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.