Over the last three years I’ve interviewed plenty of big names for Football Fancast, including England greats Chris Waddle and David Seaman, Arsenal legend Ian Wright and even the iconic ringmaster of the Premier League’s 3pms Jeff Stelling, yet none had me quite as nervous as Jimmy Bullard – who was speaking as part of Ladbrokes Rugby’s ‘Who’s Got The Balls’ campaign.
That may seem irrational, considering the ‘best £2million Fulham ever spent’ played every game for Peterborough, Wigan, the Cottagers, Hull City, Ipswich Town and MK Dons with a smile on his face and since retiring has made a habit of appearing as the cameo court jester on shows like Play to the Whistle and Soccer AM.
But Jimmy’s wit is razor-sharp and a weapon he often uses to assert social dominance. He decided to ‘break the ice’ at Craven Cottage by placing his manhood on the back Papa Boupa Diop’s head during a massage – yes, the 6 foot 5 defensive midfielder from Senegal who looked and played like he’d survived a civil war – and spent last year’s edition of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! reminding Edwina Currie (along with the cringing British nation) of her affair with former Prime Minister John Major on a daily basis.
If Jimmy didn’t mind ripping into players twice his size and the former Secretary of Health, he certainly wouldn’t pull any punches against me.
He’s also a bit of a local hero in my ‘hood, as the younger generation would say. Jimmy was born in East Ham but attended Erith School in the heart of Bexley – the London borough I’ve spent my entire life in – and now owns a pub just a few miles down the road in Crayford. So if I became the latest victim of the unique brand of Bullard banter due to one slip of the tongue or poorly-worded question, I’d not only have the whole of the internet on my back but also half of my hometown. At least you can unplug a modem.
I’m not too far from your pub actually, Jimmy. I’m in Welling.
What are you doing there mate, you’ll get robbed!
It’s where I live, Jimmy.
Oh, you’ll be the one doing all the mugging then.
In fairness to Jimmy, not much happens in Welling apart from the occasional furtive misdemeanour. Nonetheless, I could sense his comedic senses tingling at the other end of our crackling phone line and brought the conversation back to business. What’s this Ladbrokes’ ‘Who’s Got the Balls’ campaign all about then, Jimmy?
Basically, we’re doing a running gag – who’s better, who’s the more thuggish type, out of footballers or rugby players. So obviously they try to make the footballers look like thugs and the rugby players look like royalty. They just put me up against Austin Healey and the first thing we had to do was a diving contest. It was all a big stitch up really because I’ve never dived in my life and Healy was doing backflips off the ten-metre board. It was outrageous! But he’s got a group of eight rugby boys, I’ve got a group of eight football boys and we went head-to-head in a load of different challenges.
I saw you sporting what can only be described as a self-inflicted wedgie during the diving contest.
Well because I didn’t have anything to offer on my dive, my artistic impression had to be up there from the start.
Any truth to the rumour it was a publicity stunt for Calvin Klein?
No, it wasn’t Calvin Klein. What kind of Calvin Klein model would look like me? It’s impossible. I’m much better than that!
Do things like this give you a new lease of life after retiring? You’re doing a lot of TV work at the moment too.
Did I tell you I’ve got my own show coming out?
Is it on London Live?
You’ve heard about it, son!
At this point, Jimmy warned that if I didn’t mention Jimmy Bullard Kicks Off in this article he’d send some heavies down to Welling high street – a threat I imagine most retired footballers have the finance and connections to follow through with. Give us the lowdown then Jimmy.
It’s a football-based show with different sorts of guests coming on that I’m going to interview, from musicians, come actors, come sporting stars and then we’ve got a lot of social media stuff for it – saying to tweet in and ask me anything you want – alongside Kiri Bloore, the other presenter – the professional one. We’ve also got some fans in the studio and we’re going to be talking to journalists from up and down the country, telling me what they think they know but they actually don’t know nothing.
Speaking of TV work, it’s been a year since you entered ‘the jungle’ for ITV. If you had the chance, would you go back in?
No I wouldn’t, I don’t want to go back in there. I’ve had enough. It’s so tough food-wise, the hunger. I’ve done my stint and I enjoyed it immensely, in a very weird way, but once you’ve done one I don’t think you’re going to go back in there unless you’re mad.
In addition to the aforementioned incident involving the back of Papa Boupa Diop’s head, some of Jimmy’s greatest comedy moments include charging £2000-worth of food and drink, including a few rounds for the Real Madrid team, to Chris Coleman’s hotel room during a pre-season tour of Germany, gazing in baffled awe at Duncan Ferguson after watching the Everton hardman punch Paul Scharner and of course, re-enacting Phil Brown’s notorious half-time on-pitch telling off after scoring against Manchester City. Apart from yourself, who’s the funniest footballer you’ve come across?
David Bentley. He’s crackers.
Got any stories for us?
Yeah I got a few. Have you heard the one about Postman Pat? Well, Fabio Capello looks like Postman Pat doesn’t he? So I said to Bents, ‘who can go up to him and say Postman Pat the loudest?’ Because when you’re away, I know it sounds silly and boring now, everyone gets a bit all like kiddies. So I went ‘Postman Pat’ under my breath and David went straight up to him and went ‘POSTMAN PAT’ right in his face. I said ‘you can’t be doing that’ so he spoilt the game. But also he was just a madman. He’s just really down to earth and really not bothered by most things. He wasn’t your norm for a footballer.
Flipping that on its head, was there anybody you met who really couldn’t take a joke?
Oh… all of them! You get a lot of dry lunches. A lot of boys who take it far too seriously. If you just said something like ‘oh you’re not very good on your passing you have to work on that’ they get the hump! Some of them were just very, very serious. Aaron Hughes is the most serious man ever.
Do you think football – and particularly the Premier League – is beginning to lose its sense of humour?
Yeah, I said that about eight years ago. That’s what David said as well. He didn’t like football because there’s no characters – it’s too rigid, there’s too much structure. There’s not enough characters and there’s too much politics involved in football. He just wanted to have a laugh and do what he wanted to do at certain times, so he gave up and went to live in Spain!
When researching for this interview, something I read particularly surprised me – Jimmy revealing that he was about as nervous as a cow at a beef factory when he was a teenager. When did the cheeky Jimmy Bullard we all know now first start to emerge?
Well, we’re talking about a great time ago. At 16 I was at Dartford Football Club and I didn’t even have the minerals to phone up my manager to tell him I didn’t want to play for him anymore. I wanted to play somewhere else. So I got my dad to do it.
But I think football gave me the confidence. The more I was around different people in football and the more I moved away and started living on my own, I got to meet all different characters. I quickly became confident. You have to in an environment like that. But I quickly found out I had to become my own sort of man and that’s what I developed into – a really confident guy.
Such a cheesy line, sorry! But I don’t know really. It slowly built up like this, I don’t know how. But I was very shy, you’re right. It was embarrassing – I wouldn’t even say hello to people! Now I love a good chat.
Looking back on your career, what do you consider to be your defining moment?
I few things stuck at Wigan like getting into the cup final, coming second in the Championship and winning promotion. Playing in the Premier League, all that kind of stuff. So just Wigan in general! And also I loved playing under Barry Fry.
Any regrets? Anything you’d do differently if you had another chance?
No way, I loved it! I wish I’d signed for Celtic when I had the chance. That was one regret because I didn’t play for a huge, huge club but the timing wasn’t right. I think now if they said ‘we want to sign you for four years’ I would’ve done it you know? But I had I right laugh!
I know you were studying your coaching badges last year. Is that something you’re still pursuing?
Yeah I’m doing my B and A licence this year – well next year now, the summer – because I aim to be a manager further down the line. At the minute I’m concentrating on my TV career.
Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
No, I didn’t even think about it when I played. As soon as I finished I didn’t think about it either. It’s only lately when I’ve thought ‘hang on a minute, I might want to do this. I might want to coach one day’.
Do you think you’ve got something different to offer younger players?
I do actually, because I feel like as kids we were coached, well speaking on my own behalf here, I wasn’t coached great. I believe we’re being taught the wrong way by a lot of coaches that are still out there. I believe there’s a better way, there’s a better philosophy to playing football – not just all about power and pace and gaining yardage – it’s about technical ability and playing correct in the right way.
So yeah, I believe we’ve been taught wrong for a long time – not by everyone but by a lot of coaches I’ve seen and been around in my time. There’s not a wrong or right way, sorry I might have worded that wrong. But I believe there’s a better way of playing football and that’s why I believe English football has struggled for so long.
Four of your former clubs are in the Championship this year. Which one are you rooting for?
I’d love MK dons to go up. I believe Karl Robinson is a top manager. He’s one that plays the right way. His philosophy is correct – what a great word for me that, philosophy!
Hull… who’s the manager at Hull?
Steve Bruce still.
Is he still there? He’s got to go, he’s had his time.
Fulham – another great manager who plays the right way in Kit Symons. Knows exactly what he’s on about. And Ipswich. Yeah, very good. Like the manager and I know the players love him down there, so them three. I’d love to see all them three go up but mainly MK dons because Karl’s a top manager.
Have any of those clubs, Wigan or Peterborough stolen your heart or are you still a West Ham fan?
Yeah still, always West Ham. I bleed claret and blue don’t I? It’s what I do.
Was Slaven Bilic the right choice to succeed Sam Allardyce?
Awesome. Cracking choice. But you know what they’re like down at Upton Park – in a few months time they’ll be crying ‘OUT!’. But I love Slaven Bilic I think he’s a right character; I think the fans love him and the players love him. At the minute it’s a club that’s really on the rise. They’ve got some good players and Dimitri Payet’s been playing awesome.
Where do you think they can finish up this year?
Top six. I think if there’s ever a year they can do it it’s this year because everyone’s losing games. Very crazy start so it’s right open. If there’s ever a chance, it’s this year.
Time for Football Fancast’s world famous, internationally revered, legendarily popular and totally-not-copyright-infringing-upon-Sky-Sports’-One-2-Eleven segment… Fantasy Five-A-Side! Jimmy, your first player is the best player you’ve ever played with.
Paolo Di Canio.
The second player – the best you’ve ever played against?
Paul Scholeee….. Ronaldo
The third, your footballing role model growing up?
Fourth, someone in the Premier League today you wish you could’ve played alongside?
I like David Silva for his football. I’ll go with that.
And finally, any goalkeeper.
Erm… Petr Cech
One last question, Jimmy. If you went bald, would you put a Wigan?
I am bald. This ain’t a real barnet son!
Thanks Jimmy, you’ve been a blast!