redevelopment by a supermarket who wanted a presence in the city. Molineux, once capable of holding in excess of 60,000 supporters, was in a sorry state and a pale shadow of its former self. Regulations brought in following the Bradford City tragedy at Valley Parade in 1985 resulted in only 2 sides of the ground being open to supporters – the leviathan South Bank terrace and the recently erected John Ireland stand. The latter was of a contemporary design and construction, but because it had been built behind the former Molineux Street stand resulting in it being yards away from the pitch, this undoubtedly impacted on the atmosphere at the ground.

We stood there most Saturdays. Us. Bent by the cold winds that used to blow through the stand. The ground looked like it had given up. The team definitely had. Defeat after defeat. Still we paid our £1.50 and went. We sought out the disconsolate groups of other fans on the Southbank. Huddled together. Steve fucking Bull. He looked rangey and fit. Fast. Strong too. He was still one of them. Me and my mate Bod talked about him a bit. The wind whipping the words out of our mouths. Everything echoed. Even the ghosts stayed away.

The 1986/87 season saw the start of something phenomenal at Wolves, in the nascent days of Graham Turner’s tenure. As the club was being reorganised at an executive level under the auspices of Dick Homden and Jack Harris, on the pitch the phoenix was also rising from the ashes, and one man epitomised this more than any other: Steve Bull. Bully hit 15 league goals in 30 appearances and his wholehearted approach and relentless effort quickly endeared him to the Molineux faithful. The season was ultimately to end on an anti-climax missing out on automatic promotion to Southend by 1 point, and losing the two-legged playoff final to underdogs Aldershot Town. The next two seasons saw a tornado of goals from the Wanderers centre forward – over 100 in all competitions.

There was a queue to get in. The soggy turnstile gates had rotted at the bottom and pieces of it were underfoot. Everything had a glaze of green mould on it. Everything looked dirty. Things were getting louder in there. People were coming back. Songs that were stolen by he wind became louder. There were new songs too. New beliefs. 

The 1987/88 season culminated with Wolves winning the Fourth division title and also winning the Football League Trophy at a packed out Wembley Stadium against Burnley. Bully’s star was certainly in the ascendancy and his record breaking goal-scoring exploits didn’t go unnoticed. He received a call up to the England under 21’s in 1989 and scored 3 goals in 5 games for them. He was then given the opportunity to play for the England B team. All of his appearances were closely monitored by Bobby Robson the then England manager who had turned a provincial Ipswich Town side into FA cup and UEFA cup winners and took them to within a hairs breadth of the league title. Robson for many was the best English manager since the World Cup winning Alf Ramsey, and a fine judge of footballing talent. Bully was given his senior call up opportunity as a substitute in a game at Hampden Park against Scotland in May 1989.

At Kings Cross in London before the Sherpa Van trophy final we fought a few running battles with some Chelsea who had stormed the pub we were in. Half hearted stuff. Madness really. I had a Bully T shirt on and it had my blood on it. The next day ready for the match I lost my voice about 11am from singing and shouting. I hadn’t slept a wink in the back of the car in some desolate industrial estate close to the ground. I was cold but hot. Bully would do something. There was something in the air for sure. What it was we didn’t know. Didn’t want to look too close in case our forensic eye made it all some weird dream. Collapsing the waveforms. Don’t think about it too much.

Technically Bully was still a third division player as he hadn’t actually played in the old Second Division at that point. He came on for the ineffective John Fashanu, and he did what he’d been doing for Wolves over the last 2 seasons, he scored! For many Bully cemented his place in the England World Cup squad for Italia 90 with his performance against Czechoslovakia at Wembley in April 1990, scoring 2 goals, crafted by the sublime talent of Paul Gascoigne. A significant proportion of the crowd in the ground that night were of the Old Gold & Black persuasion, there to watch the Black Country boy made good. Some pundits often commented that his first touch wasn’t good enough, but when the second one rattled the back of the net it was an invalid argument. Other denigrators of the player were quick to remark that he never achieved it in the top flight; international football trumps Division One/Premier League on every level as the ultimate recognition of a player’s ability. Bully’s international career was prematurely ended by Graham Taylor who would later go on to manage Wolves. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness Wolves playing in the late 1980s will tell you that it was a special time, in the post-Bhatti era the club was forging a new path. Steve Bull was the cornerstone of that on the pitch, his connection with supporters was tangible.

We saw Bully in town. ‘Orite lads’ he said as he passed. He had a bag of shopping. There was fruit in it and a loaf of bread on top. He skipped as he walked. But I don’t think his feet were touching the ground. I watched him disappear down Dudley street. I was awestruck. I bumped into somebody.

He was one of us, spoke like us, and went for a beer or two like us. There were never any airs and graces with Bully – what you saw was what you got. Many young boys dream of playing and scoring for their favourite professional club but thousands end up having to live out their aspirations on a Sunday morning on a local park with imbibed teammates doing their best. Bully came a long way from humble beginnings at Tipton Town thus his exploits in the Old Gold and Black allowed thousands of fans to live their dreams vicariously. The City of Wolverhampton’s motto is ‘Out of Darkness Cometh Light’ and in the aftermath of the Bhatti Brothers’ debacle, Bully shone like a beacon for Wolves fans – He saved me from being a complete nihilist! It’s the reason why his name is still sung more than 15 years after he played his last game for Wolverhampton Wanderers. To answer Hugh Cornwell et al – Some heroes are still around, and they will live long in our hearts and memories…

The Darkness isn’t anything to do with light. It’s to do with hope. That darkness was heavy in those days. It clung to your hair and lungs, skin, clothes. It gathered in dark places in the town and in parts of the ground. You could smell it sometimes too. It smelled of surrender and of fear. We didn’t know what to do. We had run out of ideas. Run out of hope. Other greater men than us grabbed hold of our club and made it what it is and in some way we were bit part players. Who were we that humped plaster boards across building sites? Cleaned buckets out in icy water from the bosh that made our hands go so blue and cold you could hardy hold your sandwich? I suppose Bully was that interface between the club and the supporters. He made us believe again, he was the metaphysical link between the rebirth of the club and us. I know clubs have Heroes and Zeroes but I think Bully was much more than this. I still can’t talk to him even though I have met him a few times. I stay quiet and let others talk to him while I stand there with my tongue still and my body vibrating with anxiety. Everybody has a Steve Bull autograph except me I think. I never had the courage to ask him. Heroes don’t give you hope but Gods do. You see, you can talk to heroes but you can never speak to Gods. 

This post is a mash up between Bloxwich Bill and me. I’m still quite reticent to talk about Bully. It’s not time yet. I still haven’t got over him retiring.

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