41-year-olds Bulman of Crawley and Ellison of Newport face each other

Senior service: Crawley’s Dannie Bulman and Kevin Ellison, of Newport, are England’s oldest pros at 41 and their sides clash on Boxing Day

  • Dannie Bulman and Kevin Ellison, both 41, face each other on Boxing Day 
  • Bulman, of Crawley, and Ellison, of Newport, are England’s oldest professionals 
  • Both insist their passion remains intact and they aren’t playing for the sake of it 

Dannie Bulman, the elder statesman of English footballers, knows what to expect when Kevin Ellison arrives on Boxing Day, at a stadium now aptly sponsored by The People’s Pension.

‘He’ll be calling me an old b******,’ says the 41-year-old Crawley midfielder. ‘He’ll be asking when I’m going to retire because he wants to be the oldest player, but he’s got to be the oldest scorer.’

Born in February 1979, Newport’s Ellison is 30 days younger than Bulman and the second oldest professional in English football. They are veterans of an era when boots were black, and they can boast 1,727 senior appearances and 199 goals between them.

Dannie Bulman of Crawley  is ready to take on Newport’s Kevin Ellison, who is also 41 years old

‘People tell me I’m an old man, a dinosaur,’ says Ellison. ‘They tell me it’s time to retire but I’ve still got a love and a passion for the game, and I think Dannie’s the same. I played against him last season and he was one of the fittest and one of the better players on the park. Neither of us are dragging it out for the sake of it. There’s a lot of mutual respect between us.’

Bulman turned professional at 18, making his debut for Wycombe more than 22 years ago, scoring within seconds of his introduction as a substitute against Bristol Rovers, when he charged down a clearance by the keeper and the ball struck him on the backside and flew into the net.

Early evidence of the enthusiasm and endeavour needed to survive the rigours of football’s lower leagues.

‘Just imagine how many miles we’ve run,’ says Bulman. ‘Not only in games but in training and all those pre-seasons.’

Ellison insists that his passion for the game is intact and he isn’t playing for the sake of it

His memories include promotion to the EFL in the second of his three spells at Crawley and an FA Cup semi-final with Wycombe, against Liverpool in 2001.

‘I don’t remember much of that game,’ says Bulman. ‘Just standing on halfway looking at them: Emile Heskey, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher. Premier League players. Steven Gerrard coming on as a sub.

Bulman commenced his career at Wycombe and has taken in three spells at Crawley Town

‘And, after the game, Robbie Fowler in the bar, the only one who was happy to go out of his way and have a beer with us, and sign anything we wanted him to sign in a time before selfies.’

The enduring name of Wycombe’s Cup run is Roy Essandoh, scorer of the 90th-minute winner against Leicester having responded to an appeal on Teletext for a striker.

‘That shows you how desperate we were,’ says Bulman. ‘He couldn’t trap a bag of cement in training but one leap of faith and everything changed. We gave him a six-month contract and there were publicists offering six-figure sums for his story, but he was gone by the summer.’ 

Essandoh returned to non-league, a flash in the pan; proof if needed that it is not easy making a career in the professional game.

Ellison was at Leicester at the time, freshly plucked from non-league. He made his debut — his first and last Premier League appearance — just seven days after the FA Cup shock, as a sub at Manchester United.

‘Six minutes, or 12 minutes with injury time, but no-one will take that away from me,’ says Ellison. ‘They were probably the best team in the world at the time.

‘There were 67,000 people inside Old Trafford, all on their feet singing ‘Stand-up if you hate Scousers’. Even the Leicester fans. And I was the only Scouser in the stadium. Three months before, I was playing for Altrincham in Conference North.’

Bulman featured for Wycombe in their FA Cup semi-final defeat against Liverpool in 2001

And he is still going strong. Last month, Ellison scored the 96th-minute winner for Newport against Port Vale, to keep their promotion drive on track and extend his personal record to a Football League goal in each of the last 19 seasons.

‘When you reach 30, you can have one bad game and someone tells you your legs have gone,’ says Bulman. ‘You might be thinking it’s not my legs, I was just sh**, but you can’t afford many games in a row below standard.

‘I left Crawley at 32 when our manager John Gregory said he couldn’t see me playing a lot next season. He offered me a new contact with a 50 per cent pay cut and I told him I’d see what else was out there.

Ellison has enjoyed an eventful career that has encompassed him playing for 14 different clubs

‘When AFC Wimbledon came in he said I was making a mistake to leave but I played all year in my first season and we were promoted to League One in my second. Three years later, I was back at Crawley under Harry Kewell, who was only four months older than I was.’

For the first time, Bulman finds he is not a fixture in the team. ‘I still enjoy it,’ he says. ‘It’s the best job in the world and I’m happy to help the coaching staff, making them tea and coffee, but this is probably my last season as a player.

‘I drive in to training with Tyler Frost and I’m older than his parents. Luckily, I’ve got a booster seat in the car. I put the child-locks on because he likes to play with the windows and doors!’

Ellison could become the EFL’s oldest player and no-one will begrudge him the honour after years of service which, he believes, would not have been possible without going public about his depression two years ago.

‘It released a lot of pressure,’ admits Ellison, who has taken to yoga and become a qualified counsellor. His Twitter account carries the motto: ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do’. Never was it more pertinent than amid the uncertainty of 2020.

Ellison says going public about his depression two years ago has helped prolong his career

He was without a club in mid-pandemic, released by Morecambe, and pursuing jobs in factories and special needs education when Newport boss Michael Flynn called to offer the chance to earn another pro contract.

‘On the way down, at 8am on a Monday morning, I pulled over at Strensham services on the M5 because I had a video interview for a job in Liverpool,’ says Ellison.

The move was complicated because his father, also called Kevin, was fighting for his life at the time after suffering serious injuries in a fall. He is now out of hospital and is on the mend.

‘I know I can’t play for ever,’ says Ellison. ‘I know there’s another path for me in life but, for now, I just want to keep playing for as long as I can. I don’t like to use the r-word. Can I play for another season? Why not?’

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