Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Why Wolves legend Steve Bull will never be beaten
A tweet from the Wolves Former Players’ Association this week asked whether or not Steve Bull’s goal-scoring record at the club would ever be broken.
It was a rhetorical question, of course. Bull broke John Richards’ record of 194 goals in March 1991, less than six years after making his debut for the club. He then went on to set the bar at 306 by the time of his retirement in 1999.
Everyone in these parts knows the Steve Bull story; that perfect storm where downtrodden club found working class hero who had been rejected at local rivals. Apologies to the kids out there, bored of parents recounting their hero’s feats, this might not be the column for you. But for those who lived through these times, there really was nothing quite like it. Bull touched the lives of every single supporter.
The immediate success of the team from the moment he pulled on a Wolves shirt – because he pulled on a Wolves shirt - meant the player’s fortunes were intertwined with the club’s. Bull’s achievements became part of the fabric of supporting the team. The lines became blurred at times; was it Wolves or Bull that the fans were cheering on?
In amongst those two 50-goal seasons down in Divisions Four and Three there were spells of phenomenal scoring. Such as a six-game run towards the end of 1988 when he bagged 14 goals – three hat-tricks in there, including two games when he scored four.
Statisticians were fumbling around on their dustiest shelves as record books and defences were torn apart in equal measure. No matter that this was the lower leagues with a bit of Sherpa Van Trophy thrown in. That was part of the fun. There was something incongruous about it all.
Wolves away matches in the late 1980s were not shot in bright colour. The lower division hue of underpowered floodlights and grubby pitches darkened everything. The tight shallow terraces made for great atmospheres on the road but a decent view was never an option. Nor was a roof half the time. There must be a good 50 of his goals scored at the wrong end in places such as Newport, Carlisle and Exeter that have been lost forever in the mist of distant confusion. Bullet header or bundled in off his backside, no-one really knew, couldn’t see that much, but it never dampened the celebrations.
Then there were the goals scored on Ceefax. Division Four Latest. Page three hundred-and-twenty-something. All evening long. Page one of four, two of four, three of four. Why does Wolverhampton have to begin with a W? Finally, page four of four, but it’s still 0-0. Repeat ad nauseam, until the inevitable goals flashed up. Wolves 1-0 Colchester. Team names in blue letters and, underneath in white, ‘Bull 42’ or however many minutes it was that the opposition could hold out for.
The Sherpa Van Trophy semi-final first leg at Torquay in 1989 was peak Ceefax Bully. 1-0 down all game and then one last turn of the page revealed Bull 86, Bull 88. He’d done it again and Wolves were on their way to Wembley. Well, until the second leg, but let’s not go there.
There was the giddy excitement as Bull’s feats garnered national attention. Wolves hadn’t been in the spotlight for years. Supporters were brimming with pride when he was featured on Football Focus as a Division Four player.
And that England debut at Hampden Park the following season still seems far-fetched, looking back more than a generation later. Barry Davies’ incredulity on commentary when the striker whistled a shot just wide of the post from 30 yards out. Is he really shooting from there? Then the goal itself, bringing tears to the eyes of the player and those who had spent the previous few years watching his remarkable progress.
At Italia 90 it was Saint & Greavsie who picked up the baton, with Jimmy Greaves appearing on the show wearing a ‘Let The Bull Loose’ T-shirt and announcing that a viewers’ poll was demanding Bull be picked up front alongside Gary Lineker.
Bull became a frame of reference for supporters of other clubs all across the land and beyond.
“Who do you support, mate?”... “Wolves.”... “Oh yeah, Steve Bull.”
Three decades on, exchanges like that still take place.
The World Cup marked the end of Bull’s rise. There were no more England caps and the remainder of his Molineux career was played out in the second tier, with the goals scored at a ratio of one every two games.
Bull was a one-off.
But he also benefited in those early years from having the perfect strike partner in Andy Mutch, who provided so many of the flicks and cushioned passes that created the opportunities, as well as scoring 106 goals of his own.
Bull’s loyalty may have come at a personal price – it was Mutch who moved on to play in the Premier League – but it did guarantee him a goals haul that will never be beaten at Wolves.
In the 19 years since his retirement nobody has come anywhere near threatening the record. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake with 64 and Kenny Miller on 63 are the most prolific of the post-Bull era.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves side is not reliant on a traditional scorer in the mould of yesteryear; a different entity to Graham Turner’s 4-4-2 team that Bull and Mutch spearheaded in their heyday.
It is hard to imagine either player finding a natural role in the current side. But it is tempting, nonetheless, to wonder how many Bull would score in this team’s company.