Good, Bad & the Ugly: No one could forget Heckingbottom doing the Can-Can, says Lee Bullen
(Photo: Action Images / Lee Mills)
By Chris Dunlavy
LEE Bullen never played in the Premier League, nor pulled on a shirt for Scotland. He certainly didn’t make enough cash to buy mansions and Maseratis.
But, after an epic odyssey through Australia, Hong Kong and Greece – along with a legendary four-year stint at Sheffield Wednesday – the 45-year-old wouldn’t swap his experiences for all the money in existence.
“Somebody once said to me that travel opens a closed mind,” says Bullen, now part of Carlos Carvalhal’s coaching team at Hillsborough.
“I couldn’t agree more. I met incredible people, saw amazing things. Nothing can ever take those memories away from me.”
It is a unique career that began in Scottish Non-League, took in two spells at Dunfermline and saw Bullen flip between centre-back and centre-forward on a regular basis.
Here, he tells us which deadly SPL striker was his toughest opponent, how an Everton legend shaped his career – and why the Millennium Stadium will always have a place in his heart.
A semi-pro club in Edinburgh called Meadowbank Thistle. They’ve since relocated and are better known as Livingstone these days.
It must’ve been about 1989, 1990. I took the usual path. Junior football, schoolboy forms at Dunfermline as a centre-back, then never got taken on. So, I stepped back into Non-League, did really well and ended up being taken on by Meadowbank as a striker!
I soon went off on my travels round the world and it wasn’t until I got to Greece in 1998 that I moved backwards again, first to right midfield, then to full-back and finally to centre-half.
It was good for my career. There were always better players than me up front, so I was forever in and out of teams before that.
I played for so many, all over the world. But, strangely enough, the best coach I ever had was when I was a 12-year-old kid.
My dad and his mates used to take the local football team and one of them was an absolute legend at Everton, called Alex Young.
He’d started out at Hearts and was a terrific player who was nicknamed the ‘Golden Vision’ by Danny Blanchflower for his touch and his passing. He’d played with the likes of Joe Royle and won the league with Everton.
Like most ex-players back then, he’d bought a pub and also started his own business in the town where I lived. He didn’t really have much interest in the professional coaching side, but he wanted to help with the local kids.
To have someone like him passing on his experience and pointing you in the right direction was amazing. He made the game seem so simple.
He had such a huge influence, not just on me but on all the lads. We had a group of about 15-20 players in that squad and a lot of them got picked up by professional teams. I firmly believe that was down to Alex.
During my time in Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to play with Mike Duxbury, the ex-England full-back who’d spent about 15 years at Manchester United.
I was a young lad and he was coming to the end of his career. But, for somebody who’d played at the top, top level, his attitude and his dedication to fitness, to doing things properly was absolutely brilliant.
Like Alex, he was somebody who steered me in the right direction at an important age. He didn’t even say anything really. I just used to look at his conduct and think ‘Yeah, that’s how you make it in this game’.
It’s easy to take the wrong road in football. Just look at Nile Ranger. He could have been a massive talent, but he didn’t have the right influences. Thankfully, I did.
Best team-mate: Mike Duxbury (photo: Action Images)
With Dunfermline Athletic. It was strange really. I’d joined them as a schoolboy, got released, spent a decade travelling round the planet and eventually came all the way back.
I joined halfway through the 1999-2000 season – as a striker again – and we ended up getting promoted to the SPL. It was a fantastic time under a great manager in Jimmy Calderwood.
Guy Branston, who I played with at Sheffield Wednesday. He was an absolute meathead, one of those lads who used to bully opposition strikers on the park by talking to them non-stop for 90 minutes.
He was hilarious. He’d be making threats, intimidating people, but always with a wink and a smile to everybody else. Behind the hard-man act, he was a lovely guy who made a great career for himself in the lower leagues.
He’s the king of networking these days. If you’re at a game, nine times out of ten you’ll see Guy there. A great lad.
It’s a famous story – especially among Wednesday fans – but it has to be when Paul Heckingbottom did the Can-Can down the M4 after we won the League One play-off final in 2005.
The traffic was horrendous trying to leave Cardiff. We were at a standstill, surrounded by cars all full of Wednesday fans.
Suddenly, the alarm went off and I thought a window had been smashed or something. I looked round, saw the side door was open, then out of the window saw Hecky dancing down the motorway with the cup. He was jumping on top of cars, bouncing up and down, getting selfies with fans. It was unbelievable.
Everyone was feeling a bit hungover and tired on the bus, but that just kicked everybody on and got the party started again.
Funniest incident: Paul Heckingbottom celebrated in style after Sheffield Wednesday’s play-off final victory in 2005 (photo: Action Images)
That day in Cardiff. I was never good enough to play at the highest level, so to captain that side and lift the trophy was like climbing Everest for me. The peak of my career.
The club had been on such a downward spiral since relegation from the Premier League, and the start of that season was mayhem. About 12 players came in and another 14 left. We were all waifs and strays, free signings and cast-offs. Nobody expected us to do much but we bonded brilliantly. It was the most enjoyable season of my career and it’s true what they say: the play-offs is the best way to go up. It was the most euphoric feeling imaginable.
Losing in the play-off final with Wednesday last year. Even though I was a coach, it hurt more than anything that happened to me as a player.
We went in full of belief but just never got going on the day. Hull showed their experience and fully deserved to win. Our supporters were phenomenal and it was so deflating.
Toughest place to go
Ibrox was tough but Celtic Park was always worse. I went there many times with Dunfermline and only beat them once.
Great place, amazing fan base, unbeatable atmosphere. They always seemed to do a number on us and, by that, I don’t just mean losing. I mean 3-0, 4-0. They had a terrific team in those days.
Henrik Larsson. I swear to goodness that man doesn’t get enough credit for what he did at Celtic. People say ‘Ah, but he scored all those goals in a pub league in Scotland’. They forget he also did it for Sweden, then later for Barcelona and Man United.
He was one of these guys you wouldn’t see for 85 minutes. But. in the other five minutes, he’d score two or three goals.
His finishing was unbelievable. He never smashed a ball. It was always passed into the net, a little dink or a glancing header into the corner. His goals were so cute.
You’d try and figure him out, say ‘Right, this is how he scored last time’ or ‘This is how he gets his goals’. But then he’d just pull something else out of the bag.
Celtic had a big side in those days, with the likes of John Hartson, but he was probably their best header of a ball as well.
He was genuinely world class and an absolute gentleman on the pitch, who I count myself very fortunate – or perhaps unfortunate – to have played against.
Finisher: Henrik Larsson could turn on the style and cause havoc (photo: Action Images / Lee Smith)
Favourite place to go
The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff will always hold fond memories, for obvious reasons. But, as an Edinburgh lad and a Hearts fan growing up, it has to be Tynecastle. It was a tight stadium, really close to the pitch and you could hear every shout. Most of my mates are Hearts fans so every time I went with Dunfermline I’d be able to hear them giving me stick from the sidelines!
To play a part in taking Wednesday back to the Premier League. I wanted that as a player and I want it now. Do I want to be a manager? Not right now because I’m enjoying learning my trade under Carlos Carvalhal.
But yeah, I’d like to give it a go somewhere down the line.
Tagged Lee Bullen, Paul Heckingbottom, Sheffield Wednesday