Intense buzz, sense of betrayal and ending in tears – The story of Jimmy Bullard’s time at Ipswich in his own words
- Credit: Archant
Jimmy Bullard spent an event-filled 18 months at Ipswich Town. STUART WATSON spoke to the charismatic midfielder turned TV personality about the sparkling loan spell, that infamous night out in Newcastle and why it all ended in tears.
Jimmy Bullard answers the phone and does the slight pause that footballers do sometimes when they realise it’s a journalist behind the number they didn’t recognise. It’s a pause that usually buys them time to think of an excuse.
I ask if he’s got a few minutes to look back on his time at Ipswich Town and he’s too polite to say no.
‘Go on then mate, you’ve got me. Five minutes, I was just about to head out fishing...’
Half an hour later, we’ve discussed the highs and lows of his intense, event-filled 18 months at Portman Road. From adoring fans wearing replica blond curly wigs and causing the club shop’s shirt printers to run out of the letter ‘l’, to an infamous night out in Newcastle which ultimately left him on football’s scrap heap.
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This is a period of his life he’d clearly not thought about for a while. He talks about love, betrayal and deep regret. At times it feels like a therapy session. So let’s start from the beginning...
Paul Jewell replaces Roy Keane in the Portman Road hot-seat midway through the 2010/11 campaign. In January, he turns to his old Wigan favourite Bullard to inject some spark.
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“I wasn’t playing at Hull because there were some contractual issues,” recalls the midfielder. “To be honest, I’d fallen a little bit out of love with football at that time. Too much politics, you know?
“I was on a really big contract, they’d just got relegated and I think they were feeling a bit of pressure with that money. In the end they got me out on loan. It was such a relief.
“So I feel back in love with the game during that loan spell at Ipswich. I was under my old manager at a great club.”
Bullard scores on his debut – the equaliser in a 2-1 win at Derby. Town beat Sheffield United 3-0 at Portman Road and thump Doncaster 6-0 away. The Blues’ new talisman then puts on a masterclass at Cardiff, scoring two long-range crackers to secure a 2-0 win. There are further goals against Scunthorpe and Norwich. Despite only playing 16 games, he is named Supporters’ Player of the Year.
“I was on fire playing for yous at the start, absolutely on fire!” he says, transported back to the moment.
“You don’t play that well if you’re not enjoying it. I was taking all the set plays, the fans were singing my name, there were chants about them letting me shag their wives... I mean, what man wouldn’t want to hear that?
“It was pukka. The connection I had with the fans... That love and adoration you feel... Mate! It was everything you want, especially me being the attention seeker I am. It was such a buzz.
“I was like ‘wow, this is the nuts!’ That’s what I played footy for. I loved it.”
That summer, the big question on Ipswich fans’ lips was ‘will Bullard return?’. It was a long-running saga. In July, he was suspended by Hull City following an incident at a training camp in Slovenia – the exact misdemeanours never made public. The East Yorkshire club subsequently sacked him and a legal wrangle ensued. Finally, on August 25, he signed permanently for Town.
“Paul gave me a two-year deal and I started that next season alright,” he says. “I was thinking ‘go there, get back in the Prem’. I was confident I’d score or create havoc in every game I played in that 10 role. I know I will, you know I will, the fans know I will. No-one in this league has a better 10 than me and if they do then they’ll be in the top two with us. That’s how I felt.
“And then he goes and plays me as a No.4! Are you mad?! I’m not a sitting midfielder. I don’t see danger as good as others.
“I don’t think I really aired that at the time though. This is just me saying this looking back. At the time, if he’d have asked me to play right-back then I’d have played right-back. I wouldn’t have given a s**t. I just wanted to be out there playing.”
Bullard continues: “I think he was just trying to get a few of us in the team. He had Lee Bowyer, Keith Andrews and Grant Leadbitter. And Keith Andrews had scored a few goals.
“I’m not saying it’s anywhere near the same level, but it’s a bit like the Stevie Gerrard, Frankie Lampard, Paul Scholes thing for England. How do you get them all in?
“We looked at each other thinking ‘I’m decent, you’re decent, you’re decent, so why isn’t this happening for us?’ Sometimes it just doesn’t click.
“It wasn’t just down to the midfield though, it wasn’t just their crisis. I don’t think we were that strong in the centre-half position and I think we relied too much on Chops (Michael Chopra) up front.
“The biggest thing was that we lacked pace. Lee Martin and Carlos Edwards were rapid, but the rest of the team was probably the slowest in the Championship. We were all good footballers, but we were plodders.
“The other key ingredient we lacked, the thing that Paul Jewell underestimated, was that hunger, that eye of the tiger. Naturally, you lose a bit of that the older you get.
“I’m not saying I didn’t care, of course I did. But was I hungrier as a 24-year-old at Wigan compared to being a 32-year-old at Ipswich? Of course I was. That’s natural. The older you get you lose a little bit of bite and little bit of intensity. And we were an ageing team.
“For me, what had changed from the year before and those 16 games? Sixteen games where, by the way, I actually got better as they went by. In the last six games (of the loan spell) I was immense. So what’s happened in five months? My hunger was the same as then. The one thing that changed was my position. That’s all I can put it down to.
“I wasn’t hitting the same form as before. Then I began to feel the pressure. I know the press and fans were saying ‘Jim hasn’t scored for X games’.”
After back-to-back thrashings at the hands of Southampton (5-2 at home) and Peterborough (7-1 away) at the start of that season, Jewell’s team had a purple patch, beating the likes of Coventry, West Ham, Brighton and Portsmouth. Then came a seven-game losing streak. The penultimate game of that miserable run – a 4-0 defeat at Burnley which Jewell slammed as a ‘spineless, gutless, pub team display’ – proved to be Bullard’s last start for the club.
“Yeah, I remember that game,” he says. “It was a spineless performance. We were run ragged. I played terrible. But I didn’t have many games like that in my career. If you want to hold me to one bad game at Burnley to the detriment of Ipswich Town Football Club... I thought that was a bad decision.
“But I never hit form in that second season though. I never did.”
In the 15 games which followed the Burnley loss, Bullard makes six sub appearances (four of them coming after the 80th minute), is an unused sub on six occasions and left out the squad completely three times. That was the backdrop to the now infamous night out in Newcastle.
“Off the pitch there was stuff too, obviously,” he admits. “Where I live in Cobham, I was an hour and 45 minutes away, which was too far to travel every day. Sometimes I’d stay with Damien Delaney, sometimes the club would put me in a hotel near the waterfront, but most of the time I’d stay with Chops. I absolutely loved him. He’s a great character. Obviously he got himself into a bit of (gambling) trouble though.
“We had a club night out in London. All of a sudden Chops went to me ‘shall we go up to Newcastle?’ and I went ‘yeah, sod it, let’s go’. So we’ve left around 10 of the boys in London and headed up there.
“The next day we turned up late for training, like five minutes late, because they’d only just started the warm-up. Paul Jewell has clocked it and is absolutely fuming – which I get. We’re late.
“He ended up suspending me for two weeks and fining Chops (two weeks’ wages). Two different punishments for the same crime, if you like. I’m sorry, that isn’t right.
“Then, at the end of that season, he got rid of me. None of that ever sat right with me.”
Bullard pauses for reflection. This has clearly opened up an old wound. He continues: “I kind of understood where he was coming from, hit us both where it hurts the most, very clever, but... I guess he’ll say he had to do what was right for the football club, but I don’t think that was what was right for the club. I think it was bulls**t. I think he made a right boob of it.
“I don’t know. Maybe his argument would be ‘if I don’t do something then it be anarchy’, but I really don’t think that would have happened. Looking back, I think he was a manager feeling the pressure who made some bad decisions.”
Bullard wouldn’t feature in the matchday squad again until the final game of the season, being brought on for a token cameo in a 3-2 win at Doncaster. Soon afterwards, Jewell told him he wanted to terminate the final year of his contract prematurely.
“I knew what it meant for me,” says Bullard. “My name wasn’t brilliant when I was at Hull. My name wasn’t clean, as it were. So once Ipswich got rid of me, my name was definitely dirt. I knew people would be saying ‘he’s a loose cannon, his legs have gone’. And that was a friend doing that to me... I thought Paul had hung me out to dry really.
“I know I didn’t help myself, but if you’re a mate, you’re a mate. I was like ‘come on, look after me man’. I was thinking ‘there are better ways you can handle this Paul’. Listen, it’s not a drama. But I wouldn’t have done it.”
So, I ask, it felt like a betrayal?
“I was with him for five years at Wigan, we did loads of good things together, had loads of success. I just felt he...” Bullard tails off and pauses to carefully choose his words.
“I’d never seen Paul like he was then though. He was under pressure, feeling it, you could see that. We should have done a lot better with the team we had. He was under pressure and with that comes bad decisions.”
We return to the subject of that night out. In Jewell’s defence, I gently suggest, this wasn’t just a case of turning up five minutes late to training. He and Chopra had come to training, via a near 300-mile taxi journey, directly from the nightclub after posing for pictures that had ended up all over social media.
“We’d be given two days off – the Tuesday and Wednesday, I think it was,” he says. “Instead of having the one night out, like the other lads, me and Chops went on a two-day bender. That’s not right, I understand that. But that’s still not a two-week sacking. I’d been in football a long time and, trust me, that happens regularly. No-one got a two-week sacking for it.
“Yes, I shouldn’t have put myself in that position. Listen, I’m the most honest person you’ll meet. I know there are two sides to every story. I’m just telling you how I felt at the time.
“Looking back, thinking about it now, I was probably becoming a little bit hard to manage. He started putting me on the bench and I went what I call a bit ‘door knocky’. I’m always in his office saying ‘why am I not playing?’ I think he must have just thought ‘you’re getting a bit hard to manage now Jim’. Or it might have just been because he didn’t fancy me as a player anymore. I don’t know.
“I’ve done a bit of management myself since and seen a lot of the things they do that you don’t appreciate as a player. It can’t have been an easy decision for him to let me go and, to be fair, he did pull me and say it to my face.
“I remember that day. I broke down in that office, proper broke down, because I knew that was the end of my career. I thought ‘no-one is going to sign me now’. I went to MK Dons and lasted three months.
“As quick as my career had gone up at the start, it all came down just as quickly.”
So, with hindsight, does he regret that night out?
“Of course, bloody hell, I wish we hadn’t gone out,” he says, ruefully. “I shouldn’t have put myself in that position, but I still say that the crime was too hard for the punishment. It was way over the top.
“He knows I’m not a wrong-un. If you got him in front of us now and asked him now what I was like as a person and a player for him then he’d say ‘top drawer’. I’d be surprised if I wasn’t in his top three. So why did he think ‘I’ve got to teach him a lesson?’
“Look, I’m trying to see it from everyone’s side here. I’ve tried to put across the negatives and the positives. I hope that’s come across.”
The conversation moves on to another of the key protagonists in this tale – Chopra. The striker scored 14 goals in his debut season with the Blues, but would later reveal that he was battling a severe gambling addiction. Like Bullard, he would end up being released with a year left on his deal after Mick McCarthy arrived.
“He was my mate,” says Bullard. “I did a podcast recently and I knew they would ask me about him, so I rang him first and said ‘are you alright me talking about you?’ and he said ‘fire away’.
“I never knew how bad the gambling was. I didn’t know the nitty-gritty. He’ll tell you this himself though, gamblers are very good at keeping secrets. All that time we spent together and he didn’t let me in. I suppose he had too much to lose. He wasn’t going to trust Jimmy Bullard was he?
“Anyway, we’re the total opposite. If I lose a fiver at the races then I’m not betting on the next race!
“I suppose everyone thinks we were out partying all the time, but we weren’t. We had a good time when we went out, but it wasn’t that often. We weren’t big drinkers.
“He had this mate, Ben, who would come over and cook for us. We’d stay in before games and prepare right. It wasn’t like how people imagine.”
We return to the subject of that incompatible midfield and ageing squad full of big characters. Did that cause friction?
“There wasn’t a lot of spite,” says Bullard. “There was a bit of spikiness, stuff like ‘f*****g hell, we should be better than this’, but we were never gunning for each other. I’ve been in dressing rooms where you’re fighting against relegation and that happens, trust me.
“Paul Jewell had always been really good at curbing stuff like that. To be fair, he might have seen that with me. Maybe I didn’t see that I needed curbing.
“As you get older you chill out a bit and see things from everyone’s point of view a bit more. When you’re younger it’s all about you. Footballers as a breed tend to be quite selfish individuals. You have to be quite selfish to reach the top levels.”
And with that, Jimmy apologies and says he’s really got to go fishing.
“I love it,” he says, clicking back into upbeat mode. “I’ve just been messaging Lee Bowyer on Instagram. He’s got a lake over in France and we’re wondering if we can get over there with Bobby Zamora while all this (coronavirus) is going on.
“Do you know what, I still speak to Keith Andrews and Grant Leadbitter too. There are probably 10 players I’ve kept in touch with from my whole career and three of them are from that Ipswich midfield we’ve just been talking about!
“When people say ‘what was your best time in football?’ I always say Wigan. But I tell you what, Ipswich wasn’t far behind it. It was right up there. I absolutely loved it.”