It always helps when the person across the table puts it more eloquently than you can.

“I went around the world in 80 clubs,” says Lee Bullen, Ayr United manager and former footballing globetrotter. There is no direct route from Penicuik to Hong Kong, nor back to Dunfermline. But when your careers commences with being dumped by Meadowbank Thistle and Stenhousemuir, the conventional paths to success perhaps don’t apply anymore.

Bullen’s career has been one defined by following opportunity, whenever and wherever it presents itself. Australia? Why not. Greece? Absolutely. China and Hong Kong? Go for it. Even finding a ‘home’ in Sheffield for almost two decades never completely buries a long built-in intuition to know when to take a chance.

“I didn’t want to get to 60, 70 years old and think: ‘I wish I’d tried that’,” he says. “I headed off on my travels as a kid, went around the planet.

“I’d been released by Meadowbank Thistle, released by Stenhousemuir – I thought my time as a player in Scottish football had gone. I went to Australia, and you question yourself making a move like that.

“But I told myself I was always 24 hours away from home, no matter what happens, and that I wasn’t going to look back at the age I am now and wish I’d taken a chance. I can say now it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, given where my career’s taken me.

“I’ve not made the big money, but the life experience and opportunities football has given me, I would never change it.”

Football has a knack for coming full circle, anyway.

“I was at Dunfermline as a schoolboy, went all around the world, and ended up signing for Dunfermline again.”

Sitting in a Somerset Park suite, Bullen reflects on how this journey has shaped him. There have been countless matches, coaches, influences, but so often it’s the earliest experiences that are most profound in their impact. Growing up in Midlothian, he didn’t have much, yet still felt rich. He was never the most technically gifted on the pitch, yet it never held him back. Most managers aren’t in their late 40s by the time a full-time gig comes along, yet he took unfancied Ayr to second in last season’s Championship.

He cites Craig Brewster, Iain Ferguson and ‘the two Jimmy’s’ – Calderwood and Nichol – among the biggest influences on that path, and there’s a special mention for Hong Kong coach Wong Yui Shun, or just ‘Simon’ to Bullen. But despite their talent and limitless knowledge of the game, there was one thing about them all that resonated most.

“It’s as much about values as anything else,” Bullen says. “I’m from a factory-working family. I had a stay-at-home mum and my dad worked in a factory all his days.

“We never went abroad on holidays, it was days out to St Andrew’s, down to Gullan or even Edinburgh Airport to watch the aeroplanes. These were the best holidays ever for me as a kid, and will stay with me forever.

“I don’t know how my mum and dad managed it, but I felt like the richest kid in the world when I woke up at Christmas. But I knew we were from a working-class background, and it shapes your values and an appreciation of what you’ve got.

“Even in Australia, that was initially part-time, as well. I was working in a factory driving forklift trucks and training three nights a week.

“My first full-time team was in Hong Kong. I was 21 and it was the dream life for me, something I’d always wanted.

“Before I went to Australia, if you’d told me I’d end up back at Dunfermline helping them get promoted to the Premier League to play against Rangers and Celtic, against Henrik Larsson and the De Boer brothers… I was a wee guy from Penicuik getting to play on these big stages, a Scottish Cup final, captaining Sheffield Wednesday, it was what dreams were made of for me.

“I will always be appreciative of the opportunities I’ve had in the game. This is another chance at Ayr United to create another chapter, to be a small part of creating a new story – it’s an honour.”

It was no easy decision for Bullen to leave Sheffield behind. After his exploits around the globe, Sheffield Wednesday became arguably the most important club of his career. Between 2004 and 2008, he made 148 appearances for the Owls, the pinnacle being winning promotion back to the Championship as captain. Modestly, he maintains the only reason it was all possible was Wednesday’s slide into fallen giant territory.

He bristles at his own use of the term ‘cult hero’, but Bullen must have done something right considering fans voted him the club’s greatest-ever captain in 2014. His life in Sheffield was interrupted only by seeing out his career at Falkirk, and he returned to become Owls caretaker on three separate occasions, flitting between first-team and academy coaching.

But when he found himself overlooked for the full-time Wednesday job for a third time, Bullen realised if he was to truly scratch the managerial itch, it was time to move on. And that’s where Ayr came in.

The Honest Men had been under new chairmanship with David Smith for little over a year when Bullen was appointed in January 2022, and the recruitment of former Hibs sporting director Graeme Mathie suggested renewed ambition at Somerset. There were obvious parallels with Wednesday, two clubs with working class roots who had been absent from top-flight football for longer than fans would care to remember.

“I wasn’t aware that Ayr United had spent 11 of the last 19 years in the league below,” confesses Bullen. “They’d been a yo-yo club. I wasn’t aware how long ago it was that Bill Barr was throwing thousands at it, bringing in big players like John Hughes and others. They had a good go.

“I wasn’t aware how long it had been since Andrei Kanchelskis stood on the ball against Ayr in the cup final. It’s amazing how time flies so quickly.

“The first World Cup I remember as a kid was Argentina ’78, and the fact Ally MacLeod had done so well at Ayr United initially, then Barr comes in and throws money at it and Ayr have relative success for a short spell. Obviously, the money dried up and things went down.

“But, listen, if you’re a follower of Ayr United, you’re not following them for glory – there’s a hell of a lot more lows than highs.

“But I knew the type of club it was – I had the pleasure of playing and losing here a few times when I was at Dunfermline!

“A lot of people questioned why I would leave a club the size of Sheffield Wednesday after almost 18 years of involvement as a player and coach. Working in the academy, it’s almost a job for life.

“My family is down there, but having experienced the caretaker role three times… after the third time the chairman brought someone else in, I knew if I wanted to be my own man then I had to leave.

“I’m older than most managers getting their first opportunity. For anyone stepping on that managerial roundabout, it can be over in a flash. You either have to have a really solid opportunity of success in your first job; a Dundee United or Kilmarnock in the Championship. Or, it’s a clean slate, a project, a whole new story being built."

So, one full season down, is this a good time to be at Ayr United?

“There is a big buzz around the place," Bullen says. "Listen, results dictate the feeling around any football club, but off the back of a relatively successful season last year, there’s obviously excitement.

“But I’m really aware of the fact people will look at us differently this year, instead of it being ‘wee Ayr United’. I hate using this word, but people will treat us with more ‘respect’.

“We’re trying to build something. The chairman, Graeme and myself, we’re realistic – we know that second place last year was massively ahead of where we thought we were going to be and we are going to have bumps in the road.

“But it’s a long-term project the chairman is building, on and off the pitch. It’ll be good to continue that going forward and eventually reach the league above, that would be great.

“There have been lots of conversations between myself and Graeme about finding a way to try and emulate, or push towards those play-off positions again this season. There’s obviously the understanding that Dundee United have come into the league, Dunfermline and Airdrie coming up.

“There’s also an expectation from the supporters, and other clubs looking at Ayr United slightly differently. We know it’s going to be a really tough season."

As Bullen says, last season’s runners-up finish was wholly unexpected, and it perhaps told in the end as his young side were brutally dismantled by Partick Thistle in the play-offs. Standing in front of the Sky Sports cameras afterward, he was as visibly deflated, yet refreshingly candid, as you’ll see any manager post-match. But it is a disappointment being used to fuel a summer transfer window with a noticeable emphasis on experience. Last season’s talisman Dipo Akinyemi has departed, but in his place have come Jamie Murphy and Aiden McGeady.

McGeady’s arrival, in particular, has caught the eye in that he will combine playing with an innovative role as ‘technical manager’. It was always going to require some outside-the-box thinking to tempt a player of such profile, even at 37, to try out the Championship for the first time. But as the former Celtic, Spartak Moscow, Sunderland and Hibs winger combines gaining coaching badges with an undergraduate sporting director degree, Bullen and Mathie felt they could offer him something ‘bigger’ clubs perhaps would not.

“I asked him if he was interested in coaching but he said going down the director of football route was more interesting to him,” Bullen explains. "I sat down with Graeme to see how we could offer him something exciting on the playing front, and to build for his future.

“He’ll almost be shadowing Graeme off the pitch. Graeme’s had discussions this week with agents and some of our players, and Aiden will be involved in that. It’s slowly but surely building his experience and opportunities to get a rounded oversight of how clubs this size work.

“We work completely differently to Hearts, Hibs, Rangers, Celtic, but I think he will get a good grounding here, more access when it comes to sitting down and negotiating contracts with young players. It’s not big money, but it’s the same negotiation whether it’s for £1million-a-week or £1-a-week.

“He was up doing the warm-up at St Johnstone last weekend, but I asked him to focus specifically on one of the players we have to make a decision on, whether we keep him in the building, put him out on-loan or even release him.

“Ultimately, I’m sure he’ll get to a point where he says ‘I like XYZ, but not this ABC aspect of it’. So then we can focus it.

“Peoples’ perception of Aiden is completely different to how he actually is. He’s a very intelligent lad, very studious, likes to get the detail.

“He’s pictured as a little maverick winger who can score wonderful goals, wind players up and have a mouth at referees. He has that bit of devilment on the pitch, and it's why he's got to the level he has, and of course there's the raw ability. But it’s totally different to the reality off the pitch.

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“He’s determined in the way he wants to go with his future. We can provide the opportunity - it’d be more difficult to get his foot in the door at, say, Celtic.

“A couple of years down the line that door might open, because it would still be a coup for Celtic to have Aiden McGeady back in the door as a director of football, a loans manager, or something like that.

“Selfishly, though, I want him on the park to twist defenders – the way he used to do to me! It’s exciting for him, and he’s nowhere near our top-paid player. It’s not a financial thing, it’s the opportunity to learn and see the other side of the game.”

As Bullen himself can attest, it’s all about following opportunity.