The former Fulham favourite who enjoyed a fairytale career is still chipper despite the injuries that finally forced him to hang up his boots
Jimmy Bullard and I are debating whether or not he would make a good football manager. He insists he would. As a prospective sideline general boasting an extensive YouTube show-reel featuring such comedy gems as Bullard In A Wheelie Bin Wearing Underpants As A Hat, Bullard Leapfrogs A Pile Of Prone Players In The Goalmouth and Bullard Orchestrates A Re-Enactment Of Phil Brown's Famous Half-Time Team Talk On The Pitch, I suggest it might be difficult for him to enforce the steely discipline occasionally required to succeed in such a cut-throat results business. A soft touch, surely Bullard the gaffer would rather instigate than punish juvenile misbehaviour?
"I wouldn't be a soft touch," he insists over breakfast in a Surrey coffee shop. "And my team would play totally differently to what the world is used to. It would be pure football; none of this kicking it in the channels, getting after it and turning the full-back. My team would have quality play. Pass and move. They'd play high-intensity, pressing football. Proper football. Enjoyable football. Entertaining football. It would be so mesmeric the fans would never want to leave the ground. That's what I'd bring to the table: pure quality."
Intrigued, I inquire if he has done his coaching badges. "No, mate," he says with a shake of his Dulux dog mane. "I haven't done any coaching badges whatsoever." Not for the first time in our chat, he dissolves into giggles.
Having abruptly raised the white flag in his personal Battle of Wounded Knee and called time on a 15-year career as a professional footballer less than a fortnight ago, the former central midfielder could be forgiven for feeling downbeat. At times he seems a mite forlorn, but in an increasingly toxic and humourless football world, an hour in Bullard's company is great therapy. Apropos nothing, he reveals he bought his house without realising it has no mobile phone reception. He discusses his passion for fishing. He orders tea and gets brought coffee. He burns his fingers on the toast. Funny things happen in the orbit of Planet Jimmy. At one point an elderly man tentatively approaches, presumably in search of a photo or autograph. "Would you mind talking a little more quietly, please?" he asks Bullard. "You're really annoying my wife."
Having begun as a non-league footballer working part-time as a painter and decorator with his father, Bullard's career reads much like a fairytale, but without the happy ending. He signed for his beloved West Ham, but failed to make the first team. After a spell at Peterborough, he ascended through the English league with Wigan Athletic, then at Fulham became a household name. It was there he earned his only England call-up and suffered the first of two brutal knee injuries that would eventually end his career. His head turned by a life-changing £45,000-per-week contract offer from Hull City, Bullard moved north again and everything started to go horribly wrong. Less than an hour into his first match, he once again knackered his knee. Finding form and fitness after nine months out, he promptly injured the other one. Contract terminated … the bench at Ipswich Town … a short-term contract at MK Dons. His fall seemed as inexorable as his rise.
It was at the League One side he realised the jig was up: a merciful release. "The first game I played for them was against Northampton and I injured my knee again," he explains. "It swelled up and it just got to me. Laying there for the third time with the same knee, I thought: 'This could be it.' I originally decided to give it a week or two to settle down, but then I thought: 'You know what, I can't be arsed going through all this again.' I just weighed it all up and decided to call it a day before I crippled myself."
Football stops for no man, but news of Bullard's retirement at least made headlines. He realised the enormity of his decision when he saw it on the Sky Sports News yellow ticker and montages of his Best Bits quickly followed. The focus was almost exclusively on his value as a comedian rather than a footballer, but he insists that doesn't bother him. "In a way it's quite nice," he says. "I don't really think about things too much, but people are going to form impressions about you if you play football, aren't they? And if they think you're the funny guy or the boy that likes a laugh, well that ain't so bad. When you think of how some other players are perceived, it's great."
Forced into retirement in his early thirties, financially secure and with neither routine nor a reason to get up in the morning, Bullard has no idea where the wind will blow him next. Questions about the onset of restlessness and boredom are swatted away as "something I ain't thought about too much". For the time being, he's keeping himself busy doing nothing much. "I'm trying to keep fit and I love my golf. I've been playing every day, virtually," he says. "I went fishing yesterday and I've got young kids, so it's not bad at the minute. But how long is that going to last until I get bored? I don't know. At the moment it's all fresh and new and I'm just taking the time to work out what it is I want to do next. I might get the paint brushes and paint-spattered radio out again."
On the subject of football and how he would improve it, Bullard reveals that it is something else he ain't thought about, but becomes animated when talk turns to the new code of conduct for England players. "What's that all about?" he asks, in exasperation. "Just let the boys be, for God's sake. Because they're not boys, are they? They're men. If they step out of line and take a liberty, slap them on the wrist or fine them. Don't have a code of conduct because that's just getting silly.' As long as they ain't hindering their team or harming anyone ... just let them get on with it. Tweet what you want. Get on Twitter and slaughter some fans and see how they like it, because they're allowed to slaughter us."
Our chat concluded, Bullard insists on picking up the tab, then driving me a couple of miles to the train station: small details, but in this game invariably the sign of a good egg. En route, we return to his repeated admission that he never thinks about much, so I ask what he ponders during those long hours in splendid isolation on the riverbank. "What do I think about when I'm fishing?" he asks. "I don't really know." A ruminative silence is finally ended by a frank admission: "Mate, I just think about how I'm going to catch my next fish."