Paul Gascoigne and the dentist's chair: Sheffield Wednesday's Lee Bullen reveals what went on in that Hong Kong nightclub before Euro 96
Eyes blurry, grins wide and t-shirts ripped, the men pictured tackling the drinking challenges of the Hong Kong nightlife could have been 20-somethings from any walk of life, from any town or city in the UK.
The problem was, of course, that they weren’t. They were members of the England football team, sent to on a tour of Asia to prepare for their home tournament at Euro 96.
The photos, reportedly taken by England supporters drinking with their heroes, had made it back to Fleet Street by morning and were splashed all over the front pages.
Much to the delight of the tabloids, pictured with a torn t-shirt and booze-soaked torso was Paul Gascoigne. ‘Disgracefool’ was the headline chosen by The Sun and a nation caught the sinking feeling of Terry Venables’ side blowing their big chance.
Also pictured were Messrs Sheringham, McManaman and Fowler. Others were there but had done well to escape the lens of the camera.
And though it wasn’t intentional, so to did another professional footballer, a gangly Scottish 25-year-old striker who had played against them for the Hong Kong Select XI just a few hours earlier. As Gazza and the boys climbed aboard the infamous ‘Dentist’s Chair’ to have liquor poured down their throats, Lee Bullen, two-and-a-half years into a near five year stint in Hong Kong, was stood just metres away.
“It was a fantastic place,” Bullen chuckles, speaking to The Star from his Sheffield home. “It was the ultimate party town for a young, single lad! Every night is a Saturday night in Hong Kong, as you’ll have seen with that whole debacle.”
Nearly a decade before his arrival at Sheffield Wednesday, Bullen had enjoyed a road less travelled in his young career. Released from Dunfermline, he spent time in part-time football in Scotland before jetting off to Australia with a pal in search of life experience and a few Aussie dollars.
He was a striker back then, his route into the heart of the Owls defence starting only when he had returned to Scotland at the turn of the millennium via Hong Kong and then Greece.
By the time the summer of 1996 had come around he was mid-20s, with sun on his back, cash in his pocket and without a care in the world. Having started out at Kui Tan, Bullen was onto his second Hong Kong club, Golden, when he got word that he’d be taking on the English just a few weeks before his beloved Scotland took them on for real in the group stages at Wembley.
That was a clash England won, of course, 24 years ago today, when Gazza followed up one of the most iconic England goals of all-time with one of the most iconic goal celebrations of all-time; the Dentist’s Chair.
Rewind to Hong Kong, the inspiration for that celebration, and England won 1-0 with a Les Ferdinand goal.
Bullen missed a one-on-one with David Seaman for what would have been a famous equaliser and with the press already having lambasted the FA’s decision to sanction a tour to lesser-known football climes, the Dentist’s Chair was all they needed to stick the knife in.
“It was a couple of days before Gazza's birthday and so they were celebrating that,” Bullen told The Star. “But he was hard done by. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't look great when pictures are of ripped shirts in the nightclub but they weren't idiots.
“They'd had a few drinks and they were keeping themselves to themselves, they were having a laugh and some banter,
“It was not obnoxious, it wasn't offensive to people in the place. It was harsh. When I saw the headlines I couldn't believe how much it had been blown out of proportion. When you live in the England team I suppose that's what you've got to expect a lot of the time.”
The night itself started ever-so-politely, in shirt and tie with a meal at a famous eatery. The Hong Kong side had included former Premier League players such as Mike Duxbury and Dave Watson, and as the formalities wound down, a couple of the England players wandered over to Bullen and his teammates to share a drink.
“There was a massive floating restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour,” he said. “We had a big reception there with the Hong Kong FA, the players were all there. We were on separate tables initially but after that we all went on a night out.
“We didn't expect to see them really but they came in and were asking where the best places to go were and things like that. It was good, they got in amongst it, they didn't massively mix with us but they came over and spoke to Mike Duxbury and those guys.”
Gascoigne had picked up a knock in an earlier game in China and missed the match in Hong Kong, a disappointment for Bullen and his teammates soon got over during what the Scot describes as one of the highlights of a fascinating career path.
On the aura of Gascoigne he said: “He was the number one man, a top, top player. There was just something about him. He played the clown but he was utterly world, world-class. Unbelievable.”
“For someone like me, from a little town in Peniciuk in Scotland, who played part-time football, playing against the England national team, it was incredible.
“You've got to remember that I knew Scotland were going to play against England at Euro 96 as well and I should have scored! I just had to pinch myself. Hong Kong gave me opportunities I'd have never, never have had.”