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Before Jimmy Bullard was a Soccer AM staple and I’m a Celebrity contestant, he actually used to be quite good at hitting a football very, very hard. He is also borne in the Gascoigne-esque style of playing the court jester constantly, on and off the pitch, which only led to him becoming even more likeable. When one thinks of Bullard you go straight to the celebrations or pulled faces rather than worldies or clutch moments for his struggling sides. It is apparent that in a career unfulfilled due to injury, Bullard’s lasting impression on the game is his personality rather than his performance.
Having played at youth level with West Ham, Bullard didn’t make the cut and eventually moved onto Peterborough. He stayed with the Posh for two years before moving onto Wigan, where he would begin to make a name for himself in English football. It was here that Bullard mastered the art of attaching a heat-seeking missile onto the ball as he struck it, ensuring each long-shot was destined to nestle spectacularly into the goal. His freekicks were pretty special, but the one against Middlesbrough in 2003 was ridiculous.
Bullard has placed the place on the very edge of the penalty area, with the ball licking at the white line. As he begins his run-up, his arms start to gyrate, about to generate an almighty thwack onto the ball. Two opposition defenders have positioned themselves as close to the goal line as physically possible, like how I try to stop my mate from scoring a freekick on FIFA. Except this isn’t a video game, Bullard has struck fear into these living men all from a freekick. The ball flies off his boot, accelerating towards the goal. What makes it beautiful, the luckiness of it all. His technique is an inch off perfect, and as the ball cannons onto the upright, it could all go wrong. In a parallel universe, it never goes in and Bullard is consigned to the unknown. Instead, the ball darts across the goal line and tucks itself into the net, exhausted from the pressure Jimmy has exerted onto it.
Bullard at Wigan also gave us a moment to cherish for his hilarity. Although it has now been replayed on countless ‘football funny shows’, Bullard leaping over a mound of players into the empty goal is a true joy. It is a moment which shows the human behind the footballer. Too often, especially in modern instances, footballers can be seen to take themselves too seriously. If anything, Bullard went the complete other way, treating every game as a Sunday league fixture between the Dog and Duck and Wivenhoe Town. This level of normality appealed to fans, that Bullard was actually one of them but could just kick the ball a lot harder and further.
His move to Fulham was meant to kick on his career in 2006. Instead, Bullard’s crippling injuries would mean that he would miss sixteen months out and never really get going for the London club. He was labelled as ‘the best £2 million we’ve ever spent’ by then Fulham boss Chris Coleman after an electric start. Another freekick, this time against Sheffield United was like David Beckham had ghosted into Bullard’s body for ten seconds and left again without a trace. This time it was all about the technique. Nearly thirty yards out from goal, Bullard whips the ball into the top corner as if it was nothing. Paddy Kenny crouches in the Sheffield United goal, a combination of fear and astonishment, having barely moved a muscle as the ball flew past him.
As Bullard’s Fulham contract began to run down, there was speculation of him leaving the club. Bullard wanted a larger wage than Fulham were prepared to offer and ultimately, he left the club for Hull City, becoming their record transfer at the time for £5 million in 2009. Bullard would earn upwards of £40,000 a week, which began to look like a mistake as his injury problems continued to stack up. The lack of playing time at Hull meant that when he did play, he had to make a scene. The infamous, Phil Brown inspired celebration against Manchester City is what most people think of when it comes to Bullard. The celebration was a mimic of Brown’s half-time team talk on the Etihad pitch the season prior, and Bullard had no qualms of stirring the pot.
It was taken in good humour by Brown, but it was evident that Bullard’s wages and lack of appearances became too great of an issue. Hull fans began to become frustrated with Bullard and the financial commitment the club had made to a player who wasn’t totally reliable. A loan to Ipswich relieved some of the financial strain on the club but Bullard’s persistent knee problems continued to plague him.
Bullard even said that towards the end of his career he felt like a ‘glass ornament’. The mental and physical turmoil of his injuries had finally caught up with him. After a brief spell with MK Dons, Bullard called time on his career. A career that was as much impacted by his injuries as by his actions. Several fines for alcohol-related incidents meant that Bullard struggled to match the professionalism needed at the top level. It goes back to the notion that he was just one of us, he wanted to play football and makes as much money as he could. Fair play to Bullard as he achieved what most of us couldn’t reach in a million years. Yet, it is a sad indicator that for a man of such talent, his most memorable actions of the pitch as his celebrations rather than those beautiful, beautiful freekicks of old.