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Happy birthday Bully – why he was a special goalscorer and what made him a Wolves great

Crew cut hair, elbows jutting out, that aeroplane celebration…this description could only belong to one man if you’re a Wolves fan.

Steve Bull turns 55 today, a fact hard to believe if you watched him in his pomp well over two decades ago.

With all the weirdness and uncertainty in our lives at the moment, I thought I’d try to give us some light relief and relive some memories of one of the biggest heroes to have pulled on a Wolves shirt.

The main thing that made Bully special was obvious – goals, and bags full of them. But the nature of them and how he got them are just as fascinating too.

When he first came to Wolves, raw doesn’t even touch it. This scrawny kid from Tipton had so many rough edges he could have emptied B and Q of coarse sandpaper.

There was something blissfully uncomplicated about Bully in action. Ball over the top and he was onto it, like a flash, more often than not wrestling off a defender leaving a trail of destruction in his wake – often in a run in front of the penalty area from left to right – before the net would billow from a sledgehammer of a (normally right-foot) shot.

Watching from the South Bank I remember in his early days it was no exaggeration to say he used to get through on goal up to five or six times in a typical game.

Bully was many things but at this stage of his development, clinical he was not. Once he had only the goalkeeper to beat, he would bludgeon the ball goalwards…but many of his attempts would end up ballooned halfway up the ‘no man’s land’ between the home and away fans.

He often missed the target but he was never afraid to miss. The thing about Bully was he kept coming back for more.

He was insatiable. There were plenty of players with more natural footballing talent than him, even in a very poor Wolves team midway down the old Fourth Division.

But if his first touch let him down in those primitive stages, he had attributes his fellow pros did not.

He had electric pace, certainly in those early days. OK, so he wasn’t as quick as Adama Traore. But he was pretty rapid, certainly faster than the centre halves trying to stop him.

He was unbelievably strong. Once he was chasing a ball, he not only had the pace to reach it, but incredible strength to hold players off who were often much bigger than him.

Many times I watched in awe as defenders looked favourite to win a ball but he would use his strength to make it his.

Probably the best example of this was his goal away to Notts County in the Sherpa Van Trophy area final in April 1988, when he embarrassed Paul Hart.

He was ridiculously brave, sometimes to his own cost. Who could forget the header to score in the League Cup against Aston Villa, when he was knocked clean out by Nigel Spink’s challenge?

He had an unquenchable workrate. He didn’t know the meaning of a lost cause – every time the ball was anywhere in the opposition third was a chance to score a goal in Bully’s mind.

Defenders could not rest for a split second when he was around.

For all the fabulous football Nuno Espirito Santo’s team play, the sight of a Paul Cook/Simon Osborn ball over the top and Bully racing onto it before smashing it into the net is one of the most satisfying, intoxicating images I have as a Wolves fan.

Defenders kicked him to pieces. Most of the time he would take out his retaliation by thundering the ball into the opposition’s net, but very occasionally the red mist would descend and he would pick up the odd red card.

Anyone who witnessed his running battle with Leicester’s Steve Walsh will testify to this. At one stage it was as if one or both players would be sent for an early bath.

For all the brutal treatment he got, he seemed indestructible. Of the first 122 League games Wolves played after he signed, he started 119, missing two through suspension and one through his England B call-up with Andy Mutch in May 1989.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t miss a game through injury until spring 1993, appearing in 276 of the first 289 League games Wolves played after he joined.

As well as Walsh and Leicester, he inflicted goals and pain on opposition up and down the country, but he seemed to reserve Bristol City and Port Vale for ‘special’ treatment, with regular hat-tricks and even four-goal salvos against both.

Opposition fans hated him, with chants of ‘Bulls***’ raining down from the terraces, which only made him more special in our eyes, especially when he thundered one into the net.

There were many popular Wolves players during the Bully years – Mark Kendall, Floyd Streete, Ally Robertson, Andy Thompson, Mutch, Robbie Dennison, Jackie Gallagher, Mark Venus, Mike Stowell, Paul Cook, Paul Birch, John De Wolf, Don Goodman, Dean Richards, Steve Froggatt and Keith Curle among them.

But for most Wolves fans, no one came close to Bully as the favourite.

Who else could have attracted a crowd of over 9,000 for a reserve game – at a time when Molineux attendances were in the low 20,000s – for a comeback from injury?

Talking of comebacks, I’ll never forget the buzz that went round the away end before the game for his away to Port Vale – ‘Have you heard? Bully’s back!’ when De Wolf scored his hat-trick. Bully of course, also scored, with a delightful lob.

That buzz was one of pride when I tuned into BBC’s Football Focus one Saturday lunchtime to watch a mention of Bully, who with a tally of 12 goals from three home games, they announced, had scored more times on his own than the all-conquering Liverpool had managed at Anfield in the same spell.

OK, so Bully’s were against Preston, Port Vale and Mansfield, but you get my drift.

A Bully goal always seemed to be cheered more lustily than one scored by anyone else, arguably none more so than on October 15, 1989 for that last-minute winner at The Hawthorns.

The team was immeasurably stronger with him in it, but on the flip side, you’d have to argue were Wolves ever more of a one-man team than when Bully was in his pomp?

I’ve had that conversation with one of his regular team-mates, who agrees they were.

It wasn’t that the other 10 were bad players, simply that he really was THAT good, to me and thousands of others anyway.

I never thought that more than on a rain-soaked Bonfire Night at Molineux in 1991. In the middle of a truly wretched winless run that almost got Graham Turner the sack, he scored twice and was head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch, but was still on the losing side to Bristol Rovers, who won 3-2.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of heroes in gold and black to cheer nowadays, with fans almost spoilt for choice between Matt Doherty, Conor Coady, Willy Boly, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves, Traore, Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota.

All of those possess more natural talent than Bull did. But to take any one of them out of the team would not have the same unthinkable impact as removing Bull from the side.

As the years passed, the explosive pace which quite literally gave him a head start on his pursuers dimmed, but he actually became a better player.

By then, his finishing and touch had improved beyond recognition and he buried a far greater ratio of his chances.

He would often catch goalkeepers out by hitting the ball early, such as scoring the only goal against Manchester City at Maine Road in October 1996.

Mark McGhee won few friends among fans at Molineux but Bull had arguably his best season in 1996-97, when his 23 League goals helped Wolves to finish third, the striker’s highest finish he would manage in his career.

But for me McGhee made a mistake with the baffling tactic of getting Bully to chase down full backs into his own penalty area when he surely would have been better off saving that energy for further up the pitch.

There will forever be questions as to whether he would have cut it in the top flight.

Biased or not, I am convinced he would. Sadly, the evidence isn’t plentiful, but whenever he came across top-class opposition, he invariably did well.

He battered – and got battered – against a Villa team that was destined to finish runners-up to champions Liverpool, and five days after his unforgettable four goals against Newcastle, he scored and missed a penalty in a 2-1 FA Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

In October 1991, he scored away to Everton in the League Cup, but didn’t fare so well later that season when he was kept in check by England’s Des Walker and Stuart Pearce as Wolves lost 1-0 at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.

OK, so it was only a pre-season friendly, but he netted against a Manchester United side sweeping all before them in the mid-1990s, giving Messrs Bruce and Pallister a torrid time.

Unfortunately, he was injured and missed the FA epic against Sheffield Wednesday in 1995 and was criminally left on the bench until too late in the 1998 semi-final against Arsenal.

There are some wonderful memories to cherish forever. One or two I have had the privilege to share with the great man himself.

At the ‘They Wore The Shirt’ book launch last year where a montage of Bully’s goals was shown, I turned to him and asked what it was like to see himself in action, adding he must feel very proud. He answered modestly ‘I cor believe it – it’s like watching someone else.”

Yet the muscles still twitched and flexed as he watched his younger self, as if evading a despairing challenge.

Watching him made us feel like we were watching someone else too – from outer space, he seemed that damn good.

Has there been a more popular, loved Wolves player? Possibly not.

Happy birthday Bully. You deserve it.