Transfer traumas

Recent activities in the English winter transfer market have been sometimes bewildering, sometimes intriguing and sometimes excessive.

There are those at English clubs who feel the one month January transfer window is bad for football and should be abolished. Not that the idea, which is relatively new in England, was unknown elsewhere. In Italy, for example, a similar window used to open in November when the Serie A clubs are briefly able to wheel and deal. Morally, perhaps there is a good case to make that clubs, having made their beds in the close season, should be obliged to lie on them.

Recent activities in the English winter market have been sometimes bewildering, sometimes intriguing, sometimes excessive. It has, for example, been hard for me to understand the Fulham-Hull City-Jimmy Bullard affair. No one esteems the Fulham manager Roy Hodgson more than I do. Never more than a modest amateur player, he went on to coach and manage in Sweden, in Italy at Inter, where I spent some fascinating prime time with him in Switzerland, taking the national team to the 1994 World Cup finals, and more recently in Finland, where, against all the odds, he only just failed to take the national side to last summer’s European Championship finals.

At Fulham, the popular but never all-conquering South West London club, its picturesque Craven Cottage ground hard by the River Thames, he managed with so difficulty to save the team from relegation from the Premiership last season, a spectacular, last game, win at Portsmouth being decisive. Central to whatever success the team had was, beyond doubt, a central-midfield player called Jimmy Bullard.

Bullard, now 30, was beyond question one of soccer’s late developers. A Londoner, born in Newham, Fulham bought him from Wigan where he had hardly been pulling up trees. But the metropolitan air seemed to inspire him, for, with Fulham he became an increasingly propulsive force, highly versatile, ubiquitous, eager for the ball, running great distances up, down and across the pitch, useful with his passing, often ready, with some success, to have a crack at goal.

When he was badly injured, it was a shocking blow both to Bullard and to Fulham, who struggled without him. He was out of action for five months, but returned late last season to help his team revive and in due course to avoid the trapdoor. This season, he has been named in an England squad, and although he didn’t get a game and may never do so, there are those who believe that this may have affected his attitude.

For, rumours began to circulate a few weeks ago that he might be leaving the club. They seemed hard to credit, since the very heart and soul of the Fulham team was his dynamic partnership in central-midfield with Danny Murphy, a Liverpudlian who had been sold by Liverpool to Crewe, a small club, true, but one which, under manager Dario Gradi, was adept at reinvigorating discarded players; David Platt being one. Thence to Spurs and finally to Fulham. In partnership with Bullard, he could seem, if not twice the player, then certainly a more dynamic one.

And then the stories began to circulate earlier this season, around the time that Bullard was injured and had to drop out again. He was likely to be sold. It was hard to believe and I wrote in a report of a Fulham match that the owner of the club, the Egyptian millionaire, Mohammed Fayed, should mortgage Harrods, his celebrated London store, in order to keep him. Then we actually began to hear figures quoted; Bullard could be sold for £5 million. A hefty fee indeed, but hardly the equivalent of what was being paid for somewhat younger, more glittering players.

And then, Bullard indeed went. Went in late January. Not to a club of major renown, but to modest Hull City, who, after more than a century of existence, had at long last, for the very first time, attained the top division. Attained it by winning the play off game at Wembley, which I saw, versus Bristol Rovers. By the game’s solitary goal, thumped home with a ferocious right-footed volley by the 39-year-old striker, Dean Windass.

A goal set up for him with great skill, from the left, by a young striker, Frazer Campbell, on loan from Manchester United. Where he did indeed return before the start of the new season, eventually being out on loan again, but not to Hull; to Spurs. As for Windass, under the briskly effective regime of the rebuilding manager, Phil Brown, he found himself out on a limb and out of the team, bar odd brief appearances, to be sold… in the January window.

But why Hull, for Bullard? A team which has had a curiously erratic Premiership campaign, now daring to come to London and beat Arsenal, now being thrashed both home and away. Bullard, who was paraded around the Hull stadium before they met and beat Millwall (yes, their fans, who have been doing it since the 1920s, ran riot again) in the FA Cup. He looked very happy, and, surprisingly, asserted, doubtless to the wonder of Fulham, that Hull were the biggest club he had ever played for. “The fan base is awesome up here,” he said. “It’s an up and coming club. I want to make this a good, established team in the Premier League and, who knows, push for Europe.” Who, indeed. Alas, it is far more likely that, as at Fulham, he will be helping his team in the desperate fight against relegation.

So why leave Fulham? The substance of it seems to have been that while he was under contract for another 18 months, he wanted a four year contract with a big pay rise and Hodgson wouldn’t give it to him. Fair enough; but why would he let Bullard go when he could perfectly well legally have kept him? It does seem to me a dubious transfer, for both Fulham and Bullard.

Why, you wonder, didn’t Manchester City, frustrated in their ludicrous multimillion move for Kaka of Milan, shelling out a massive £14 million for a player as gifted but unpredictable, both in terms of injury and performance, as Craig Bellamy, not come in for him? Their massively wealthy Abu Dhabi owners would pull £5 million out of their back pocket.

Personally, I’m saddened that Bullard has left Fulham. Will he be?