The Seen Unseen

By Alex Scott

Last week saw Lee Bullock sign a one-year deal with his former club York City upon their return to the Football League. After he helped Bradford City avoid relegation for another year, his name did not appear on the club’s retained players list, signalling the end of his four-and-a-half year spell at Valley Parade.

Previously the club’s longest tenured player, Bullock exited Valley Parade amongst a host of well-wishes and positive sentiments from the City fan base. Illustrating the impact of longevity, Bullock has become a fan favourite, despite never once being amongst the best seven or eight players at the club at any given time.

More than that, he has spent the last few seasons as a rotation player, filling in holes when other, more important, more talented players were absent. His evolution from loanee to quasi-cult hero is a curious one. It isn’t like he was the scorer of important goals (5 goals in 121 appearances), or a frequent man of the match nominee thanks to his tireless play in defence. The team has rarely been noticeably better (or worse) with him in the side, he is what he is, a journeyman rotation midfielder (latterly defender) who has serious limitations as a player. Despite this, he was admired almost universally amongst City fans. They may have never thought he was good, but that’s not the point, apparently. He leaves up the A64 with a host of warm wishes in his pocket from the Bradford fan base, in spite of the torrid spell in which he has featured at the club.

During his tenure at Valley Parade he has appeared in one half-decent team, the 2008/09 vintage that finished ninth. Despite starting the season, an early knee injury and the subsequent recruitments of Dean Furman and Nicky Law rendered Bullock to something of a bit-part figure, making only 16 starts. Subsequently he has made 41 appearances in a side which finished 14th, 26 appearances in a side which finished 19th, and this year 19 in a side which finished 18th. So it isn’t like he has played a selfless complementary role in a successful team (a common route to fan appreciation), he’s played that role during perhaps the worst spell in the club’s history.

So how did we get here? Players like Bullock commonly obtain the tag of a ‘Player Who Does The Work You Do Not See’. But if that is the case, why do fans rate him so highly? Do we merely wish to be seen seeing this unseen work? A cynic may interject that if he does the work we don’t see, he can’t be doing it all that well given the results the team has achieved.

Whilst his positioning on the field is often beyond reproach (ie we rarely notice him out of position. I couldn’t say whether or not his positioning is great, in fact even as I write this, ‘positioning’ feels like a cop-out for ‘I’m not sure why I think he is good’), he struggles with the ball, he isn’t the strongest or the most dominant in the air. He isn’t a goal threat, nor a frequent creator of goals. During his permanent tenure the side have never had a top 10 ranked defence, or attack. He was just an average utility player in a below average team.

His play has mirrored the club’s over his spell here, initially forward thinking and aggressive, he has evolved into a deeper, more withdrawn presence. Cautious, almost to a fault.

Toward the end of this year, after the Crawley melee, he provided what turned out to be his City swansong in central defence, putting in a string of great performances, steering the club away from relegation. Rather than ‘great’, his performances during these games could be more accurately described as ‘exceeding universally low expectations’. A phrase which could be applied to his entire Bradford City tenure.

He leaves the club with warm feelings (a rare feat round these parts), with the consensus being that he probably should have been kept on for another year. The fact he has landed on his feet at the team where he started also seems to have gone down well amongst the Bradford fans, and it is likely he will receive a warm welcome upon his return to BD8.

You can count the players who have recently left these parts with such affection on one hand. Michael Flynn, who left just before Bullock, received similar warm sentiments but the consensus on his release seemed to be something of a grateful acceptance. Omar Daley, undeniably a divisive figure, left on relatively good terms, something which could also be said for his compatriot Donovan Ricketts. Zesh Rehman benefitted from the antipathy towards his manager, and the treatment he was subjected to. (See also Compton, Jack and O’Brien, Luke in this category.)

Granted the club hasn’t been littered with stars during the last few years, but many players of greater ability to Bullock have left Bradford without such sentiments (whilst dozens of players with comparable talent have departed without such fanfare.) Players like Gareth Evans, Joe Colbeck and Robbie Threlfall have all proved themselves decent-to-good players after spending a prolonged spell at the club, yet have left amidst an air of indifference, or worse. Evans is a curious case. He played through the same spell as Bullock (at a consistently higher performance level), yet was chased out of the door by the fans. He was part of the problem.

Evans always tried hard, his output was inconsistent, but he had proved himself a solid starter at this level, showing similar versatility to Bullock. Yet he wasn’t loved. He wasn’t even liked. He received the blame for the club’s underperformance. Bully got a free pass. Evans was booed during his brief return to Valley Parade, and derided as he hobbled off injured. It isn’t like Evans is a poor player; he came 2nd in Rotherham fans’ Player of the Year voting, whilst also being offered a contract extension. This is for a side who finished 10th. (Lee Bullock was unlisted in Width Of A Post’s Player of the Year Top 5, but did receive some votes.)

So how can we explain it? It isn’t down to Bullock’s performance level. It isn’t down to his versatility, nor his selfless playing persona. He tries hard, but they all try hard, and it isn’t like he makes five no-hope chases or despairing slide tackles each game to earn the description of a ‘try-hard’. He just keeps his position, letting others take the risks, and the blame.

Are we fans inherently contrarian, wishing to stand out, wishing to be different? Is it that we don’t see him star on the pitch, but are aware of the fact he has been a rotation piece for numerous respected managers, so he must be doing something right? We wish to appear like we understand the meticulous invisible detail which goes into Phil Parkinson’s team selection and strategy, with the best personification of that being Lee Bullock? The seen unseen.

Everything comes down to our expectations. During each year of Bullock’s tenure, the club have been branded underachievers. Every year hopes are raised and they let us down. They let us down. The glaring admission here is that we have become the main barometers of achievement, not the players; our feelings are prejudiced by our own expectations.

Gareth Evans had flashes. Those infuriating flashes. Similar moments have occurred with James Hanson, Omar Daley and countless others. The fact that they have shown the ability to be better than this somehow counts against them.

Lee Bullock is what he is. He’s doing his best. He is meeting our expectations, therefore he’s succeeding. James Hanson has led the team in scoring every year he’s been at the club, but we want more. We want him to be better. We expect him to be better. But he’s not. He’s branded a failure, an underwhelming waster we need to replace. Conversely, Bullock should remain a fundamental component of our squad, because he’s a success.

I like Lee Bullock, I wanted him to stay, but I couldn’t explain to you why he’s good, beyond abstract ideas like ‘positioning’ or ‘football intelligence’. Nor could I explain why he would be better than Joe Free Agent. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d be worse. But I like Lee Bullock. He’s never let me down despite being surrounded by letdowns.

They always say you are best off leaving them wanting more. Bullock has turned that paradigm on its head. You are best off doing just enough to stay around, showing no more, raising no expectations, leaving us wanting more of the same.

Categories: Opinion

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5 replies

  1. Whilst this is a very well written piece, I feel you are doing Bullock a massive disservice here.

    He is a very solid player, who is rarely taken on, rarely gives the ball away (admittedly, he wasn’t playing killer balls either, but that wasn’t his job), wins most aerial battles, never gives less than 100% and seemed to me to be a consumate professional, someone to set the example for young players coming through.

    Lee Bullock never let Bradford City down.

    Saying that, I probably wouldn’t have kept him on for next season. As you say, I am sure there are better players out there who will be available for the same money. I am over the moon he has joined York though, so we can fully show our appreciation for all he has done for us.

    A final point, even without the last four years, Bully would still be a City legend for me simply for his contribution in his first season.

    We were struggling, badly, when he came in. Our centre midfield was choc-a-bloc with tiny, lightweight midfielders such as Penford, Phelan and Nix.

    We had badly misjudged what was required to survive (let alone thrive) at that level and we were being bullied out of most matches.

    We needed a big bloody bloke as an enforcer in the centre of the park.

    That man was Lee Bullock and he added some much, much needed steel to steady the ship, to allow the slicker play and comfortably see out the season but I genuinely fear we would have been in a relegation battle that season. A battle that, with a sprinkling of bad luck, we could easily have lost.

    Without Lee Bullock we might not have survived that battle.

    Without Lee Bullock, we might not have survived… Full stop.

    • I agree with most of these points actually. Especially the one about his arrival. Looking back, there is no question his signing was a turning point in that year (they were only six points ahead of the drop at that point).
      Whilst I’ll stand up for Kyle ‘The Cultured Left’ Nix, Bullock did offer something they needed and didn’t quite have. One of the most interesting things, you actually alluded to it, is that he only played a couple of months before getting injured, but the team kept up their improved form afterwards with young players like Penford and Nix.
      It appears that his experience (leadership, call it what you will…) had a tangible impact on the team as a whole, one which looked to be spiralling prior to his arrival.
      Maybe it was McCall finally settling down, or one of many other reasons (recruitment of Loach, Colbeck’s return, etc…), but something happened around the New Year in that team. Whether or not it was decisive, it’s likely Bullock had an impact.
      This piece wasn’t meant as a critical piece, as I mentioned, I like him. I’d probably have kept him and I’m delighted he’s gone to York. I was just intrigued by the fans’ response to his departure compared to some of his peers. I feel we hold Bullock to a different (lesser) standard than some other players. A misplaced Bullock pass leaves us indifferent, whilst a heavy touch from Hanson appears like a personal affront to half the crowd.
      Maybe you’re right and the valiant work he did early in his tenure bought him enough credit with the fans, but it definitely hasn’t for players like Hanson. I just find it curious.

      • I see the point you make about the leeway compared to other players… I’ve heard people criticise Kyel Reid, who I rate in the top five players I’ve seen at this level (Adomah, Simeon Jackson, Le Fondre and Darren Anderton, since you ask), for being inconsistent – well, yeah, he’s a winger, that’s what almost all wingers are – not all wingers are Messi, Ronaldo or Beagrie.

        I often get the feeling people like that have had an arguement with a friend in the pub early on in the player’s career as to whether they are good or not, got quite heated about it, and so spend the rest of the player’s time at City looking for reasons they aren’t performing so that they don’t have to admit they were wrong (though, of course, it’s all just opinions ultimately).

        On Kyle ‘Spelt Correctly’ Nix, I always wanted him to do well, I liked him as a player… he had a great first touch, he was skillful and his workrate was impressive – but, but, but… he was too slow to be a winger and too small to be a centre midfielder at our level – he’d probably have made a good number 10, but there’s not much room for that type of player in League Two… he was possibly the right player at the wrong time.

  2. A most interesting article. Firstly, let me say I am/was a fan of Bully. The games I saw him play in he gave 100%, as has already been mentioned, and I agree that he did a ‘job’ for the team as a holding mid-fielder. My personal memories of Lee Bullock was that he was a cosumate professional, indeed before the start of one game I called to him from the Midland road stand and he came over. He did this with grace and a smile (!), even though he was warming up, and made my daughters’ day, speaking to her and signing her autograph book. In my opinion, what he lacked in skill, he more than made up for with professionalism and guts. A city legend, (for me anyway). I for one will give him the appreciation he deserves when he returns this season in a York shirt. He will be missed!

  3. It’s been said before on previous comments – Lee Bullock never let us down

    Rather than having a player – lets say one of our ever so enigmatic wingers – have an outstanding game then follow it up with 10 below average performances, everytime Bully pulled on you knew what you were going to get. I can’t remember anything spectacular, but by the same token I can’t remember him doing anything wrong.

    And something that you dont seem to have really drawn on in the article is that bully actually wanted to be here! that will always buy you a fair amount of leeway with the fans, we all want to see someone who values the opportunity to pull on the claret & amber.

    All that said I am a big fan of players who let everyone else play and just general do the toil and with ML & PP both saying the squad is due to be smaller I think a utility player this year could be worth its weight in gold and losing Bully is a blow

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