I have always been interested in personality in athletics. John Terry – mentally strong, or pychopath? Usain Bolt jollying around before big races – is this the product of his brilliance, he knows he is faaaaaaast and so can take it easy, or part of it? It was said that Marco van Basten wouldn’t play unless he felt “just right”, minor twinges meaning he wouldn’t be up to things on the day, and so he’d sit it out. Others, meanwhile, played come what may, knowing that 100% is a rare and mythical beast, and you play when you can play. Football is a crazy melting pot of cultures and backgrounds. Some players respond to negativity, others, to borrow a cliche, need an arm around them. It’s why managers like Sir Alex Ferguson are presumably seriously good psychologists, too. They understand that everyone is very different and act accordingly.
Which brings me to Jimmy Bullard, who has retired from football.
Bullard was by all accounts a pain in the arse. Someone posted on a message board that after 5 minutes you think he’s hilarious, after 30 minutes you want to kill him. Lord knows what a whole season of him might be like. Chris Baird punched him and I’m sure others in the squad secretly felt good about that. (Who knows, it may even have contributed to Baird’s resurgence into the league’s premier ball-playing midfielder we know and love today.)
But there’s no doubt that Bullard getting back from injury when he did in 2008 thoroughly saved our bacon. People have rightly pointed out that a number of people made decisive contributions that season: Hodgson, Keller, Niemi, Stalteri, Hangeland, Hughes, Konchesky, on and on and on.
Sure. They really did all help out. It was a team effort.
I wonder though. A team in dire straits is usually not a happy one, and in some ways, having some jibbering idiot rock up almost at the last minute (West Ham away was February 2008 I think) must have made quite a difference to the mood in the camp.
On the pitch Bullard always, and I mean always, wanted the ball. This became an irritation (the Coca Cola cup game against Leicester a season down the line was a masterclass in unthinking hollywood ball wastefulness), but in times of high pressure it probably helped his teammates no end. He wasn’t frightened of trying things, and his high energy approach must have pulled others along, too. He made critical interventions whenever a critical interventions were needed most (NB Villa, Blackburn away, etc). And while Danny Murphy put that header away at Portsmouth, Bullard swung the free-kick into the area so he could.
He got called up for England, too, of course.
So it was a funny career. He didn’t get going for a while, then Chris Coleman astutely activated a release clause in his Wigan contract, and down to Fulham he came. I don’t know whether his knees were an accident waiting to happen or whether Scott Parker did for him there and then, but in retrospect the Newcastle game was a huge turning point for him, and for Fulham.
Had he not been injured that day Coleman would probably never have got into the mess he did. Lawrie Sanchez wouldn’t have happened, Roy Hodgson and Martin Jol wouldn’t have happened. Someone would have come in at some point – Coleman’s trajectory was more or less taking us in the wrong direction – but things would have been different.
Not just for Fulham though. Bullard was in the form of his life, and for a brief time was demonstrating phenomenal attributes on the football pitch, particularly in his passing and presence. It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened to him had he not been injured, had he continued to star for Fulham. Hull, Ipswich, ignominy; again, some fate may have troubled him sooner rather than later – he does have an unfortunate ‘why always me?’ air about him – but chances are he’d have been okay for a while.
When you think about it, Bullard’s was one of the weirder careers you’ll come across. He arrived at the top late on, was boshed out of the top for a long time, reappeared to great effect, then was boshed away again. In a way it’s no wonder he acted a bit odd sometimes.