Whilst traditionalists and modernists might eternally battle over what was the real golden age of English football – for those pre-dating the Premiership revolution of 1992 – the claim to having the bragging rights on the archetypal homegrown player can’t really be denied. The formation of the league and its widescreen sheen was almost like a designer drug for the football senses – all athleticism and tactics being pushed out amongst the masses to get the non-believer interested in their millions. There was little xenophobia about the influx of foreign players involved either. The better the quality, the better the product they surmised, with the soulless product being the definite thing.
For those who had stood on the terraces in less loftier times, however, they already had a different sense of the game and what its chief pistoleros on the pitch stood for. It was an undiluted figure who would run through a brick wall, with a beating heart for their club. From 1986 Molineux witnessed arguably one of the greatest of them of all. The mercurial, bombastic, centre-forward Steve Bull.
The arrival of Bull into the spotlight had almost been a spiritual necessity for Wolverhampton Wanderers. From a proud and auspicious history they had eventually taken to loitering around the lower reaches of the football leagues like a Shakespearian actor touting for pantomime work. Ironically, even the towns motto had a sense of foreboding about it: ‘out of darkness Cometh light’. In football terms, what light exactly?
In the 1986/87 season Wolves even found themselves in the old Fourth Division, scrapping it out with the likes of Hartlepool United and Stockport County, the voodoo clubs of the dead North. For the former away trip there had even been a rumoured incident where the referee had to remove a frozen seagull from a crossbar. It was hardly the gilded stage of elite football. More like its knackers yard.
In Steve Bull, however, there were reasons to be cheerful. For those long suffering fans who travelled in their numbers up and down motorways like lunatics, they finally had someone that shared a strange synchronicity with those on the terraces. He was one of their own. Looked liked them. Cared like them. He knew where the goal was too: 19 in his first season, a great return for a player still cutting his teeth at the professional level. The sight of that familiar crew cut wheeling away in delight would be one that Wolves fans would recognise more and more in the future.
For Bull himself, it was a validation of sorts too. His first club West Brom hadn’t ignited the way he’d wanted and he had to make it work at Wolves whatever it took. He didn’t have to look far for inspiration either. He only had to open his curtains. As a citizen of Tipton, Bull had been surrounded by limitations. The once proud industrial town was in decline. By the mid-eighties it was a stopover town with a near stopped heart. Those with ambition and talent turned their back on the place for good reasons. For those who accepted its decline it was the opposite. They softly shuffled to the pubs and the betting shops with disturbing clockwork, in danger of becoming as rusty as the machinery which clogged up the factories that bordered it.
In Steve Bull, however, Tipton had a progressive talent who steadfastly refused to be drawn into migration from the Midlands. He was fiercely proud of his background. The many scouts and agents that would try and fail to tempt him away from his roots into the bright lights would find that out to their surprise as he suddenly burst on to the radar in the 1987/88 season. An incredible 54 goals in all competitions and a promotion gave Wolves fans a new name to hang on to.
They still talked about Stan Cullis on the terraces of Molineux, and rightly so, but Bull was what they would call a cult hero in the modern age – which was a phrase reserved for those individuals whose extraordinary feats seemed to be born out of grassroots, not an other worldliness. Maybe it was because those who talked about him in the pubs and clubs after home games had seen Bull on the building sites and factories when he was part-time with non-league Tipton. Not many football talismans who worked twelve-hour shifts screwing beds together made it. All in all, it was some rags to riches story.
For those in the media the Steve Bull story would duly begin to resonate after the 1987/88 season. The cliche of a sleeping giant and their homegrown hitman was the staple amongst many of the football journalists looking to fill copy in their papers, but as Bull’s goals continued and his reputation grew, some began to wonder. Could the top flight clubs not be better served to invest in such a natural goal scorer, and with a string of disappointments that went back over two decades, shouldn’t the England side start assessing Steve Bulls obvious talents too?
So the crusade began. A small but committed campaign to get Bull capped for England, the timing of which would prove to be pretty much perfect. The attitude towards the national team around this time, with both the general public and press, was constant disappointment bordering on tournament dread. A tirade against manager Bobby Robson that was seemingly never-ending and someone to naturally partner Gary Lineker which had stalled after Mexico 1986 added to the mix. Being fashionable didn’t come into it. The England hierarchy was under heavy pressure. In many ways capping Steve Bull was a perfect remedy.
Cut to a journey to Hampden Park in 1989. The England team bus is crawling agonisingly slowly to the ground as various Scottish fists are braying on the side of the vehicle in a violent percussion that seems to be getting worse with every metre passed. It’s meant as intimidation of course and it’s working as various household stars shift nervously in their seats, looking wide-eyed at each other. All apart from one. That guy from Wolves who smirks at the sudden interaction. He’s seen it all before. In the English fourth division where you’re almost an arms reach away from opposing fans and you can smell the beef pies and the baccy smoke. Where braying voices and ugly tongues are the norm and the only antidote is to burst the bravado and the opposing net into an all too beautiful silence.
Steve Bull would silence the Hampden faithful too. In the 80th minute, as a long ball was whipped into the Scotland box by Gary Stevens, he would somehow control the ball with the back of his head before driving it past a despairing Jim Leighton. Although it was a game that England expected to win – the scoreline of 2-0 hardly sent shockwaves around the world – what did grab the headlines was the fact that a Third Division striker had a huge impact in them achieving it. Not only was the Tipton terrier a hero in Wolverhampton, he was also a hero to those in the rest of the country as well.
It would be in the West Midlands however where the pride was felt most. They would have a chant at Wolves from then on in: ‘Oh, Stevie Bull’s a tatter/ he wears an England cap’ they would sing as a call to arms from the terraces. It was perfect. The frontman would go on to make 13 more appearances in an England shirt including four at Italia ’90 as England went perilously close to finally admonishing the ghosts of 1966.
Although Bull’s efforts were overshadowed by the exploits of Gascgoine and Lineker, he had played his part, even though his performances in a white shirt would be limited from then on in. In a strange way it hardly mattered. It was always in a Wolves top that he was at his most iconic anyway. There would be nine more seasons and a 140 more goals following the World Cup. Each permeated by that spinning celebration from goal like he was the twelve-year-old playing with his mates again.
Even his retirement in 1999 seemed to enhance, rather than blunt, his heroic reputation. Loyalty is a rare thing in football at any time and although Wolves would again taste the dizzy heights of England’s premier division, there was always a sense of pathos from those on the terraces that Steve Bull never got the chance to experience it in an old gold shirt. Perhaps that was his fate though. In a sport full of million pound moves and six-figure contracts – maybe his heart and his soul just didn’t belong in that particular narcissistic, money pit. That’s what him such a hero and such an ironic one at heart. The fact that for a mere £64,000 transfer fee – he ended up firing Wolverhampton Wanderers to the universe and back.