Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: 30 years since they let the Bull loose...
It was not quite a JFK moment. Well, for Wolves supporters, maybe it was. You do remember where you were when Bully scored on his England debut, don’t you?
It will be 30 years ago this Monday. How the decades have flown by.
The Rous Cup was a short-lived friendly contest that lasted for five years between 1985 and 1989. It was initially just a single game contested after the end of the season, between England and Scotland, before a third team from South America was invited over to form a round-robin competition.
On May 27, 1989, Scotland hosted the Auld Enemy at Hampden Park. Steve Bull had just scored 50 goals as a Third Division player, to back up the 52 he had scored the previous season. His late call-up to the England squad had caused a minor stir at international level. In Wolverhampton, excitement had reached fever pitch. This was vindication for what Wolves fans had been telling anyone who would listen to them for the past few months. Bull was a special player.
It was also a moment born out of tragedy. Six weeks earlier, on April 15, 1989, 95 football supporters were crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough. A further victim would be claimed four years later when, still unresponsive in a coma, his life support was removed. The Football League suspended the fixture programme for two weeks.
It resulted in the final match, between title rivals Arsenal and Liverpool, being played on Friday, May 26. The game at Anfield took place six days after the FA Cup final and just a day before England’s fixture against Scotland.
As a result, none of the international regulars John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Alan Smith, along with Under-21 international Paul Merson, were available for selection.
Three days earlier England manager Bobby Robson handed debuts to strikers John Fashanu and Nigel Clough for the opening game of the Rous Cup, against Chile at Wembley, but England laboured to a 0-0 draw. With Fashanu nursing an injury, Robson decided to send for reinforcements, and it was Bull he turned to for the Hampden Park date.
We all have our own memories of that Saturday afternoon at the end of May. There were some playing fields over the back wall of our family home belonging to a college where, as kids, a few of us from the neighbourhood would gather at weekends to play football.
On this particular day a strict instruction had been left with mum and dad. The match itself was not important enough to forego a kick-around with some mates, but….
“If Bully gets on, will you come and get me please?”
Sure enough, I was beckoned back over the wall, through the back door and into the living room when Fashanu limped off after half an hour. The images from the television coverage are still vivid.
The direct threat that Bull immediately brought onto the pitch. His first chance, eschewing the opportunity to advance towards the box and instead thumping a shot from 30 yards out just inches past Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton’s post, drawing gasps from the crowd and startled surprise from Barry Davies in the BBC commentary box.
The goal was typical of the unrefined, yet clinical, lower league player at the time. A mistimed jump when challenging for a long diagonal pass forward from full-back Gary Stevens saw the ball bounce off Bull’s back and wrong-foot the Hearts defender Dave McPherson. If that part was clumsy, the next was deadly.
A first-time shot, low into the bottom corner, leaving Leighton clasping at thin air.
“Right in the corner, what a start, scoring on his debut,” announced Davies.
If there was a tear in Bull’s eye as he trotted back to the centre circle, there were many more in the eyes of those Wolves fans fortunate enough to have been on the terrace at Hampden Park to witness it, and the thousands more watching on television.
Bull’s goal made the rest of the country sit up and take note.
In an era when only a handful of games were shown live on television each year, millions had tuned in for the prestigious friendly that afternoon.
Other fans had been given a taste of what Wolves supporters had been enjoying for the past two seasons. “I don’t want to go overboard,” said Robson, after the match. “But Bull is the most refreshing player to hit the scene for a long time.”
A year later, at the World Cup in Italy, and still only a Second Division player, Bull became England’s wild card option in the squad.
His credentials garnered support as the tournament progressed. Such as on ITV’s long-running Saint & Greavsie show, with Jimmy Greaves appearing on the panel wearing a ‘Let The Bull Loose’ T-shirt to announce that a viewers’ poll was demanding Bull be picked up front alongside Gary Lineker.
After two further caps under Graham Taylor, Bull’s England days drew to a close in the autumn of 1990.
It was an all too brief international career. Instead, he watched on from afar as England’s international football entered the doldrums for the first half of the decade.
But, for a generation of Wolves fans, his time as an England international is still a source of huge pride.
There he was, mixing it with the very best the country had to offer. Gascoigne, Barnes, Lineker, Waddle, Robson, Pearce, Shilton.
Giants of the game during an era when the England side progressed further than they had ever done before at an overseas World Cup. It was an England journey that took Bull to the greatest stage of all and it began as a substitute from the Third Division.