When Jimmy Bullard limped off the field at Villa Park, against Aston Villa with the help of team-mate Kamel Ghilas and fitness coach Sean Rush, it was another blow for Hull City. The Tigers were finally reaping the benefits of his wonderful talents after waiting so long.
However, it was even more of a blow to Bullard himself, who had just spent nine months trying to get back to full fitness. For Bullard who had been on the fringes of a full England cap after been part of the squad in August 2008, it must have been a bitter disappointment.
He had started his career with Northfleet and Gravesend Football Club (now Ebbsfleet United FC) in the the Conference before signing for his boyhood heroes West Ham United. He never made an appearance for his beloved Hammers and was sold to Peterborough United on a free transfer.
At Peterborough Bullard scored a credible 11 goals from 62 appearances from midfield before his stock rose and Barry Fry sold him to Wigan for £275,000 in 2003.
Bullard's game improved as he carried on learning his trade, becoming a very good footballer, winning many plaudits along with the Football League Division Two Player of the Season Award for 2002/3, and also helping Wigan to the Premiership in 2004/5. He was in Wigan's side that were beaten by Manchester United in the Carling Cup Final in 2006.
It was in April of 2006 that Bullard, who had been the lynchpin of Wigan's most successful team up to that point in their history, activated a clause in his contract that allowed him to talk to clubs in the London area that expressed an interest in him. He signed for Fulham for £2,500,000 at the end of the season.
Bullard's infectious cheeky East-End character was also starting to get him noticed for reasons other than football after a couple of incidents where his ebullent character shone through. His effervescent character would win him plaudits from fans' favourite TV show "Soccer AM".
In one incident Bullard ran the length of the pitch in an attempt to score, when there was a floodlight failure during Wigan's League Cup semi-final home leg against Arsenal. In another, he attempted to leapfrog a pile of players in a goal mouth scramble against Everton in a Premier League clash that ended with him falling flat on his face. Bullard's antics didn't end there. In the same game against Everton he squared up to notorious Scottish hardman Duncan Ferguson who had just been sent off for punching Wigan's Paul Scharner. Bullard faced off (maybe that should be faced up as Ferguson was more than half a foot taller than Bullard) with Ferguson with his inimitable cheeky grin on his face.
Unfortuntately, for Bullard his time at Fulham would not be as joyous as at Wigan. His debut was in a 5-1 thumping by Manchester United but followed by his first goal for the club as his last minute penalty would secure a draw for the Cottagers.
Only two weeks later Bullard injured his right knee in a game against Newcastle United for the first time that would make him miss more than two years of football. The initial diagnosis for his knee injury was that of a dislocated patella but it was later discovered that he had an anterior cruciate ligament injury, and that it would mean his knee would have to be rebuilt, and so he travelled to the United States to see knee surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman. It was originally expected that he would only be out for nine months. That soon stretched to 13 months but it would be 16 months before he would pull on a first team shirt for Fulham.
It is no coincidence that Fulham's precarious position around the relegation zone in 2007/8 was rectified by Roy Hodgson's ability to play Bullard in the second half of the season and it was Bullard's cross to Danny Murphy to score against Portsmouth that kept Fulham a Premier League club for another season.
The next season Fulham were perfoming very well but because Bullard's contract was nearing completion with only 16 months left he entered negotiations with Hodgson and the Fulham management team. Bullard felt that Fulham weren't offering him the contract he deserved after the successful second half of the season he had had in helping Fulham survive. Bullard said of the inpasse with Fulham:
"I had sixteen months left on my contract, which to me - I've been out sixteen months, I know it isn't a long time - and I wasn't willing to play with sixteen months... with one year left on my contract, and I did tell them that, I made that clear, even though I am under contract. Also I didn't feel I had the backing from the club, so I felt like it was time to move on. I felt like Fulham didn't want me and it was as simple as that really. I was in talks with Fulham over a contract and I was told I'm not getting a new contract and I can leave in January. So for a player to be told that was quite harsh, you know, and I came up to speak to Hull and it was totally different, and it sort of made it a lot easier for me. I'm only human, I just wanted to play for a team who really wanted me, and Hull showed me that really"
In the almost three years with Fulham he had only managed 39 games for them, scoring six goals.
At the time Hull City were sitting in sixth place in the Premiership and Hull City boss Phil Brown was looking for the spark that would reignite the Tigers' season which was starting to fade. The signing of Bullard for £5,000,000 by the Tigers was a club record and huge risk for an injury-prone 31-year-old player.
Unfortunately, Bullard was injured after only 37 minutes of his Hull City debut and even though he had started well, his Hull City tenure came crashing to his feet as he had a re-occurance of his right knee injury. The initial feeling was that it could be less severe than his last serious knee injury but after consultation with Dr. Steadman it meant that he would would need more surgery on his knee.
Bullard returned to the Hull City ranks in the reserves with an outing against Bolton Wanderers the next season, scoring a thunderous long range effort, a few days before making his long awaited return for the Tigers. Ironically his return was at his old stomping ground of Craven Cottage, Fulham, where he came on as a substitute in a drab affair with the Tiger's being clearly out-played.
Finally after almost 11 months Bullard made his home debut for the Tigers at the Kingston Communications Stadium, Hull. His inspirational form was the catalyst in the 2-1 victory over Stoke City, with him having a hand in both of the Tigers' goals. He then scored his first goal for Hull City in the 3-3 clash with West Ham United. He was rested for the next clash against Everton but the confidence the team had gained after two fantastic performances was carried over with the Tigers winning without him in the side.
The club's and Bullard's ressurgance seemed complete as the Tigers earned a well deserved draw against multi-millionaires Manchester City, with Bullard scoring the penalty kick to tie the game. The game again highlighted Bullard's wonderful character. In a return to the scene of one of the media's much hyped Phil Brown gaffs, Bullard with the help of his team-mates, Stephen Hunt and Paul McShane, set out to satire the on field half time team talk that was a media lead monkey on the back of Phil Brown. His hijinx were a cathartic exercise. Brian Horton, the Hull City Assistant Manager, told Sky Sports:
"You never want to praise one player because it's a team game but he's an infectious lad. He's crackers at times, but he's so lively around the place and I really do think he's taken us to the next level on the training pitch."
Bullard's fine performances and his hand in Hull City's climb out of the relegation zone won him the Barclays Premier League Player of the Month Award for November 2009. Unfortunately, in Bullard's next game he went up for a high ball with Aston Villa's James Milner and landed heavily on his left knee. After much treatment from the Hull City Physiotherapist, Simon Maltby, he attempted to run the injury off but needed to be helped off the field with tears in his eyes. Bullard is alleged to have said, "it's f***ed", as he passed the the Hull City bench.
Luckily it was not his right knee that has had two extensive repairs in the past but a new injury to his left knee. Phil Brown on the Hull City's Official Website said:
"Jimmy automatically saw the downside because of the affect the last 12 months have had on him. The fact that he came off thinking he was going to need an operation straightaway is testomony to that."
The club with the team's doctors discovered that his new injury is a medial ligament sprain. Brown continued:
"Six weeks is the best case scenario, eight weeks is probably the worst case scenario. We're looking for Jimmy to be back on the field of play by the back end of January."
It is a sad day for football in general when a player of Bullard's undoubted talent has the first response that his career is over after an other injury. Fans of any club would be hard-hearted not to feel for Bullard in the wake of his recent injury. For a player to have come through from non-league football to the verge of international football at the highest level to have it snatched away so cruelly is a great shame. After his rise to prominence with Wigan, Bullard has only played 45 games in almost four years.
As a fan of football and Hull City in particular I hope that this wonderfully gifted, charismatic and genuinely funny footballer can return to full fitness sooner rather than later and suffer no more injuries.