An hour before one home game during the first half of this season, I popped into the Tesco store on Manningham Lane where I was surprised to spot Lee Bullock browsing the shelves. Having been out injured since the opening day of the season – since when there had been a change of manager and a flurry of new signings – Lee had become the forgotten man of Valley Parade. It was easy to envisage him leaving the club before the season was out, having never worn the claret and amber stripes again.
Yet Bullock has not only come back into contention, but increasingly established himself as a key member of the squad. From appearing to be something of a utility player, used to cover for others when they are injured – between January and early March, he played centre back, defensive midfielder and even striker – the 30-year-old is keeping some very good players out of the side.
With Luke O’Brien departing in January, Bullock became the club’s longest serving player. Of the six clubs he has played for, only at York City – where he began his career – has Bullock made more appearances than the 123 times he has featured for the Bantams. Signed by Stuart McCall on New Year’s Day 2008, back then Bullock instantly brought about a calmness to City’s play that turned them from mid-table mediocrity to outside play off contenders. Even after a close season that featured the high profile arrivals of Paul McLaren and Dean Furman, Bullock looked set to be a big player in a stronger promotion push the following campaign.
Not for the last time, injuries disrupted his season very badly and Bullock was in and out the side. But a year later (2009/10) McCall converted him from attacking midfielder – where personally, I was never that convinced by him – into defensive midfielder. He held things together, while Michael Flynn, Scott Neilson or Chris Brandon bombed forward, never looking more assured or valuable to the team.
Bullock survived the change of manager to Peter Taylor and, by the time Peter Jackson took over a year later, Bullock was becoming that utility player. A less than convincing outing at right back against Torquay ended badly, but a move to centre back in a key game against Aldershot saw him produce one of the finest individual displays of anyone that season. Thanks to Lee and others, City won 2-1 to virtually confirm survival.
And it seemed centre back was to be his position, starting this season against Aldershot again – before another bad injury struck – and continuing in home games against Morecambe and Hereford earlier this year. But when Bullock was moved to central midfield for the home game with Accrington a month ago, he produced a highly impressive display and has become a mainstay since. No mean feat, when your rivals for the shirt include Ricky Ravenhill, Ritchie Jones, David Syers and Flynn.
The strongest part of the squad, and yet somehow the forgotten man has stolen a march on others.
Which makes you wonder what Parkinson must have originally thought when he joined the club to find Bullock on the sidelines looking out of the picture. If the two Chairmen were in his ear – they had wanted to offload Bullock to Darlington last summer, but Jackson refused – he probably held a fairly negative impression and didn’t see Bullock within his plans. Yet the Stockton-born player must now seem like a new signing, given how unexpectedly well he is performing.
The quality of his displays against Accrington, Oxford and Gillingham were there for all to see. Not only was he superbly protecting the back four to enable others like Craig Fagan to have a greater licence to get forward, he was setting and controlling the tempo of matches. I have personally never been more impressed by Bullock than I have been over recent games. Not just a player doing his positional job, but someone entrusted with greater responsibility.
Now, of course, he will be needed as a centre back again, for three games at least, after the dreadful events of Tuesday night. We need him to be the inspiration in the relegation battle that he was last season, and to fill some rather large shoes as City face up to the fight of their lives. He will let no one down for sure, and certainly things would look a lot more desperate going into these three crucial games if he was not building.
Which means that Bullock has suddenly become one of the most important players at the club and, injuries permitting, won’t be spending the next few weeks killing time by browsing Tesco on a Saturday afternoon.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus