Skip to content

Adam Bate –

Steve Bull was a phenomenon. He was the third division player who represented his country; the second division player who went to the World Cup with England. It was quite the story for the former builders’ yard worker from Tipton – and it was an unbelievably exciting time to be a Wolves fan.

It was Bull’s goals for Wolves that had reinvigorated a club on the brink. Bull had sat in the stands as a new signing from rivals Albion and watched as his new team were eliminated from the FA Cup in the first round at the hands of Chorley. 

Languishing in the fourth division after three consecutive relegations and with more than half the ground dilapidated and closed, the club was in despair. Bull’s goals – 102 of them in just two seasons – brought back-to-back league titles and restored civic pride. 

Just 4,129 were in attendance to see Bull’s first league goal at Molineux in December 1986. By the time Bull was scoring against Sheffield United to secure a return to the second tier in May 1989, he was playing in front of a home crowd of 24,321. It’s difficult to imagine a player having a greater impact on a football club in such a short space of time.

As a result, a generation of Wolves fans grew up supporting one man as much as they did the club itself. When Bull was called up to play in an England U21 match against Poland, journalist David Instone recalls: “An astonishing 500 or more Wolves supporters turned Plymouth’s Home Park into a Molineux-by-the-sea.”

Bull was soon knocking on the door of the full England squad. A few years later with the emergence of Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler, it is unlikely that such an opportunity would have existed. But Bull was up against the likes of John Fashanu, Mark Hateley and Tony Cottee – it represented a window of opportunity for an unknown quantity.

And so the opportunity came. Bull came on as a first-half substitute for the injured Fashanu at Hampden Park and scored a debut goal against Scotland. He then secured his ticket to Italy by followed it up with a brace against Czechoslovakia in only his second full start. Already a local hero, Bull was now a national curiosity – the backstreet international determined to gatecrash the greatest show on earth.

Bobby Robson enthusiastically described Bull as “the most refreshing player to hit the scene for a very long time”. Jimmy Greaves, meanwhile, went on national television sporting a t-shirt demanding that Robson ‘LET THE BULL LOOSE’. A TV poll with more than 25,000 callers revealed 64% of the public wanted Bull and not Peter Beardsley to partner Gary Lineker at the World Cup. 

And the Wolves fans would be with their hero every step of the way – and especially at the team’s Sardinia World Cup base. Pete Davies, author of One Night in Turin, wrote of how he “flew back into Cagliari with yet another Wolves fan (they were everywhere)”. They were in for a treat. Bull had already spared England some embarrassment with a late equaliser against Tunisia and he followed it up by scoring two in a warm-up game against Cagliari and another against a Sardinia Select XI.

England’s World Cup campaign finally began against the Republic of Ireland and Davies noted: “When the sides were named, Stevie Bull – as a substitute – got the biggest England cheer.” But Robson ignored Bull for all but the final six minutes. The manager had earlier replaced Beardsley with Steve McMahon in a negative move that backfired when the midfielder’s error led to an Ireland equaliser.

Bull hysteria now reached record levels. Martin Swain, a reporter with Wolverhampton’s Express and Star, had by now arrived at England’s training camp armed with a sackful of 750 letters from well-wishers. The arrival turned the heads of the more famous names in the squad but by now they were almost used to it – they had certainly become accustomed to the cheer that went up after every single one of Bull’s training ground goals.

The next group game was against Holland and Bull was again on the bench. As Davies recalls: “The crowd grew buzzy with excitement as they realised Steve Bull was coming on for Chris Waddle.” In fact, Bull nearly scored with his first touch – completely mistiming a headed chance. The game ended 0-0 and Robson bemoaned Bull’s miss saying: “Bully found himself in a match out of proportion to anything he’s been involved in in his life. In all his life. It was a good chance and although he’d just gone on I’m afraid you have to deal with that at this level.”

Even so, it was a bright performance and Bull did enough to earn a start for the crucial final group match against Egypt. Interviewed in the build-up to the game, Bull admitted to being a little uncomfortable about all the attention, saying: “It’s a bit embarrassing sometimes. I can’t get on there and score goals all the time – they’re chanting for me, then I might go out and have a nightmare. But I enjoy it. I enjoy all the publicity, all the stuff in the papers. You can never stop them cheering for you, can you? That’s what gets you on the pitch.”

As it was, England won against Egypt thanks to the unlikely source of a Mark Wright header with both Bull and Lineker starved of service. Although this turned out to be the only game of England’s famous Italia ’90 campaign that they actually won within 90 minutes, the calls for Bull’s inclusion quietened after a disjointed team display. England would revert to a sweeper system with Terry Butcher replacing Bull in the only change for the second round tie against Belgium.

It was a cracking game with the skills of Waddle and Belgium’s Enzo Scifo to the fore. Bull eventually got his chance when John Barnes pulled up with a groin strain and proceeded to play an active role in England’s push for the winner – forcing Michel Preud’homme into conceding a corner with a fine 20-yard effort. It was end-to-end stuff and just when the prospect of Bull taking a penalty loomed large, he instead had the best view in the house for roommate David Platt’s spectacular 120th minute winner.

England were through to the quarter finals and a match with African underdogs Cameroon, who they duly eliminated in an undeserved 3-2 extra-time win thanks to two Gary Lineker penalties. Bull was not called upon and had in fact seen his last action of the 1990 World Cup. But it was so nearly very different. With England 1-0 down to Germany in the semi-final and just 10 minutes left on the clock, Bull was getting stripped and ready to try and fire England into the World Cup Final. Bull remembers it well.

“I can still picture it now, with Bobby Robson saying ‘get yourself warmed up, get your tracksuit off, you’re going on’. I thought ‘oh my word, I’ve got a chance, I’m going on against Germany in the World Cup. I’ll have some of this!’ All of a sudden I’m about to unzip my tracksuit top and Gary Lineker scores his goal through the defender’s legs. As it went in Bobby turned to me and said ‘just put your tracksuit back on Bully’. I thought as the game might still go into extra time, I still might get another chance, so when Bobby told me that I didn’t give up hope but I was a bit deflated.”

A few penalties later, England’s dream was over – and so was Bull’s World Cup adventure.

He was soon linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs but instead returned home and signed a two-year extension to his Wolves deal. He was destined to spend the next nine years trying and failing to reach the top flight with Wolves and indeed played just twice more for England under new manager Graham Taylor. A career that had briefly captured the imagination of a nation ended up being the ultimate localised phenomenon.

But for one glorious Italian summer the world was at the feet of a former builders’ yard worker from Tipton.