CARDIFF – 10 YEARS ON: An interview with Lee Bullen
They say you should never meet your heroes but I’ve never really been sure of who ‘they’ are. I am sure, however, that Lee Bullen is one of my heroes so ‘they’ are wrong.
What an absolute gent Bully is.
Articulate and passionate, Wednesday flows through his veins and what unfolded in Cardiff 10 years ago is still very much fresh in his mind.
As you read this two-part look back on one of the greatest days of a Wednesdayite’s life, that will become clear.
After contacting him via Twitter, we arranged to meet at the training ground on Middlewood Road, which was, for me, a thrill in itself.
Dome aside, the training ground hasn’t changed much
My Dad took me there back in the Premier League days and, aside from the big dome indoor pitch, not much has changed at all. Putting aside nostalgic feelings of our time in the sun, it struck me – nothing has changed.
While you and I would still dream of going to work here every day, much like Hillsborough, our training ground looks tired and in need of a lick of paint.
Time will tell whether Mr Chansiri will keep his word and upgrade the facilities but that’s a discussion for another time. Right now through a flaking blue door marked ‘1st Team Players and Staff Only’, I’m stood next to a lonely exercise bike, perusing a trophy cabinet, eagerly awaiting Mr Bullen.
Being that the main trophy ‘haul’ is on display at the stadium, I can only assume this is the ‘Odds n Ends’ cabinet as there didn’t seem to be much on display of note other than a Youth Team pennant against Chelsea from 2014 and three cups from Italy, all won in 2008. A good year, clearly.
Soon enough Bully pulls up outside in a lovely car. Whether it was the excitement or that I’m just crap with cars, but I can tell you no more than it was shiny and had two exhausts.
He strolls through the door looking sharp as vinegar and offers a big firm handshake. He greets me: “Pleased to meet you, Tom”, with my eyes, I’m sure, wide as saucers.
We make our way into a room off to the side. A pretty standard meeting room that you’re likely to find in most work places, only this one has a huge sponsorship hoarding that must’ve been used for photo ops.
Again, my thoughts wandered into the past – if these walls could speak… maybe David Hirst signed on the dotted line here in ‘86? Or is this where we finally snared Barry Horne back in 2000?
I start by telling Bully a little bit about Owls Alive, while hastily moving my Mum’s borrowed dictaphone into the centre of the table (please work, please work, please work). I hit record and we’re off…
“That season, it was all new to me as well. I didn’t know many of the players so I didn’t really know what to expect or what sort of group I had. They didn’t know me; it was a bit of strange scenario.
If I had moved to a club in Scotland, I would’ve known the players; I would’ve been able to get a gauge for it. I didn’t really know about League One in England but I did know that we were the biggest club in that division.
What I didn’t know is that that brings its own pressures, and the season before we were lucky to avoid relegation to the league below. It was a massive football club that had been through a hard time. It wasn’t that long ago that they were trying to win the League, FA Cup and pushing for Europe’.
‘I’d always wanted to play in England so it was a dream come true. The silver lining was that because the club was going through such a hard time, I had the chance to join.
If it was doing any better, I wouldn’t have had the chance to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. If we were a Championship or a Premiership club, I wouldn’t have played.
JP McGovern: Part of the Scottish contingent that joined in summer 2004
The club had to cut wages and cloth accordingly and Scotland was cheaper in terms of wages so myself, JP and Stevie Mac were all options. It was a step into the unknown but exciting, I was really looking forward to it.
I came down from Scotland with the intention of getting the club promoted and that was the target but I didn’t have enough knowledge of the players to say; yeah I fancy our chances.’
Colchester at home, not the best start?
‘(Laughs) No! The strange thing was we had a great pre-season, had a mad trip to Ibiza, battered Preston and lost to Watford on penalties. I think we won virtually every pre-season game so were on a massive high going into that first game against Colchester.
We didn’t actually play badly that game, they got the first goal and the bottom just fell out of the game. One minute you’re in the game and finding it hard to break it down and you’ve got that beginning of season high and then you walk off at the end and say, “We just got beat 3-0?!”
You’re shell-shocked, you’re thinking, “Oh my god where’s that come from?” It was totally unexpected especially after the players were so confident going into it with the pre-season we’d had.
It was certainly a welcome to English football!’
At the start, the home form seemed reminiscent of this season, no?
‘An Achilles’ heel. It takes a strong character to play at Hillsborough; it’s a tough place to play when things aren’t going well.
The fans are hungry for the club to have success. They’d been on a downwards spiral and, at that point, just wanted a bit of light at the end of the tunnel and then to lose 3-0 in your first game…bloody hell.
The writing was on the wall for Turner after a poor start
We went to Blackpool in the next game and won but we were so up and down in the next seven or eight games that it led to Chris (Turner) losing his job. It had to be half expected.
We were thrown together, had a good pre-season which was maybe a little bit of a false dawn and then the inconsistencies kicked in which led to Dave Allen making the decision to move Chris on.
It was always going to take a bit of time for the players to gel but in this game, knowing the season they’d had previously, Chris knew he had to hit the ground running.’
What did you know of Paul Sturrock?
‘I knew him as a player while growing up in Scotland. He was so unorthodox – scruffy little shit, shirt out and socks down to his ankles but talented… there’s not that kind of player around at the moment.
You’ve got Messi and Ronaldo obviously but it’s difficult to put him in that kind of bracket but at that time he was such an enigmatic figure that he could win games on his own – this short skinny waif of a character as a player but as a coach I didn’t really know.
I’d been up in Scotland, Paul had been down in Plymouth so we couldn’t be much further away. For me he was always a very high profile player in Scottish football. So I didn’t know how it was going to go.
He came in and was tough and honest. That’s what took him to the hearts of every fan.
The most positive thing people said about Paul Sturrock and why they liked him was his honesty, there were no airs or graces about him. Good, bad or indifferent after a game he’d tell it like it was. Fans appreciated that.
There’s too many nowadays that go round the houses. They use stats and this and that to explain situations. I think Stuart’s like Sturrock as he too is honest and frank but Sturrock… with that Scottish twang, he’d look you in the eye and tell you straight away.
King Paul: Unconventional but successful
He was like that in the first players’ meeting he had, he said: “Listen, there’s only two reasons mangers get jobs in football. One – they move on because they’ve done that well and they’re being headhunted to move the club on. I’m here because of the other one – you’re not good enough and you know that but we’re going to try and put things back on track.”
Certainly worked that way for us.’
Your form in particular was really good, you must’ve been happy with your season?
‘Yeah it was up and down. I did make mistakes in the four or five years I was here but I always felt I did my best and tried not to make them. As a defender, more often than not you pay for your mistakes.
Unfortunately I got punished 10 times out of 10. But overall I really enjoyed the season, started as a right back and ended as a centre back due to change in personnel.’
It’s a measure of a man that he cares about his mistakes more than the fact that, as a defender, he managed to bag seven goals for us that season.
What about the goals you got though, Lee!?
‘How many did I get, was it 7?’
Didn’t you get three in a row at one point?
‘Yeah, prolific! That was all down to Sturrock. He said I was a striker playing as a defender. I’d played up front earlier in my career and I was lucky enough to score in a few games. I think scoring against Blackpool in the second game was a big lift for me. Nicking goals here and there. I really enjoyed it.’
There’s ‘nicking goals’, but then there’s that one against Torquay!
The striker-turned-defender celebrates another goal for the Owls
‘Torquay was good but I still think I was about 10 yards offside! I’d been up for corner and Matty just picked me out with a fantastic ball into the box, I’d just stayed up. There were actually eight Dunfermline supporters that had come down for the game, a bus-load so it was great to score.
2-0 down and went on to draw 2-2. Chest, volley back of the net. Top corner, brilliant.
I remember meeting the Dunfermline lot after the game. Bizarrely from that Torquay game, one of the lads met his future wife on the night out – a Sheffield lass!’
It’s fair to say Dave Allen divided opinion in his tenure with us but Bully believes a contract clause he brought in gave that squad a real advantage…
‘It was a club stipulation that the players lived within 15 miles of Hillsborough. Therefore a lot of the lads lived up Eccy Road and Wadsley Park village. Whelan, Maclean, Proudlock, Brunt all became good friends, wives became good friends and families became good friends – camaraderie.
When I first came here, I shared with Whelan while Dave Lucas and JP were in the flat right next to us. If we went out after a win, I could go out with Whelan or with JP and I knew I’d bump into five or six of the other lads.
It just created that bond, that togetherness because, as the season went on, you figured out that, on paper, we weren’t one of the two or three best teams in this league as individuals.
But, as a team, that was probably the best team spirit we had and I think that was down to the fact that the club insisted we lived within this 15-mile radius.
I think it’s difficult nowadays as we weren’t on wages they are now.
There’s guys playing the game now on a lot of money and they don’t want to move from Nottingham, Manchester, Derby, Leeds. So they all come in, they commute, they have nice cars and it’s comfortable.
There are a few lads that will meet for a coffee after training on Eccy Road. It’d just be nice if a few more of them were like that but generally, they’re off doing their own thing.’
The Kenwyne Jones signing gave the Owls a massive lift
As the season progressed, Stevie Mac, JP, Whelan and Brunt all came good and along came loan starlet Kenwyne Jones. Promotion was always within reach.
Momentum was building…
‘Yeah I think we’d gone through a rough spell earlier on obviously and I think Kenwyne coming in gave us a bit of a kick up the backside; gave us a catalyst. Scoring whatever he did in the time he was here it really did get us back on track because I think it’s only naturally for us to stall what with the form at the start of the season and losing a manager. There’s bound to be a lot of ups and downs, highs and lows.
Kenwyne coming in was a shrewd bit of business by Sturrock and the form from there catapulted us back into contention for automatic but, more than likely, the play-offs.
With about seven or eight games to go we were comfortably in a play-off position but then we hit a massive brick wall.’
Fair to say the form dipped a bit. I was there for that Hartlepool game with it absolutely pissing it down…
‘Horrific, it really was. We were missing about four or five players but we were absolutely terrible on the day. Adam Boyd was fantastic. We had a shocker. And that third goal that he chipped. Brilliant.
You go from being comfortably in the play-offs to thinking, ‘Wait a minute we could miss out here’. And to consolidate our position we have to go to the club that’s already promoted and win?!
They were having a party atmosphere; they could go out and relax. We had to win the Wednesday way and put the fans through it.’
Still trying to claim that goal?!
‘Absolutely! Over the line. I’m glad Quinny made sure but it was in. Long throw-in, goalie’s had an absolute Horlicks and it goes bouncing off me through his legs. No I’m definitely claiming it.
That was some atmosphere at that end of the stadium to score that in front of your own fans as well. Unbelievable.
Sturrock though, as you know when it gets to 90 minutes, he doesn’t watch the injury time he just goes down the tunnel. So he’s in the changing room and in Hull you have to go down a long corridor before you get there so it’s a fair way from the pitch tucked away so you can’t hear anything that’s going on.
We’ve come back in, all sat down and he starts to hammer all of us one by one…
“You! Ye b*****d. You! Ye f*****g joke. You! Useless!” He’s in a rage and then Brucey just says, “Gaffer – we won”… his face is a picture… “F*****g hell!”
That’s just the gaffer and it’s happened two or three times in his career.
We had a couple of beers afterwards but the eyes were firmly on the prize, still had a job to do. It was more a relief to get over the line than anything else.
In fact the drinking was done before the game on the Friday.
The key to securing a playoff spot?
I swear to God. Straight after training, gaffer says “Right – team meeting in the canteen.” You’re thinking tactics; he’s going to name his team etc…
Sturrock walks in with a box of beer, box of blue WKD, Smirnoff Ice, bottles of wine and says “Right lads, we’re gonna have a drink” – the Friday before the biggest game of the season. Just unheard of.
Football is all about results and the fact we won makes him a genius. If we’d lost, everyone would be saying what on earth did he do that for? No one was pissed, we just had a beer and chatted.
It was just relaxed and we didn’t even mention the football. I think it was his way of relieving a bit of pressure that he maybe sensed in training or whatever.
As soon as we got into the play-offs I genuinely felt like we were going to get promoted, I really did. I thought we’d done the hard work, the belief in the players meant we were going to get there.
But in the play-offs you never know what could happen. Though we’d rather be playing Hartlepool than Tranmere if we got to the final. Tranmere had done us earlier in the season and Iain Hume was a pain in the arse for us. Nightmare.’
Of course, before the final there was the small matter of a semi-final…
So how does the Brentford atmosphere rank for you?
‘The home game was unbelievable. Sturrock believes we won that game due to the support. We should have won by more but the atmosphere and the way the supporters were 100% behind the players from the very first whistle helped us immensely.
It was a comfortable victory but we should’ve gone to Brentford a lot more comfortable. At 1-0 it’s still in the melting pot.
JP’s goal was fantastic. There was a real belief around the stadium that night that we’d get the goal we needed. We got the result but the supporters are heading down there with nerves.
Martin Allen tried all he could to win the mental battle
Griffin Park is a difficult place to go. Mad Dog Allen is a hell of a character and he was even trying the mind games straight after the first leg in the manager’s office.
He say’s “Nah, your guys will bottle it. We’ll do you at our place.” Sturrock just took that into the mental bank and said he’d use that as a motivational tool. He was well happy with that.’
I, along with my fellow Owls Alive contributors, often mention in rambles about the positive and negative aspects of the Hillsborough crowd. I wanted to know what it’s really like down there on the pitch.
It’s been said before about the 12th man. But how is it when you’re a player, playing at Hillsborough. What can you hear? Is it just a wall of noise?
‘You can hear the odd bits. Your mind can go a little bit. As I said to you before, it’s a very difficult theatre to play in. The fans are so desperate for success. But on the flip side, I think it’ll be very difficult to find another stadium if things are going well – oh my god.
A major low was the Bradford game earlier in the season where I gave a goal away to ex-Owl Owen Morrison.
It was a short header back to Dave Lucas, Windass nipped in, squared it and they scored in the last minute. Now if that happened in the first minute I’d have had all the game to redeem myself but in the last minute… I only had a minute left of abuse from the fans but I think I touched the ball maybe twice after and got booed by about 20,000 people.
It’s a horrible feeling.
I actually remember taking to an internet forum to apologise, I think that probably made me at Sheffield Wednesday. It’s about dealing with adversity and how you hit back with it.
I was lucky enough to be at Hillsborough for the other promotion where all four sides were Wednesday. No other club would be able to do that in my opinion. But I was also at the Crystal Palace game, not nice.
When things are going well it is the most unbelievable place because the fans get right behind you. The noise is phenomenal. The majority of away games are like home games because the fans are so loud and so determined to prove themselves to the opposition fans as well.
You only have to look at Twitter now and you see opposition fans saying the Wednesday fans were unbelievable. They’re a credit to this football club.’
Back to Brentford…
Initially we get off the bus and it’s a tight little changing room. Mad Dog’s got the biggest ghetto blaster in the world. All his players are screaming and shouting, he’s probably heard our bus pull up and put it on.
It’s all about mind games and intimidation. But our lads were so determined to finish the job off we could’ve been two or three up in the first half. Peacock’s missed a few but got his goal, got a header and worked his tail off that night.
I tell you what – brilliant to have in your team, he’d wear defenders down with his constant work-rate. That creates opportunities for others.’
David Lucas made a crucial save in the playoff semi-final second leg
What about that save by Dave Lucas from Deon Burton?
‘Turning point in the game: absolutely world class. A great goalkeeper playing a massive part.
That second leg we were also treated to a classic Paul Sturrock team talk. We come in, take a seat and then he’s off in his broad Scottish accent, “Lads, I’m 52 year old, putting on too much weight. I don’t get enough sex nowadays. I go for a pee… and sometimes dribble down my leg. What I’m saying to you is: seize the day, this is your day today because things change very quickly.”
That was his motivational speech! We’re sitting there going, ‘what the f**k is he on about?’ But it snaps you out of the enormity of the game, calms you down and you’re thinking ‘Where’s he going with this?’ Then we go out and Brunty scores that free-kick. That’ll do me, let’s go again.’
Join us again tomorrow as we return to Bully’s interview, as Tom discusses all things Cardiff with the current Wednesday coach in part two.
Thanks again to Lee for giving up his time to speak with us.
Twitter: @OwlsAlive and @tjchitt86