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Steve Bull and Steve Walsh - The very best of enemies!

There were some tremendous sporting rivalries in the 1980’s.

Steve Bull appears to come of the worse after this Molineux clash
Steve Bull appears to come of the worse after this Molineux clash

Coe and Ovett. Senna and Prost. McEnroe and Borg. Hagler and Hearns.

And then, at the end of the decade and into the next, Bull and Walsh.

It was epic.

Steve Bull and Steve Walsh. A Wolf and a Fox. Two fearless gladiators, going toe-to-toe, fighting ferociously to the end – usually a very bitter end - for the good of the badges which proudly adorned their chests.

Clashes between Wolves and Leicester, West and East Midlands, always carried that extra bit of spice when these two were in town. Aggro, even. And that meant spellbinding entertainment.

“If you ask Walshy as well I am sure he would say the same – when we got on the pitch, we couldn’t stand the sight of each other!” Bull recalls with a chuckle.

“He knew he was in for a battle to stop me and I knew I was in for a battle to try and score a goal against him.

“It was a challenge - I loved a challenge and Walshy did too and hopefully we entertained the crowd with the way we played.”

They sure did that. And yes Bully, we did ask Walshy.

“We can laugh and joke about it now but when you look back, we were proper rivals in terms of what it meant to Wolves and what it meant to Leicester,” he replies.

“The situation with Bully and myself created an unbelievable atmosphere with both sets of fans, and I suppose what you would call hatred on the pitch, all because of the passion we had for our football clubs.”

Remember this friction hailed from a footballing era when pure, unadulterated aggression was more prevalent in the game – and perhaps less frowned upon - then it is now.

When no-nonsense centre backs pretty much knew they had a free hit on any fleet-footed frontman before a referee even thought about reaching into his top pocket for a yellow card. Or worse.

And tackles that would today merit an immediate cast-iron dismissal would usually lead to nothing more than a free kick. If that.

Bully and Walsh comes to blows in one of their legendary exchanges (pic Alamy)

It wasn’t just defenders who lived on the edge however, who thrived on those blurred lines between accepted physicality and foul play.

At the other end of the pitch, as a direct, driven and hugely determined striker, a key part of Bull’s armoury was that one-to-one combat with his direct opponent.

Wolves’ legendary record goal-grabber thrived on the thrill of the challenge, the rough and tumble of the chase.

A cocktail of that deadly motivation and his devastating finishing power and will-to-win was what underpinned Bull’s march towards 306 goals in gold and black and 13 caps - and a further four goals - for England.

“That was me, wasn’t it?” he says.

“Rough and ready, ragged around the edges and very raw!

“I was hungry, I just wanted to chase everything down and I just wanted to score goals and I wanted to win games.

“Unsettling defenders? That was a big part of my game.

“Give them the odd kick now and again and the odd pinch or pull their shirt.

“It was part and parcel of football in those days.

“As much as I gave it, I took it as well that’s for sure – I used to get plenty of stick myself.

“I wouldn’t say it was nasty stuff, just what every player did to try and gain an advantage.

“If you are in my path, I am going to barge you out of the way and try and score, and I know full well you are going to try and do whatever you can to stop me doing it.”

Exhibit one in the Bull/Walsh undercard came on a freezing November night in 1989.

The Wolves man was flying.

Already a full England international having scored in his debut six months earlier, he was eight goals deep into his first Wolves season in the Championship and was on top form.

There was a World Cup looming into view, and speculation was growing that Bull was very much in the thoughts of manager Bobby Robson as his potential wild card.

Someone different, someone dangerous.

And Robson was there, on a feral Filbert Street night, when the atmosphere crackled, as Wolves and Leicester went to war.

Only Bull got sent off. For lashing out at Walsh. And a new rivalry was born.

“It was a split-second reaction,” Bull recalls.

“I turned around and lashed out and as I went to tussle with him, he fell over and, in a delayed reaction, so did I.

“It was a comedy moment to be honest, but I remember thinking one of us was going to go here, and it turned out it was me!”

A full-blooded challenge by the two club legends

The timing could certainly have been better, with Robson looking on, but there was nothing to worry about, as was proven by Bull’s eventual inclusion in the squad for Italia 90.

“I did know Bobby Robson was at the game, the manager had told me he was coming, and just to get on with my game,” Bull explains.

“As I walked off the pitch having been sent off, I was thinking that might be it but he came to see me in the tunnel at the end and told me I was still in his plans and it hadn’t scuppered my chances of playing for England – he said it was a minor blip!”

Meanwhile the Bull/Walsh rivalry continued to simmer, including one game where a photographer captured the pair going head-to-head, like the proverbial rutting stags!

And another where Walsh reckons he ended up with Bull’s teeth marks in the top of his head from another brutal confrontation.

“I had to try and stop him somehow,” Walsh says with a laugh.

“Bully was a fantastic player – he was quick, he was tough, he never gave up and chased everything, even when it looked like a lost cause.

“And of course, he was a goal machine as well!

“He was a handful for anyone, and as a defender you knew it was going to be an uncomfortable 90 minutes every time you lined up against him.

“I think he probably dreaded playing against me a little bit as well, he knew what he was going to get.

“I had to try and kick him off the pitch as sometimes it was the only way I could stop him!

“When you think back it’s probably a bit of a surprise that we only picked up one red card each.”

Ah yes, the red cards. Boiling point returned at Molineux, on a balmy night in August, 1992.

Bull had already been cautioned for a high challenge on Walsh, and had already gone past him to open the scoring, when sparks flew once again.

“The ball was knocked over the top and I kicked his ankles,” the striker recalls.

“He fell over and by the time he caught me up, he dropped his head into the back of me, almost by the number nine on my shirt.

“It knocked me down, and as I looked up through my fingers, I saw the red card coming.

“This time it was Walshy’s turn to be sent off.”

With the dressing rooms situated in portacabins near the North Bank due to building work on the Billy Wright Stand it proved a long walk of shame for Walsh. The home fans weren’t shy in voicing their delight. And Wolves went on to win 3-0.

“I’m not sure there was much to Bully’s sending off – it was a bit of a weak one really – but I couldn’t really have any complaints about mine,” is the Walsh appraisal.

Spoils were generally shared over the years in terms of results, and there was one notable highlight for Bull as he notched a hat trick in a 5-0 victory in the first fixture following his sending off, at Molineux in April 1990, just a couple of months before the World Cup.

Above all though, even while kicking out the lumps out of each other, whilst trying every trick in the book to outdo each other, off the pitch? There was nothing but the utmost respect.

“Absolutely – I respect him very highly,” says Walsh.

“We both understood that what we did on the pitch was just how we played to try and win.

“But it was only on the pitch that the rivalry existed.

“Even before the game, we’d be coming out of the tunnel and Bully would be like, ‘Alright Walshy, you o-k?’ and after the game we would shake hands as well.

“It was all left on the pitch, and that is just what proper footballers do.”

“Nothing we ever did was with any malice, it was normal day-to-day stuff you’d do in a game to try and win for your team,” Bull confirms.

“And when we came off, we’d be in the player’s lounge with a pint of Banks’s Mild shaking hands and comparing our wounds!

“Walshy gave it absolutely everything for Leicester, and I gave it everything for Wolves, and that was all it was.

“To this day I respect him, for the battles we had but more importantly for the career that he had.

“I remember thinking once or twice that if we had been in the same team with him at the back and me up front then we’d have taken some beating!”

There was actually a chance of Walsh heading to Molineux at one point – after Bull had retired - as he spent a day training under Colin Lee back in 2001 and undergoing talks only to opt for Norwich where he had friends already in the squad.

“I had just left Leicester and went to Wolves for a chat and training and we’d actually agreed terms on a loan deal,” he recalls.

“I even came up with a stupid amount to try and frighten them off – and they agreed!

Separated by Andy Mutch on the golf course in 2007

“I remember being on the train home thinking ‘how on earth can I do this – I’m going to get slaughtered’.

“But then Norwich came in, and I knew Tony Cottee and Iwan Roberts who were with the club at the time, so I thought I’d better go there instead.”

Bull and Walsh have linked up since finishing their careers for events such as golf days, Q&A sessions at both the Claregate pub on Bull’s turf and at the King Power Stadium on Walsh’s manor.

“I remember wondering what it was going to be like coming over to Wolverhampton but the fans were great and just wanted to talk about the old days,” Walsh reveals.

“It was all a bit different to when I was playing and they’d be right on at me from the moment I came out to warm up – it always made Molineux a very uncomfortable place to visit.”

And even when the pair don’t see each other for a few years, the familiarity returns when they do catch up. A fierce footballing rivalry has turned into friendship.

It also leads you to wonder, whether such powerful rivalries exist in football anymore?

Where two particular players share a healthy respect off the pitch which is matched only by an unshakeable winning mentality once crossing the white line.

There have been so many developments in football since the Bull and Walsh days that have greatly improved the game.

More protection for players lends itself to the skilful being able to express their talent more freely, so too far better pitches, advances in medicine with injury prevention and treatment, and networks of cameras and technology to clamp down retrospectively on those who go a step too far.

For those who operate on the edge, the sort of regular Bull/Walsh confrontations which were always such a tasty side order to a Wolves/Leicester main course – it just doesn’t happen, or certainly not as much.

And that is perhaps an exciting and fascinating part of the sport which is now sadly missed.

For the two old foes, their paths went in different directions after their years of mutual antagonism came to an end.

Walsh and Leicester went to the Premier League – he helped them win a League Cup and played in Europe - while Bull took the definition of loyalty way beyond its boundaries by rejecting top-flight offers and staying at Molineux to try – ultimately unsuccessfully – to help Wolves achieve the same.

He did experience Europe however, across different levels with England including the seniors and, of course, that World Cup.

What both share however, is a continuing legendary status among fans. And rightly so.

Walsh is still involved in Leicester’s extensive community programme and carries out matchday media work while Bull provides ambassadorial duties for Wolves, remaining as popular as ever, as well as supporting many local different good causes via his charity, the Steve Bull Foundation.

“It is 23 years now since I retired, and when I still hear fans sing my name it is difficult to describe what it feels like,” says Bull.

“Even now, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and it always will.

“I think it is really nice, a show of respect for what you have done for the club and I am sure it is the same for Walshy at Leicester.

“They respect him too and love to see him when he is there.

“Everyone knows what I think of Wolves, and how grateful I have been for the support I received which is still going to this day.”

Walsh admits that both he and Bull showed ‘undivided loyalty’ to their clubs, which has certainly been reciprocated from the respective fanbases.

“My Dad worked for British Aerospace for 55 years, building parts for tornadoes, so that might be where my loyalty to Leicester came from,” he suggests.

“And Bully was a one club man, wasn’t he? That’s something you don’t see so much of these days.”

Talking of ‘these days’, Wolves and Leicester are clubs now looking positively entrenched in that chasing pack looking to be ‘best of the rest’ behind the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.

Leicester have already been there and done it of course, with their stunning Premier League title triumph of 2015/16, as well as lifting the FA Cup at Wembley last May.

That cup success is perhaps a barometer for Wolves, a tantalising snapshot of what a club of similar size and stature can achieve with the prospect of turning the transformational progress of recent years into something glorious and tangible.

Wolves and Leicester also remains a fixture that has provided plenty of Molineux thrills and spills since the Bull and Walsh era, notably for Wolves the extraordinary comeback from three goals down to win 4-3 back in 2003, a 4-1 victory in the FA Cup and another 4-3 triumph featuring a Diogo Jota hat trick.

Yet since that last seven-goal thriller just over three years ago there has barely been a cigarette paper between the two, and very few goals.

Just two goals to be exact, in five meetings, both to Jamie Vardy.

Sunday afternoon is likely therefore to supply another tight, tense and hard-fought contest with two quality teams pursuing genuine aspirations to break the top six monopoly.

For fans at Molineux with long enough memories, it might be worth taking a second to close your eyes and think back to those times when a rampaging number nine in gold and a formidable number five in blue occupied that very same scrap of grass, straining every sinew, not conceding an inch. With the cuts and bruises to prove it.

Given half a chance, they would love nothing more to be back out there, doing it all over again.

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