78 days and counting. That is how long it has been since OGC Nice goalkeeper Marcin Bulka (24) last conceded a goal in any competition.
A lot has happened since 15th September: Fabio Grosso had not yet been appointed Lyon manager, Marcelino was still in the Marseille dugout and AS Monaco were top of Ligue 1. However, one thing hasn’t changed: the number in Nice’s goals against column.
An unfamiliar feeling
No team in Europe’s top five leagues have conceded fewer than Nice. Bulka, who has featured in every minute of the club’s season, has been beaten on only four occasions and has kept 10 clean sheets in his first 13 games. Having not conceded in over two months, the former Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea goalkeeper has admitted that the feeling of conceding is becoming rather foreign to him.
“I hope that I won’t be reminded of the feeling of conceding a goal,” joked the Nice goalkeeper ahead of another clean sheet against Toulouse FC last week.
Bulka’s form saw him awarded Ligue 1’s Player of the Month for September, and whilst he is undoubtedly the standout goalkeeper at the beginning of the season, it could all have been very different.
Bulka has been eager to display his qualities but hasn’t always had the chance. He had looked set to go into the 2022/23 season as Nice’s No.1, but the club’s recruitment of Kasper Schmeichel, and the INEOS hierarchy’s insistence that he play, ended those hopes.
Whilst Bulka himself didn’t vocalise frustration, his agent, Yvan Le Mée did. “We were surprised by [Kasper Schemeichel’s] arrival, of course. That’s football – one week can change everything. We spoke with Christophe Galtier and Julien Fournier and we were told that he would start the season as No.1. The club’s investment in Schmeichel complicates things a bit,” admitted Le Mée in an interview with L’Équipe in August 2022.
Ultimately, he would have to wait for his chance once again. “Patience has played an important role in my career. I was quite patient, but I must confess that sometimes I ran out of Patience! But because of that, I am also where I am today, in the place that I want to be,” said the Polish goalkeeper.
A repeat of last season was a possibility heading into this season. Schmeichel was still at the club as the first game of the season approached and in the run-up to the game, Francesco Farioli struggled to choose his No.1 – a position that he said he had no desire to rotate. His choice, whichever one it was, would be definitive, and the loser in the battle for the No.1 jersey would almost certainly leave.
“I took a long time, right up until the last minute to decide my No.1 because it isn’t a choice to make lightly,” said Farioli in late November. “We had the talent of Marcin, but also the experience and quality of Kasper. With the staff, we reflected on what we would gain and lose with each option. We chose Marcin for his enthusiasm, his willingness to learn and his potential.”
Having ultimately lost the battle, Schmeichel departed the club on a free transfer at the end of the summer transfer window. However, wearing the No.1 jersey is only half the battle, and having fought so hard for it, he now had to keep it. Bulka was stepping into the unknown; for the first time, he had something to lose.
From ‘luxury substitute to ‘one of the most watched goalkeepers’
However, Salvatore Sirigu’s arrival signalled the club’s faith in Bulka. The 36-year-old was not coming to challenge the Polish goalkeeper’s supremacy, but it wasn’t the arrival of the former PSG goalkeeper, which consolidated his status, that gave him the confidence to perform as imperiously as he has.
“It is my own performance that gives me confidence […] My confidence comes from my work, not from other people,” Bulka told Get French Football News. His performances not only feed his own confidence but also repay the confidence that Farioli and the club showed in him at the start of the season.
Having experienced a meteoric rise in recent weeks, OGC Nice have been diligent in managing the psychological aspect of such a sudden change in exposure. “We spoke a lot with Marcin during the first two or three matches. It is normal to monitor him because the situation changed. In the space of four months, he went from a luxury substitute to one of the most-watched goalkeepers in international football,” said Farioli.
However, there is confidence that this is not simply a purple patch for Bulka. “He knows the level that he has to stay at. He is a serious, hard-working boy who has his head well screwed on,” said his manager. “He knows he has to continue to work with his hunger, for himself and for the team.”
A tethered Aiglon?
Bulka not only has the expectations of his club to contend with. The former PSG man earned his first international call-up in November and made his debut for Poland against Latvia, keeping a clean sheet after coming on at half-time. “I’m immensely proud. It is something that I dreamed of since I was young, Tuesday it became a reality,” said Bulka upon his return to the Côte d’Azur.
Bulka has been at some of Europe’s biggest clubs having come through the ranks at Chelsea before joining PSG, however, never at any point of his career has he had such exposure. He has Les Aiglons to thank for that, and he wants to repay the faith that the club have shown in him.
“I am very happy where I am today. I am not looking elsewhere. This is the club that gave me a chance and I want to repay the confidence that they have shown in me,” said the Polish shot-stopper.
Having kept the ball out of the back of the net for 78 days, his heroics are already repaying the club’s faith, and if Nice are to reach their objectives this season, Bulka will play a considerable role in getting them there.
GFFN | Luke Entwistle