Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: So proud to see Steve Bull let loose at Italia 90
Several months after the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, the BBC aired a documentary chronicling a supporter’s journey.
It was a World Cup diary made by Kevin Allen, filmed during his trip to watch the England team. It was produced from the fans’ perspective, with much of it set against the backdrop of the hooliganism that had followed England abroad throughout the previous decade and the subsequent treatment of supporters by the authorities in Italy.
But for any Wolves supporter, the film’s finest moment was a minor diversion from the more heavyweight topic of the day. It involved a drunken Allen sat at a piano in the small hours of the morning following the previous night’s second round win over Belgium.
He was singing an ode to Steve Bull, familiar to anyone who had spent time on Molineux’s South Bank during the late 1980s. ‘Ooh Bully, Bully…Ooh Bully, Bully’ repeat ad nauseam. It was yet another example of the player infiltrating the nation’s consciousness and putting Wolves back on the map. Because for a few short weeks in the summer of 1990, Steve Bull was the nation’s backyard hero.
Competition for a place at the finals had been fierce. Bull and Arsenal’s Alan Smith – who had led from the front during the Gunners’ title win the previous season – were battling it out for one spot. But from the minute the Wolves man scored two goals in a Wembley friendly against Czechoslovakia in April, both set up by Paul Gascoigne, he was on the plane.
By the time England left for their World Cup preparations at the end of the 1989/90 season, most Wolves supporters were beside themselves with excitement. Bull had scored 27 goals in Division Two, his first season at that level, and had every chance of grabbing a place in the starting line-up alongside Gary Lineker, with only Peter Beardsley in competition for the second striker’s berth.
There was a sense of ownership among Wolves fans whenever Bull’s name was on the lips of commentators. ‘That’s our man’. His fleeting appearances in news bulletins of England training sessions were forensically and proudly examined. He even popped up in the official video for New Order’s World In Motion, placing him in the unfamiliar surroundings of popular culture.
The final warm-up game before the squad touched down in Italy was against Tunisia on a scorched pitch at the Stade Olympique d’El Menzah in Tunis. Bull wasn’t picked to start, which turned out to be a blessing. England were hopeless and trailed for most of the game after a mistake from Gascoigne in the first half let in Abdelhamed Hergal for the goal of his life. With little over 10 minutes to go, Bull came off the bench. And with just a minute left he stooped low at the near post to meet a John Barnes cross with a glancing header into the far corner. “It’s that man Bull again!” screamed Barry Davies on the telly. England’s blushes had been spared and Bull was the toast of the nation.
It had become something of a ritual among Wolves fans to devour as many England match reports as possible at this time. He was a headline writer’s dream. And England’s supporters had taken to him too.
“Bull doesn’t have the appearance of a World Cup megastar with his crew-cut and thick Black Country accent,” wrote one tabloid reporter. “He could even be mistaken for an English fan who has wandered on to the pitch.”
When the World Cup began, the talk off the field was of England’s hooligans and whether or not posting the team to Sardinia and containing them on an island would work. On it, ahead of the opening game against Ireland, there was a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Bobby Robson had his old lieutenants down the spine of the team – Peter Shilton, Terry Butcher, Bryan Robson and Lineker. And Beardsley was preferred to Bull.
A seven-minute substitute’s cameo against the Irish was far too short, but England’s number 21 got half an hour against Holland in the next game and came within a whisker of winning it, just failing to connect with a Gascoigne cross late on.
After two draws Robson was backed into a corner for the final group game against Egypt. The build-up to the match was as good as it got for Bull’s devotees. There was Jimmy Greaves on Saint & Greavsie wearing a T-shirt with ‘LET THE BULL LOOSE’ printed on. Every national newspaper was clamouring for the Wolves star to be given a go from the start. Bull got his chance and England won, thanks to a Mark Wright header.
Bull hadn’t convinced Robson enough, though. He was back in the substitute’s role for the last-gasp second round win over Belgium, which was to be his final action of the tournament. The manager kept him on the bench as England scraped through a frantic five-goal thriller in the quarter-final against Cameroon before that epic semi-final defeat to West Germany in Turin.
What started out as a dreary, fractious campaign on and off the field ended in heroic failure as the nation fell in love with football once more. In Pete Davies’s book All Played Out, a peerless account of England’s campaign at Italia 90, the author spent much of his time interviewing the players on rest days during the tournament.
He asked Bull what it meant to him to be at the World Cup with England. The uncomplicated response from the player was simple. “I’m one of the best 22 players in the country.” That was the crux of it.
A player, who 12 months previously was playing in the Third Division, was among such illustrious company on the greatest stage of all. No wonder Wolves fans were so proud.