Interview

Lee Bullen: “I was privileged to spend a good part of my life in HK doing something I loved”

Bullen, captain of Sheffield Wednesday in the 2005 play-off final. Photo: SWFC Website
Lee Bullen, Sheffield Wednesday Legend. Photo: SWFC Website

“Here goes Bullen against (Tony) Adams and Bullen is getting there! He’s got there! Saved by (David) Seaman!” 

TV Commentary – Golden XI Versus England, May 26th 1996, HK Stadium

In most circumstances, during the controversial 1996 Golden XI versus England match, some would say Lee Bullen had no right to be in the position to score against a full international England team. This was an England team who so nearly brought football home in Euro 1996, with David Seaman and Tony Adams, who were instrumental in Arsenal’s rise to the Invincibles in 2004.

Who was this “Golden” striker, who had the ‘audacity’ to nearly score, anyways?

Who is Lee Bullen?  Just ask any Sheffield Wednesday fan for whom he is a living legend; he was their captain who was always willing to push his limits and graft away. On that fateful day in 1996, as the ball broke to him and he slipped past Tony Adams, he gave everyone a little glimpse of his ‘never give up’ attitude.

Scoring against a star-studded England? There was no doubt that Bullen’s treasured mentor, the late Simon Wong, gave reassuring words to Bullen that he could do anything if he believed in himself.

Presently, not only is Lee Bullen the current Sheffield Wednesday assistant manager, but he is also a cult hero for the Blue and White half of the Steel City (Sheffield).

Such is his stature, that an online survey in 2014 voted Bullen as the greatest ever ‘Owls’ captain and now he joins luminaries like David Hirst, Des Walker, John Sheridan, Viv Anderson, Trevor Francis, Chris Waddle, Paul Warhurst (defender turned striker supreme) amongst others as well known Owls from the club’s storied past.

Bullen captains SWFC in the 2005 playoff final, in Cardiff, for a place in the Championship: Photo: SWFC website

This is no small praise for the immensely popular and grounded figure who once was an inexperienced youngster who got his first taste of professional football when he started playing in Hong Kong for Kui Tan back in 1993. 

During this four year stint in Hong Kong, he played for other locally renowned clubs like Golden and South China. At the time, he was still making his way in the game and probably wondering where his career would take him and was probably just happy to play. Captaining Sheffield Wednesday to a play-off final win and appearing for Dunfermline over 100 times before ending his career with Falkirk?

Lee Bullen at Dunfermline. Photo: Parstv

Those dreams were still a lifetime away while he was playing his heart out at the Old Mong Kok and then newly renovated Hong Kong stadium(s).

Though maybe these dreams were not so far-fetched for Bullen himself; maybe Bullen knew that a career in professional sports is fleeting and is one of those people who understands how success in life can sometimes play out. He simply was willing to work harder than most and make the most of his talent with the correct dedication and focus. 

Signing for South China. Photo: SCAA vs Manchester United Match Booklet

All journeys have a beginning and having tasted a glimpse of the beautiful game as a semi-professional in his native Scotland and Australia, it was in Hong Kong that Bullen began his ascent as a full-time professional and he accumulated incredible memories along the way.

After honing his skills and gaining greater confidence in Hong Kong, Bullen eventually played for the owls 130 times and, memorably, captained Sheffield Wednesday in their League 1 play-off final success in 2005 against Hartlepool.

Video: Sheffield Wednesday win 2005 play-off final | Owls 4-2 Hartlepool AET

Bullen’s current standing in the game is the result of endless persistence and the attitude of always bettering himself and being flexible. Bullen leads by example and has amazingly played in all 11 outfield positions for the Owls. Bullen as a goalkeeper, sure! Left back? Ok! Striker? Done it all his life!  An amazing career built on sheer hard work, never giving up and willing to adapt. In a way….simple rules for life.

Bullen kindly took the time to answer some questions about his years in Hong Kong and how it shaped and moulded the rest of his life and career.

That Golden ‘Sliding Doors” Moment Against England 

Getting ready for the England Game. Photo: Lee Bullen.

Bullen, as a youngster in Edinburgh, probably dreamed of scoring a goal against England. Maybe one of his first sporting memories was of the famous pitch invasion following the England 1-2 Scotland game in 1977 at Wembley stadium. Maybe he thought if he worked hard enough, he could reach the same level of adulation at the international level. 

Just a blur? Lee Bullen nearly scores against England in 1996. Photo: Youtube Screenshot

Despite all his graft and grit, he was never capped by Scotland at senior level. Maybe that ambitious dream of scoring against England would have remained just that — a pipe dream — until a bizarre set of circumstances meant a whimsical fairytale became a reality. Bullen’s Hong Kong club, Golden, would face the might of the full England team on the eve of Euro 1996.

The game was dreary affair derided in the media though for players like Bullen, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and millions of others would do anything for a similar chance to test themselves against the best. Football is ultimately 11 against 11 on equal footing and anything can happen.

Video:Bullen’s chance V England @ 2 Mins + Simon Wong @4Mins 38 Seconds

The chance arose to score in the second half of the game, as Bullen latched onto a long ball from his teammate, Alen Bajkuša. Bullen probably had no right to even be in the position to score, though his redeeming qualities of persistence and graft shone through as he slipped past Arsenal’s Tony Adams only to have his effort saved by the ever-alert David Seaman.

Bullen in the front row – Golden XI versus England in May 1996. Photo: Alamy

The question remains: how would have Bullen’s life changed if that goal went in?

Sure, he achieved great success later on in England and Scotland, but would a goal against England accelerated this all? Would the giant clubs have come calling?  Would Bullen have been a Galáctico?

“I’m not sure about Real Madrid and AC Milan, I was never good enough for that level of football! I would have got quite a few headlines (especially back home in the UK) that’s for sure! That match was such an amazing experience for me and all my teammates. The fact we made it such a close game proves that we had good players at Golden back then.”

Bullen’s golden chance had passed though if he was destined to score or not then so be it.  Golden gave a great account of themselves and kept the score respectable and how many people can say they have played against England?

The Late Simon Wong – A Positive Guiding Influence who Mentored Bullen

The late Simon Wong helped build up Bullen’s self-belief- Photo: Lee Bullen

Bullen also took time to pay tribute to his former coach, the late Simon Wong, who helped mentor and guide him as a youngster making his way in the rollercoaster world of professional football, even more so in the overly complex world of Hong Kong football.

“I must give a mention to my mentor / 師傅, Simon Wong Yiu Shun, as he was like a father figure to me at Golden FC. Simon gave me a lot of confidence in myself and I was devastated to hear he had passed away due to cancer. He was a hero to me.”

Play for Sheffield Wednesday? Score against Manchester City in the FA Cup? Play as a captain in a Playoff final in Cardiff?

Maybe these were overly lofty ambitions for a young Lee Bullen though maybe the late Simon Wong saw something special and reassured him that targets like these were within Bullen’s reach and all he had to do? Believe.

Deadly “7-11” Partnerships with Bajkusa and Grabo and Legends like Lee Kin Wo 

Bullen was happy to share his thoughts on the best players he encountered or played with in Hong Kong. Bullen loved his “7-11” team number partnerships with both Bosnians, Alen Bajkusa and Anto Grabo. Bullen also praised players like Lee Kin Wo and Ricky Cheung amongst others. 

Video – Ricky Cheung, Au Wai Lun and Lee Kin Wu taking on Thailand in a World Cup Qualifier in 1997 

“I had the pleasure to play with Alen Bajkusa (7-11), Anto Grabo (7-11 part 2) and Mike Duxbury, who were fantastic. Local players like Au Wai Lun, Lee Kin Wo, Lee Fuk Wing were also excellent but I was always impressed with how good Ricky Cheung was. I believe he had the attitude and ability to play in Europe.”

Bullen with Grabo (Top) and Alen Bajkuša (Bottom) – Photo: Lee Bullen

Taking on Martin Dahlin, Sweden and Poland and Feeling at Home

Bullen had four defining years in Hong Kong and his best memory?

Nearly scoring against England? Playing against David Beckham and Ryan Giggs or playing against Zola and Frank Lebeouf of Chelsea?

None of those achievements were top. His outstanding memory was the 1996 Lunar New Year Cup and representing the HK League XI against a strong Sweden and Poland.

The Lunar New Year Cup was at its peak and this was an era when international teams would send pretty much their full-strength sides. This was Bullen’s window into international football and he could finally see if he truly belonged at the highest level.

Martin Dahlin – Photo: Sticker Worldwide

This was no random Sweden team by all means as well: this team had members of the squad who finished third at the 1994 World Cup. Bullen faced the likes of Martin Dahlin, Thomas Ravelli, and ironically, Roland Nilsson, who is seen as the greatest-ever right back for Sheffield Wednesday. The HK League XI lost to both Sweden and Poland though pushed both hard.

Video: Hong Kong League XI Vs Sweden and Poland – Lunar New Year Cup 1996

“People would say playing in matches versus England, Chelsea or Manchester United but for me, it was playing for the Hong Kong League XI in the Carlsberg Cup versus Poland and Sweden in 1996.”

Bullen faced another Owls legend, Roland Nilsson, when he played for the HK League XI in 1996. Photo: Images

“I remember playing very well in both matches and it proved to me that I was actually a better player than I believed. I felt comfortable playing at that level which was really pleasing for me.”

Video: South China Versus Chelsea 

Glory Days with South China?

Bullen playing for South China. Photo: Images

Back in the day, playing for South China was a huge deal and the club was, and in a way still is, the largest club in Hong Kong if not only on an emotional level. A chance for Bullen to play for South China arrived though he did not attain the same levels of success he hoped to and is honest about this. 

                                      With Au Wai Lun and Dale Tempest. Photo: Lee Bullen

“I was so honoured to be given the opportunity by Peter Leung. South China was / is the biggest and best-supported club in Hong Kong so to be asked to be part of that history and heritage was fantastic. I know I let myself down when I played for them as I never got to the levels that I reached at Golden which disappointed me though it really was a big honour.”

Days of Future Past – South China Versus Manchester United – July 20th 1997

Bullen features against Manchester United in 1997. Photo: Match Booklet

While with South China, Bullen had a chance to glimpse into the future and the new dynasty which was emerging. A star-studded Manchester United arrived in Hong Kong bursting with talent with the likes of Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs featuring.

The game was settled by a goal from Jordi Cryuff yet was there any indication that in two years’ time, that the core of this team would win the elusive treble?

Video: South China Versus Manchester United 

“We knew the strength of that Manchester United side had the capabilities but to complete the treble is almost an impossible dream so definitely would not have a had a bet on it! It was an amazing achievement.”

Playing for Falkirk. Photo: LastSticker.com

Bullen has nothing but praise and pleasant memories of his time in Hong Kong.

“I was privileged to spend a good part of my life in Hong Kong doing something I loved. The city was amazing and the people I met were all wonderful. I will be back some time and can’t wait to visit again. Thank you Hong Kong!”

Lee Bullen is a Sheffield Wednesday legend yet his story truly began in Hong Kong. A raw youngster arrived to play for Kui Tan, he was delighted to simply be a professional, and he works harder.

Video: As SWFC caretaker manager in the past 

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