Jimmy Bullard is telling the story about the time, on a pre-season trip to Austria, when Fulham stayed in the same hotel as Real Madrid and he came down to the bar to find David Beckham and the other galácticos lined up in a fog of expensive aftershave. Most of the Fulham players were loitering round the edges when Bullard picked up a mandolin and treated everyone to an impromptu sing-song, starting with Old McDonald Had A Farm and culminating in a round of applause from the world’s most expensively assembled team.
It is the kind of story that demonstrates Bullard’s sense of fun – “I just wanted to break the ice,” he says – and helps to explain why so many people are glad to see him back from the knee injury that had threatened to wreck his career. Fans have grown weary of dull players. They want footballers to give them the giggles as well as get them on their feet. So people tend to like Bullard, with his dishevelled hair, matchstick legs and boyish grin. You do not have to be a Fulham supporter to be happy to see him on a pitch for the first time in 16 months.
Bullard estimates he has had around 5,000 letters of support. Many, inevitably, have come from Fulham fans, some addressed simply to “Bulldog”. At least one sackload originated in Lancashire, from supporters who fondly remember the way he helped Wigan Athletic’s remarkable rise through the league. But others took Bullard completely by surprise. “They’ve come from all round the world. I’ve even had letters from people in China. People write in, saying, ‘I’m a Liverpool fan but I follow you as well’. It’s been unbelievable but it has helped me through the dark times.”
Bullard had played only four games for Fulham when he suffered the injury in a freakish tangle of legs with Scott Parker, then of Newcastle United. “It’s still vivid in my mind,” he recalls. “I can remember passing the ball, then the ball came back and I dangled out my leg. It was a silly position to get myself in. Scott landed on top of me, my studs were still in the ground and I took all his weight on my knee. I was in shock at first. Then I heard Collins John shouting out, ‘Oh Jesus, no!’ I looked down and my leg was bent at completely the wrong angle. They couldn’t get the oxygen working as they tried to get my kneecap back in place. And then the pain started. Pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
His knee was so mangled that John and Parker both vomited on the pitch. “The physios thought at first it might just be a dislocation but I was in so much pain I always thought the ligaments were gone. The next day I got up to go to the toilet. I was trying to wee but, from my knee down, my leg was wobbling all over the place. Splashed everywhere.”
Bullard went to Colorado to see Richard Steadman, the world’s leading knee surgeon. “His first words were, ‘That’s as bad as I’ve ever seen’. He said it looked like a bomb had gone off in my kneecap. You have four main ligaments in your knee and I’d torn three. Everything had gone awol. But I knew I was getting the best possible treatment. The doctor said I would play again and that encouraged me to think I’d get through it.
“I had the first operation in September 2006 and that went fine. The second one was in December that year and that went fine, too. But, when I thought I should be getting back, it wasn’t right. There was a lot of movement in my knee and, because my playing style is all about running and twisting, I did start to worry. It was in my head, ‘Am I ever going to play again?’ They were dark times, some really difficult moments, but I was always focused on getting back. And the physio, Jason Palmer, has been terrific. He told me to think of it like a slice of bread and that we had to go crumb by crumb. And that was great advice.”
That Bullard is pressing for a place in Roy Hodgson’s starting XI to face Arsenal today is testament to his dedication and perseverance and the 29-year-old is anxious to make up for lost time.
“It’s that feeling when you’re a kid and it’s Christmas Eve,” he says. “The knee feels perfect. I’ve had a few crunching tackles and no problem. Simon Davies hit me with one in training. And I got one in the reserves. It’s all good. Every time it happens it just gives me more confidence.”
He credits his fiancée, Diane, with “keeping me sane” in the worst moments. “From a football perspective it’s been a nightmare, from start to finish. But there has been plenty going on in my life that feels just awesome too. We’ve had our first baby [Archie], so it’s been ups and downs all the way.”
His golf handicap has suffered from an extended time off the course – Bullard usually plays off scratch and, according to Colin Montgomerie’s coach, Denis Pugh, could have made it as a pro – but Bullard has at least had time to immerse himself in fishing. He is affiliated to Dorking Angling Society – “the Manchester United of the fishing world” – and does a little bit more than find a shady spot on the riverbank, lean against a tree and gaze dreamily into the water. “We go to all the big matches and I’ve won a couple of £800 prizes,” he says. “There were 75 top anglers at the last one and I ended up winning.”
Another ended in rather less dignified fashion. “There was a bunch of kids, about six years old, peppering me with songs on the other side of the bank. I trod on my pole and went straight in the water headfirst. I managed to crawl out but I had weed in my hair. All these bloody kids were crying with laughter.”
Bullard, you quickly learn, has a string of anecdotes that could have been lifted straight from the Bash Street Kids. The time, for example, when he emptied a pot of yoghurt over Mark Crossley’s head “because he said he was hot”. Or the away trip, earlier in his career, when he was demonstrating his golf swing in the foyer of an hotel. “One thing led to another,” he recalls. “The clubs came out. First it was putting. Then it was the full swing. Someone threw a ball at me and I hit it so sweet. Absolutely creamed it. Smash! It’s gone straight through the glass lift and shattered it from top to bottom. Not my finest moment.”
But this is all part of the Jimmy Bullard charm. Ask him to choose the right adjectives to describe himself and he will reply “hyper” or “joker,” and it makes him a popular figure at Fulham, from the dinner ladies at the training ground to the fans who will serenade him at Craven Cottage today. “I don’t go around thinking, ‘Ooh, I’m the joker, I’ve got to do something wacky today.’ It just happens sometimes. Like the thing with Crossley. He said he was hot so I thought I would cool him down. And he loved it. But I wouldn’t try that with Brian McBride because I don’t want a right hook.
“I just like to have a bit of fun. I try to have a laugh and I try to play with a smile on my face. I want to win and I’m serious about my career but football should be enjoyable and it’s good to have a laugh along the way. I’ve been through a nightmare but I’m back now and I couldn’t be much happier.”