Bullen Points Sheffield Wednesday in Right Direction After Bruce Dismay
A few days ago Chris Wilder joked that Billy Sharp is always stealing his thunder as “Mr Sheffield United” – but across town, a couple of miles up the A61, it is increasingly easy to apply a similar moniker at Sheffield Wednesday, even if it is the kind of label with which Lee Bullen, the voice in the dugout at Hillsborough and the former club captain, is a little uncomfortable.
A former defender who spent four years at the club as a player, Bullen has garnered maximum points at this embryonic stage – which translates to the club’s best start to a season for 23 years – after picking up the pieces as caretaker manager for the third time in less than two years following the protracted departure of Steve Bruce.
“It is a club that I now see as my own club,” says Bullen. “I came down to Sheffield Wednesday late on in my career, had a good few years on the playing side and really enjoyed it and I’ve taken the club to my heart. I was brought up a Hearts fan because I was brought up in Edinburgh, and as a Liverpool fan because Kenny Dalglish was my hero as a kid but now Sheffield Wednesday is my team. I’m living a boyhood dream now, or manhood dream should I say, given the opportunity to take the team for a few games. You never know how long that will last so we will enjoy the ride as it goes.”
It has seldom been dull over the past couple of years, with the club operating under a soft embargo this summer after submitting their 2017-18 accounts late and they were banned from signing players between April and August last year after breaching the profitability and sustainability rules. Last month, the club sold the stadium to owner Dejphon Chansiri for around £60m to avoid breaching EFL rules, in the same way Mel Morris has done at Derby.
When Chansiri calls mayday, Bullen is ostensibly Sheffield Wednesday’s superhero. When Carlos Carvalhal was sacked, he stepped in for four games. When Jos Luhukay was dismissed in December, Bullen went unbeaten in four games over the Christmas period. It is a case of so far so good this time around, with Bullen earning successive wins after being promoted from his role as first-team coach once more. “When you’ve got that managerial status it’s your head that is on the chopping board,” he says. “You’re responsible for backroom staff, 30-odd players, 28,000 fans as per last Saturday. You get pats on the back when things are going well but you have to be ready for the knocks as well. This league can give you a bloody nose very, very quickly.”
Bullen is a big-hearted and classy character. When he restored the goalkeeper Keiren Westwood to the team during his last stint in interim charge following Luhukay’s departure, he went around to Cameron Dawson’s house to explain his decision out of respect. At the time he also explained how he would be found among the away fans at Middlesbrough if the club decided to go in a different direction without him. Once again, the 48-year-old is certainly giving Chansiri food for thought. Asked if he wants the job on a permanent basis, Bullen says: “I think I could do it going forward but I’m not going to put words in the mouth of anybody out there. I will just carry on doing what we have been doing and hopefully the results can do the talking.”
Bruce’s messy divorce after six months in charge rankled with a Wednesday fan-base that had garnered optimism from the green shoots on display at the end of last season, when they finished 12th. Impressive performances, notably wins over Nottingham Forest and Bristol City, a draw at Norwich City and even a narrow defeat at Elland Road, whet the appetite for this campaign. “We felt we had the right man in place but he’s gone and we cannot quite dwell on it. I think we’re calm, I think we’re comfortable and the players have proved that in their attitude over pre-season and in the games.”
The club made a beeline for players with pace this summer. Jacob Murphy scored with his first touch on debut, while free transfers Kadeem Harris and Moses Odubajo have added further zip in wide areas. Up front the striker Steven Fletcher has been handed the responsibility of leading the line ahead of Fernando Forestieri, Atdhe Nuhiu and Jordan Rhodes, who spent last season on loan at promoted Norwich. They have sold Lucas João and have so far failed in their pursuit to re-sign Michael Hector on a permanent deal from Chelsea – “we won’t get involved in something that is not financially right for the club” – but in Adam Reach they have retained a versatile jack-in-the-box with a knack for a thunderbolt or two. “I think every one of his goals was from 35-odd yards out last year,” Bullen says. “I think we have a squad that can adapt to that odd knock or niggle and, in terms of that strength in depth, I don’t think we have had that in the last couple of seasons.”
Wednesday were given a breather in midweek owing to Bury’s troubles and the fixture list appears kind – Wednesday face Millwall, Luton, Preston and QPR in August, all of whom finished below them last season – but Bullen knows turning a solid start into a spectacular one will not be a straightforward task. Across town, Sheffield United entertain Crystal Palace on Sunday. “That has to be the aim of the football club, to get up there,” Bullen says. “And from the city’s point of view, it would be great to have two Premier League teams up here but we cannot continually look over the city with envy. We will let them take part in with their league and we will get on and deal with ours.”
• Sunderland meet Portsmouth for the fifth time in six months on Saturday with the pressure already mounting on manager Jack Ross. Sunderland are yet to taste victory in League One this season having stumbled to successive draws and they need to remedy their slow starts, having conceded first in their opening two matches.
• Kurt Zouma endured a difficult afternoon at Old Trafford on Sunday but his younger brother, Yoan, has impressed since joining stricken Bolton from Angers. The towering 21-year-old defender was part of the youngest Bolton team in history last weekend, which had an average of 19. After the game manager Phil Parkinson pleaded with Laurence Bassini “to leave the club alone” after he was awarded a court order blocking the club’s sale.
• Early League Two pacesetters Exeter City and Swindon duel at St James’ Park on Saturday, while Plymouth head to Mike Flynn’s Newport in search of a third successive league win. Flynn said his players will benefit from the former Swansea striker Wilfried Bony joining them for training. “Excellent work ethic, professionalism and standards,” he said.
The Guardian Sport