EXCLUSIVE: 'It's boredom, not the booze that's always been my big problem', says newly retired Bullard
22:17 GMT, 19 October 2012
Jimmy Bullard nearly became a fireman. He was working as a painter and decorator with his dad, Big Jim, and dreaming of becoming a professional footballer while playing for Gravesend and Northfleet.
‘I got quite far and failed the written test, obviously,’ says the former Peterborough and Fulham midfielder with a self-deprecating roll of his eyes. ‘I was a Sky fitter for a few months as well, had my own van.’
Yet Bullard’s dream did not go up in smoke. He did make it. And now, in the month he turns 34, the dream is over.
Stumped: Jimmy Bullard has retired because of injuries
The ‘late developer’, who ascended the divisions with Wigan Athletic before being called up for his country, has retired. A ‘whack on the knee’ in his first game for MK Dons in September was the final straw as Bullard finally gave in to the injuries that blighted his career.
‘I thought I would leave while I’m half-decent, rather than being absolutely crap,’ he says. ‘I was never going to make it again in the Premier League — and that’s what I strived to do as a kid.
‘I was frightened of really, really injuring myself and putting my whole life in jeopardy: with work and with playing football with my kids; with walking, even.’
Bullard feared his career was over when he ‘smashed all of the ligaments’ in his right knee in only his fourth game for Fulham in September 2006. ‘Every one of them was hanging on by a fag paper,’ he says.
Staying up: Bullard celebrates with Danny Murphy after helping Fulham beat Portsmouth 1-0 at Fratton Park on the final day of the 2008 season to avoid relegation
He injured the same knee on his Hull City debut after signing for 5million in January 2009, causing a nine-month lay-off. In December he was out again. ‘Wallop. I landed on my head and did my left knee. Another three months out and my head was completely gone.’
Bullard was desperately unlucky with injury, but there have been suggestions his lifestyle did little to help his cause. East Yorkshire used to be awash with stories of the midfielder’s late-night drinking and he was suspended for an incident during a pre-season training camp in Slovenia in July 2011. Bullard has signed a confidentiality clause that stops him from discussing it, but insists it was ‘just an argument with the manager’, Nigel Pearson.
Bullard also received a two-week suspension at Ipswich Town last March after turning up late for training following a two-day bender in Newcastle with Michael Chopra. The ‘dopey sod’ apparently forgot to book a taxi.
Cursed: Bullard is helped off during his ill-fated Hull debut
So did this talented sportsman, a scratch golfer with a natural gift for football, drink his career away ‘No,’ says Bullard emphatically. ‘That’s rubbish; an embarrassment.
‘When I’m wrong I’m the first to say sorry. I shouldn’t have done that — turning up late and going out two nights in a row at Ipswich. I’m a professional athlete.
‘When you’re injured you sometimes do go out more than you should but you think, “Well, I haven’t got a game to play at the weekend, so what’s it going to do”
‘Browny (former Hull manager Phil Brown) let the boys go out when we wanted. There were about six or seven lads living in the same place. We used to have a fantastic time, parties and stuff.
‘We’d go out, but I might have gone out for a bite to eat and the next morning he would have heard I’d been in a bar until 4am or out for three days. It was unbelievable.’
The early days: Bullard playing for Peterborough in 2003
Bullard insists booze is not his problem, but boredom. His eyes constantly flicker about, and even at 10am in a cafe in a sleepy village in Surrey — after pouring sugar into his tea — he already seems wired. Bullard is very entertaining company, but non-stop.
‘I’ve got a bad problem with boredom,’ he says. ‘I get bang into trouble when I’m bored. I didn’t combat the boredom, but I got over it. Ian Ashbee was the captain at Hull and he was injured at the same time, which got me out of trouble. But I always had to have people round me.
‘It’s a nightmare, especially when you’re indoors on your own. I’m not one to play computer games. My boredom was off the scale. I wished I was going out. But a lot of it was so inflamed and so out of control.’
Joker in the pack: Bullard was known as a prankster at his various clubs
Bullard remembers Hull fans confronting him in the street; angry that a man earning 45,000 a week (the club’s record signing) was not playing. It was a ‘massive salary’ compared to his old Fulham deal, a ‘life-changing’, four-and-a-half-year contract, but it ended badly.
Hull were relegated and Bullard’s contract was terminated in August 2011 as player and club concluded their business in court. The accusation that Bullard was greedy, however, rankles.
‘I played for nothing for three months,’ he reveals. ‘I wasn’t guaranteed to get that money — there were reports of liquidation — but everyone was in the same boat and that’s what happens when a club’s bang in trouble: you’ve got to stick with it, haven’t you
Pain game: Bullard suffered his first major injury just a few games into his Fulham career away at Newcastle
‘Then I found out I was the only player not getting paid. I had bills to pay. In the end Hull did pay, but they shouldn’t have done that, just because I was on a big contract.
‘As a player who had an injury like that I’m always going to safeguard myself and take as many years as I can, but it was about football, too. I wanted to go to a club who showed they wanted me.
‘But I’m a fan myself. I know what they were thinking, but I’ve always given 100 per cent when I could. I’ve done my rehab. There isn’t a lot I could say I would do differently.’
In some ways Bullard seems to belong to a different era, when more players had personalities as memorable as their performances. You can’t help but laugh as he recalls the time he checked in to a hotel on a pre-season tour with Fulham and noted manager Chris Coleman’s room number.
International recognition: Bullard was called into the England squad by Fabio Capello in 2008 – but never played a game
‘I put everything on his room all week: golf, golf buggies,’ he says. ‘I even bought myself a putter. All the Real Madrid boys were there and I bought them all drinks. I must have spent about 3,000.
‘It was classic: I watched Cookie (Coleman) go up to sign out — plus what he’d had — and he says, “That’s a bit steep, isn’t it” Then, “Bullard!” ‘He didn’t charge me for it, but then I broke the glass lift door. I clipped a golf ball and it shattered. I kept quiet but it was me or Papa Bouba Diop — the size of him! — so I had to put my hand up. It cost me about 700.’
Bullard wrinkles his nose at what he sees as some of the ‘regimentation’ of today’s game, when grown men have to ‘be in bed by 10’.
‘Do me a favour,’ he says. ‘I can’t be doing with that. But I think you’ve got to weigh things up.
Playing the fool: Bullard imitates Hull manager Phil Brown with his goal celebration after scoring against Manchester City
‘I knew I could get away with it with Chris Coleman, but he was great for me. It was probably my worst moment in football when he was sacked. If Roy Hodgson’s there I’m not going to do it. You’ve got to use your noggin. Can you imagine doing that to Roberto Mancini’
He’s ‘messing about’ again, yet Bullard sounds faintly disappointed when he says: ‘People don’t recognise my football, half of them; it’s all the things off YouTube or my hair advert.’
He insists his route to the top made him value his profession more. He still has a letter from one of his teachers, Mr Marquart, telling him he had the talent to become a footballer and the same little boy look appears in his eyes when he describes being offered a trial at West Ham. Bullard, then 19, ‘still had claret and blue on the walls’ and thought the scout, Roger Scott, was ‘having a wind-up’.
That's your lot: Bullard quit football after he failed to recover from his knee troubles
‘But I turned up and Harry Redknapp was there,’ he adds. ‘Me and Frank Lampard going one-on-one first thing. I’ll never forget it.’
Bullard does not bow out as a player in a blaze of glory but proudly recalls when he was called into the England squad in August 2008.
Although he was never capped, he is quietly happy with his achievements, insisting he has ‘enjoyed it at every club’.
There have certainly been some firework moments, that’s for sure.
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF LITTLE JIM
October 23, 1978: Born in London.
1998: Joins Gravesend and Northfleet.
1999: Joins West Ham for 30,000 but fails to make an appearance.
2001: Joins Peterborough.
2003: Moves to Wigan in January for 275,000 and helps secure promotion to the Championship that season, before promotion to the Premier League in 2004-05.
2006: Joins Fulham for 2.5m. Bullard dislocates his kneecap in September and is out until January 2008.
2008: Called up for England World Cup qualifiers with Croatia and Andorra but doesn’t play.
2009: Joins Hull for 5m in January. Injures his knee on debut and misses nine months. Named Premier League player of the month in November. Injures his other knee in December and is sidelined for three months.
2011: Joins Ipswich after a loan spell. Suspended after drinking spree with Michael Chopra.
2012: Joins MK Dons but a knock in his first game for them convinces him it is time to retire.