Football is a serious business – don’t let anybody fool you into thinking otherwise. Even without touching upon the desperate and very real need for vindication felt by those sat watching nervously from the sport’s precipice, whose own personal happiness continues to hinge almost maniacally on the results of their chosen teams; for those at the very centre of the spectacle – for whom small matters such as the fulfilment of professional ambitions, the handcrafting of lasting legacies and the noble pursuit of childhood dreams remain forever at the whim of a single shot or save – it is understandable that so many refuse to admit the beautiful game is a game at all.
In fact, more than being merely understandable, it must be said there is a certain valiance to be found in the unerring passion of fans and players alike who readily equate football to some form of religion. At the very least there exists a kind of belligerent courage to be admired in the obsessive’s commitment to protecting football’s grander sense of importance.
There is, however, something equally special about those reclining at the opposite end of the spectrum. Those who are blessed – or cursed, depending on your persuasion – with the ability to be wholly absorbed by the world’s favourite sport, whether as a spectator or participant, all the while maintaining that it is still very much a game. Those, for example, like Jimmy Bullard.
Over the course of his 15-year career, Jimmy Bullard fought his way from the basement to the balcony of English football, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the country’s greats, and even earned himself a trio of call-ups to his national team. And when he reached the top, Bullard carried on playing exactly the same way he had as a young boy; almost as though nobody had thought to tell him he was now a professional and that the Premier League was a vast departure from the knockings of the school playground.
With his seemingly permanent grin and mischievous manner on show during almost every one of his 300 or so career matches, Bullard, more so than any of his contemporaries, remained in every way devoted to the notion that football exists to be enjoyed regardless of the level it is played at. Though he may well have boasted ample ability in that rocket-powered right foot of his, it was his inherent commitment to embracing the joy of football, along with his unhealthy preoccupation with pranks, that set Bullard apart from his peers.
Despite beginning his formal footballing education at the finest of schools, in the form of his beloved West Ham United’s famed youth academy, Bullard’s early experiences in senior football proved to be deceptively troublesome for the talented midfielder.
Released into the maelstrom of the mid-1990s by the Hammers, the teenage Bullard was eager to take advantage of the most immediate route back into football, whatever it should be, even if it meant dropping a league or two. He believed he had found what he was looking for at amateur Kent-based club Corinthian FC.
Though a world away from the well-marshalled milieu he had grown up in at West Ham, Bullard’s time in the non-league showcased his talents wide across the length and breadth of the south coast and he was quickly snapped up by Dartford FC, who soon found themselves on the opposite end of negotiations when Bullard was nabbed by Gravesend & Northfleet.
In almost no time at all, it was clear that Bullard had outgrown his humble surroundings, and in 1999, just a few short seasons beyond his initial release from West Ham, his boyhood club came calling with plans of an emotional reunion. Suffice to say, Bullard signed without much deliberation.
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Once again, though, Bullard was unable to force his way into West Ham’s first team plans and by the summer of 2001 found himself being offered around the leagues on a free transfer. He was handed a three-week trial by then third-tier team Peterborough United and was soon thereafter signed by the Posh.
Sceptical though he may have been about moving some 75 miles north of his country’s capital, knowing Bullard, there’s no doubt his troubles would’ve been eased by the news that his new team’s stadium was located on London Road.
In the old Division Three Bullard wasted no time in evidencing his relative superiority once again – clearly a cut above the rest – and it took just two seasons for Wigan Athletic to stump up over a quarter of a million for Bullard’s services in January 2003.
Upon his arrival in Lancashire, Bullard immediately entered the Wigan first team and was from there on out scarcely missing from it for the following three seasons. Bullard’s superb performances during his inaugural year with the Latics were sufficient to see him named in the PFA Division Two Team of the Year, despite having featured in the league for six months less than most of those he shared the honour, as his team racked up a century of points on the way to securing the title.
Just two seasons later and Bullard was the life of the promotion party again as his Wigan team finished as runners-up to Sunderland in the second tier, ensuring the Latics would feature in the country’s top division for the first time in their history.
His promotion to the Premier League with Wigan coming just eight years after having lined up as an amateur in the country’s non-league, Bullard’s rise through the domestic ranks was meteoric to say the least. But if, for those of a similar ilk to Bullard, the thought of playing in the Premier League was enough to have many actively iron out their more childish indiscretions in order to attempt to do some justice to the increased importance of their professional duties, Bullard’s arrival amidst the glitz and glamour of the top tier did precisely the opposite.
As though they had sprouted overnight, suddenly a stunning spotlight and an army of cameramen were aimed directly at Bullard, and this proved only to crack open pandora’s box of cheap tricks even wider than before.
Prior to his Premier League unveiling, Bullard’s shenanigans had seemingly remained hidden behind the scenes, confined to training ground car parks and stadium dressing rooms. To Bullard, though, a bigger crowd simply meant a bigger laugh and never could he resist the allure of the occasion. And so the nation soon came to learn of Bullard’s wild side.
To those without any particular Wigan Athletic persuasion, sublime though many of his goals for the Latics may have been, Bullard’s time in Lancashire is perhaps best remembered for two particular on-field escapades. The first of which came during the opening leg of the club’s League Cup semi-final in January 2006.
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With a positive result at home potentially key to delivering Wigan to their first major cup final, and facing tough opposition in the shape of vast favourites Arsenal, nerves were predictably wrought throughout the DW Stadium’s pitch and stands. What the occasion desperately needed was somebody to lighten the mood and bring a little laughter to the game. At least, that was the typical thought process of Jimmy Bullard on the night.
The game was almost an hour old when the stadium was suddenly plunged into darkness; a power failure throughout the town causing Wigan’s floodlights to give out. Cue Bullard’s ironically-timed lightbulb moment.
Having always been told to play to the whistle, Bullard sought to take advantage of the referee’s failure to officially call the game to a temporary stand-still with his whistle. Such was Howard Webb’s fatal error in assuming the pitch being lit by nothing more than distant moonlight would be enough to stop Jimmy Bullard from playing. The resident prankster embarked upon a mazy run around the turf, his sights trained firmly on what little of the Arsenal goal he could see. After tearing past his a number of his bemused opponents, eventually Bullard came to within shooting distance, or so he believed, of Manuel Almunia and his net.
Bullard took aim, let fly with his famous right foot, and saw his shot veer embarrassingly wide, much to the amusement of any and all in possession of night-vision goggles. Not done with making the most of the evening’s peculiar circumstances, his cheeky attempt at sneaking his team into the lead under the cover of darkness had come only after he had already used the lack of light to his advantage, pulling down the shorts of the unsuspecting Freddie Ljungberg; a sly nod to the Swede’s time as an underwear model.
The second of Bullard’s most famous moments in Wigan colours came just three weeks after his impromptu show against Arsenal, this time during a home game against Everton. As he put it himself,“it was a boring game, a Tuesday night … about five people watching”, so Bullard took it upon himself to find some other way of entertaining the crowd and, more importantly, himself.
When a hopeful inswinging cross rebounded loosely off of a Wigan shin and into the Everton six-yard box a frenzied goalmouth scramble quickly ensued. With no less than six Everton players competing for the honour of squeezing the ball away from a confused-looking Jason Roberts, who appeared to be fighting the Wigan cause alone in the box, the ball eventually returned to the near-prostrate Richard Wright whose desperate outstretched arm gathered the ball and called a halt to the madness.
But that wasn’t before Jimmy Bullard had arrived promptly on the scene, his class clown instincts resurfacing at the very moment he reached the ruck, as he endeavoured not to prize possession back from Everton or force home a goal but instead leapfrog the downward-facing Tim Cahill to send himself flying head-first onto the turf beyond the madness. Needless to say, Bullard succeeded in both clearing the players strewn around the six-yard box and drawing from the crowd the biggest cheer of the night thus far and in the process ensured his own inclusion in every DVD collection of ‘football’s funniest moments’ for all eternity.
Eventually Bullard outgrew Wigan – though not before adding plenty more scalps to his growing repertoire of ever-escalating wind-ups in the form of the teammate’s kit in the cold shower; the deep heat in the teammate’s underwear; the flooding of the teammate’s brand new convertible; the piss in the teammate’s aftershave bottle – and after three successful seasons Bullard travelled back home to London to join Fulham in a deal that his soon-to-be manager Chris Coleman would later call “the best £2million [he had] ever spent.”
Following his latest transfer, far from being the type of fellow to reinvent himself just for the benefit of easing his way into an unfamiliar crowd, Bullard saw his love of pranks as the perfect way to ingratiate himself with his new Fulham teammates.
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Barely four weeks into his stay at Craven Cottage and this mindset manifested itself in the form of Bullard actively seeking to psyche out the alpha-est of Fulham’s alpha males, their menacing midfield unit, Papa Bouba Diop – a player appropriately nicknamed ‘The Wardrobe’ – believing that if his new colleagues saw he was willing to mess with the biggest guy at the club off the field there would be no reason to doubt him on it. Certainly, they may not wish to come within 10 feet of him in the dressing room for fear of falling foul of his next dastardly act, but, to Bullard, that was a risk worth taking.
And so, while he lay face-down on the massage table receiving treatment from the club’s physio, onto the bald head of Diop came Jimmy Bullard’s own crown jewels, placed, removed, then placed again, three or four times for good measure. “Slapped” was the word he used.
Picture the scene as Diop – who you’d not be judged for imagining to be wearing nothing but a towel – leapt up and was greeted by the widest of Bullard grins. Seconds later Bullard could be seen racing around the Fulham training facilities with Diop close behind him, intent on tearing from him his tools of the trade, though fortunately no lasting damage was inflicted upon either party. Bullard escaped, tools intact, and even recalled later “we was good mates after that” – and just like that Bullard was an integral part of the dysfunctional Fulham family.
Bullard remained at home in the capital until January 2009 when the time came for a move back up north, this time to join Hull City. Though signed for the princely sum of £5 million, Bullard was eager as ever to show the role of the court jester was far from beyond him.
Bullard’s Hull career could hardly have gotten off to a worse start as an injury to his previously dislocated knee, sustained just minutes into his debut, proved sufficient to sideline him for almost nine months. But by the time he was fit to return to first-team duties, in October of the same year, Bullard had plans of another public performance up his sleeve.
When in late December 2008 Hull City found themselves 4-0 down to Manchester City at half-time, manager Phil Brown believed that dealing some harsh home truths to his players behind closed doors would not suffice, as far as half-time team talks go. So the gaffer elected to keep his players on the field for the duration of the interval, berating their dire performance and delivering the second half tactics angrily while stood at the centre of a clearly embarrassed circle of sitting players trying to ignore his gesticulations.
So be it, when Bullard equalised for Hull away to Man City the following season, there was only one way he could toast the occasion. Following his successful penalty conversion, Bullard’s teammates immediately flocked to him before falling in unison to the turf in a similar-looking circle shape. Of course at the centre was Bullard, the cheeky celebration’s key orchestrator, doing his very best Phil Brown impression, finger-wagging furiously in the direction of his fellow Tigers while failing to contain his laughter.
Suffice to say the crowd lapped it up as Bullard’s antics even drew a begrudging ripple of applause from a selection of home fans whose admiration for a well-executed celebration trumped the disappointment of losing a lead.
After the game, Bullard played down his role in the party piece: “We decided to do it last night. It was a bit of banter to do if we scored a goal, and we agreed that whoever scored had to be the one who did the pointing.” Given his track record, though, there was only ever going to be one man in the middle of that celebration.
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Though Bullard only spent two seasons at Hull, his time in East Yorkshire is remembered by many who witnessed his time there; his Phil Brown impersonation his greatest on-field contribution, excluding the odd 25-yard screamer, while the classic video clip that was his hilarious array of facial expressions, funny walks and ever-changing short-heights portrayed during recording duties with the Premier League covered what efforts Bullard naturally felt needed to be put in off the field too.
Before eventually becoming manager of non-league side Leatherhead in 2016, Jimmy Bullard spent the final two years of his professional playing career back in the lower tiers, enjoying what was left of the game for him, on the wrong end of a string of debilitating injuries, blessing the people of Ipswich and then Milton Keynes with an access all areas view of exactly what Bullard could do with a ball, as well as what he’d get up to when left to his own devices without one.
To many who witnessed his emergence onto the national scene, hearing tales of his behind the scenes stitch-ups and watching his jokes play out on the pitch, Bullard’s vivacious enthusiasm may well have been misinterpreted as a lack of focus or determination; his antics befitting those of a clown more than a footballer. But while comparing the professional athlete to a clown may initially seem disrespectful, in fact, the comparison remains remarkably apt.
On the surface, clowns represent the most simplistic of all circus performers because they are designed to be consumed partially as comic relief, a timely distraction to fill the gaps between the setting up of apparatus and the changing of costumes. But well-masked behind the garish lacquer, the lapel flower that squirts water, the penchant for pie-throwing and bogus bumbling, the clown remains every bit as talented as the other members of the circus cast, more than capable of swinging from a trapeze or trotting along a high-wire should the occasion require it of him. Hiding behind every great clown’s wacky attire and goofy gait is a highly-trained, excruciatingly proficient professional.
In the travelling circus that is English football, for many years, Bullard happily played the part of the clown, never passing up an opportunity for a laugh on and off the pitch. But just like a real clown, behind the jokes lived a wealth of talent. To his credit, Bullard’s greatest fault was perhaps in playing the role too convincingly.
So natural was his indefatigable humour, so memorable was the breath of fresh air he brought to lighten the do-or-die nature of professional football, Bullard will perhaps forever be remembered more for his buffoonery than the incredible skills he so effectively hid behind his personality. After all, it was his tricks and jokes that form the bulk of this particular retrospection.
But one of the greatest compliments that could be paid to Bullard is that when the laughter died down, for as long as he would let it, and the football commenced, he never once looked out of place. Having fought his way up from non-league to the Premier League, and found himself three times excruciatingly just a substitution away from representing his country, the incredible journey traversed by Bullard provides sufficient proof of his abundant ability and determination.
Whenever he happened to swap the red nose and giant-size shoes for a kit and a pair of boots it was always a worthwhile departure from the humour. When on the rare occasion he allowed himself a moment’s sober thought to focus on the finer nuances of the performance, he had more than enough talent to perform the role of any of the circus troupe.
A losing battle though it may be, even today as he explores the curious world of management, Bullard remains devoted to reminding everybody in attendance that, above all else, football should be enjoyed. For his commitment to his philosophy Bullard certainly can’t be faulted. Whether it’ll catch on or not, though, is another matter entirely. After all, football is a serious business – don’t let anybody fool you into thinking otherwise
By Will Sharp @shillwarp