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Paul Bracewell ? A Life in Football

By Rob   Sawyer  ::  30/01/2012   25 Comments (Last)

Paul Bracewell - A Life in Football

by Rob Sawyer

School of Science scholars can reflect on two classic post-war midfield line-ups: the 1960s ?Holy Trinity?, abetted by ?gunslinger winger? Johnny Morrissey, and 1984-85 title winners Reid, Bracewell, Steven and Sheedy.

Of the latter quartet, Paul Bracewell is the least heralded, maybe due to injury blighting his Toffees tenure, yet he had a remarkable footballing career spanning over 600 games. ?Brace? learned his trade alongside Howard Kendall at Stoke, won European U-21 Championship honours, amassed silverware at Goodison, won 3 England caps, crossed the Tyne and Wear divide twice, coached under Reid and Keegan, managed on the banks of the Thames and in the Yorkshire hills before coaching a certain Everton prodigy.

For those who did not see Paul in his pomp, he was in the same mold as Scott Parker: tenacious with a great engine and no little skill. His true value was felt in absentia as Reid?s powers waned after the 1986-87 League Championship title season as ankle problems prevented his heir apparent from driving the team to further glories.

Paul, now settled in the Northeast of England, kindly agreed to reflect on his life in football with me.

Born in 1962 across the Mersey in Heswall, his family relocated to Shropshire in the early 1970s. He did not have a close affiliation to Everton, Liverpool or Tranmere Rovers; instead, he was inspired by Manchester United's talisman, George Best.

Aged 15, Paul was spotted by Stoke City scouts playing at county league level, having lumps kicked out of him by older players: ?I met Alan Durban (the Potters? manager) and signed as an apprentice on 15 a week. After training each day there were afternoon duties such as cleaning the Victoria Ground Terraces and polishing boots ? real hard graft but a good grounding.?

The apprentice thrived at Stoke, making reserve appearances before signing on as a professional on turning 17. Paul retains fond memories of his time at Stoke: ?Alan Durban was a very progressive manager and he had Howard Kendall aiding him as player-coach. Howard was great for me to play alongside as a youngster with his passing skills and ability to get around the pitch. It was a really good team with the likes of Adrian Heath and Garth Crooks also there.?

Durban moved on to manage Sunderland and took Paul to Wearside for the 1983-84 season. However, Durban was dismissed in March 1984 and the new manager, Len Ashurst, looked to raise funds by moving on one of the Mackems? more sellable assets.

Enter Everton: ?I was flying out from Heathrow to play in the European Under-21 Championship Final. My Dad and I met Howard Kendall in an airport hotel and agreed a verbal contract there and then. Howard was as good as his word and everything was in order when I reported to Bellefield for pre-season training (after victory over Spain with Dave Watson as a team-mate)?.

Paul appreciated the risks in moving from a sleeping giant to a re-awakening one: ?I knew there was no guarantee of a place in the team ? there were good midfielders there like Kevin Richardson, Alan Harper and Adrian Heath ? and I understood that I?d have to graft away. When I arrived, Howard took the pressure off me by saying that people wouldn't know me. After my debut in the Charity Shield against Liverpool , he said, ?They know you now!?

A formidable engine-room partnership quickly gelled with Peter Reid. When asked about his attributes in the Championship-winning team he was forthright: ?I was a winner and I wanted to win things; I had the ability to use either foot ? something drilled into me as a youth at Stoke. I was like a younger Peter Reid if you like?. the balance worked well with Kevin Sheedy and Trevor Steven out wide.?

Kendall, Harvey and Heaton?s training regime was all about quality rather than quantity: ?Howard was a big believer in being technical with the ball. Training was short, sharp and enjoyable ? not overcomplicated. 90 minutes of top quality, high intensity training with lots a ball work was worth more than hours of slog.?

After a slow start to the 1984-85 season, the Everton team really hit its stride with victories over title pretenders Liverpool and Manchester United: ?The club was on a high after the FA Cup and Charity Shield wins ? there was a mentality of grinding away with great determination. We probably didn't realise just what we had achieved until we had done it.?

Tactically the approach to games was consistent: ?The club did its homework; it sent scouts to watch the opposition and prepare dossiers on them. However, Howard believed in playing to our strengths ? it was more about us and not ?them?. The only time we really changed tactics was in the ECWC semi-final away at Bayern Munich when we played deeper with 5 across midfield and allowed them more possession. The staff got the tactics spot-on and we came away with a 0-0 draw which kept us in the tie.?

Which leads us to the return leg at Goodison and the epic 3-1 victory after going a goal behind: ?People ask me about cup finals but there was nothing like that game ? even getting to the ground was quite something with a police escort through the crowds. People talk about the fans sucking the ball in the net and it was almost like that ? the place had god knows how many in ? it was packed to the rafters. I?ve never experienced anything like it.?

Howard Kendall spurred his cohorts on with the ?think champagne ? drink champagne? mantra. But were reports of an alcohol-based bonding culture accurate? ?Sometimes reports of this get blown out of proportion ? we'd go out for a Chinese meals every 6 weeks or so. We couldn't have done what some stories now suggest but we were in it all together, whether lads were drinking beer or a lemonade.?

One of the most replayed TV clips of the Championship season was the blind cross-field pass to set Trevor Steven on his way to Everton's 4th goal against Sunderland as the team homed in on the league crown. Was it intuition or just luck? ?Oh, it was meant ? don't worry about that! It was a great first touch, run and finish by Trevor. We'd gone 1-0 down in the game but Goodison was a real fortress then ? success breeds success?. For the record the Blues ran out 4-1 winners with two bullet headers by Andy Gray and a close-range finish by Graeme Sharp completing the rout.

Success on the pitch led to an unlikely appearance on ?Wogan?, the prime TV chat-show of the era, courtesy of the squad?s ?Here We Go? single. Paul takes up the story: ?It was fashionable to have an FA Cup Final song and we were approached by an agent about making one. We were picked up, taken to the recoding studio and given three hours to learn the song. For the TV appearance, we had a couple of glasses of wine first ? there were 18 million viewers in those days! I still have the video of it and it comes out when we have friends over ? my son normally walks out of the room!?

The 1984-85 squad narrowly missed out on the treble with an FA Cup Final defeat to Manchester United three days after the ECWC victory in Rotterdam . Tiredness and a humid day are often quoted as factors in the narrow defeat ? something Brace does not necessarily subscribe to: ?We got back from Rotterdam in the early hours of Thursday, having had just a glass of champagne, and headed down south on the Friday. We only lost to a great Whiteside goal in the dying minutes ? we were confident that we?d win if we got them to a replay the following Wednesday.?

The European ban post-Heysel was a ?personal and professional disappointment? but the dawn of the 1985-86 season was filled with optimism, bolstered by the signing of Gary Lineker. However, the famed midfield quartet would make just nine more appearances together due to a catalogue of injuries.

Paul?s own career would take a turn for the worse on New Years Day 1986: ?It was an end-to-end game at St James Park, the rain was pouring down. Billy Whitehurst is a big lad and he made a bad tackle on me. We thought it was a broken ankle. I was taken back to a private hospital in Liverpool that evening.? Paul has not met Whitehurst, a journeyman striker, since that fateful afternoon ? he has no plans to do so.

X-rays revealed no break and, remarkably, within weeks, Brace was back in a midfield already depleted by the long-term absence of Reid: ?The ankle settled down but I knew it was not 100% right and I had an issue ? however, with the league campaign and the Mexico World Cup coming up, I played on??

A late mini-slump in form saw Liverpool pip the Blues to the league and FA Cup. Some have blamed Kendall for altering the style of play to be more direct in order to suit Lineker but Paul is more pragmatic: ? Gary scored 40-odd goals that year and you play to whatever strengths you have. With respect to Andy (Gray), we were not going to feed him balls to run onto down the channels.?

Having nursed himself through the final months of the season, Paul took the call he had been dreading from Bobby Robson: ?Bobby called and explained that, due to my injury, he could not call me up for the World Cup Final squad ? it was not fair on me or the rest of the squad.? But would Paul have flown to Mexico if Bobby had asked him to? ?Oh yes ? I?d have grinned and bore it.?

Little did those on Goodison?s terraces realise that Paul would not be seen in a royal blue shirt again until January 1988; surgeons operated four times without being able to identify the source of the debilitating pain felt in his ankle.

?It was very frustrating that, whenever I was nearing a comeback, I would break down again. It was a real test of mental toughness going through the operations. Finally, a meeting was arranged with Howard, myself and the club?s medical team to discuss the situation. There was a feeling that my scars might be more mental than physical but Howard said, ?I trust the kid, send him to the best surgeon around.? So I flew to the USA and was operated on by Dr Roger Mann. After 9 days there, I flew back brandishing a piece of bone that had been found floating in my ankle.? Kendall and Brace had been vindicated and the road to recovery could finally begin.

A substitute appearance at Hillsborough in a Cup defeat of Sheffield Wednesday in January 1988 was greeted rapturously by the travelling support; however, the comeback was cut-short by a trapped nerve. The 1988-89 season finally saw a sustained run of games in a side now transformed by an influx of signings such as Ian Snodin, Pat Nevin, Stuart McCall and Tony Cottee ? now led by Colin Harvey. Was team spirit eroded by the changing of the guard and the development of cliques? ?No, I don?t think so; when things are not going so well, people look for things to blame.?

After playing a significant role in guiding Everton to another FA Cup Final (one of four such defeats encountered in his career), Paul found himself moving out of the first-team frame and an approach from Sunderland to take him on loan suited all parties: ?Colin wanted to move the club on ? I just wanted to play football, having missed so much through injury. Denis Smith at Sunderland made contact, so I went on loan for 6 games to get some action and allow Everton to keep an eye on me. When Sunderland then moved to sign me permanently, the medical team found I had 50% reduced mobility in my right ankle ? they couldn?t believe it was the same player running around on the training pitch.? Paul never fully shook off his ankle woes and later gained the moniker ?Ice Man? as he had have his ankles encased in ice after every match.

After 3 years on Wearside and with his contract running down, Paul chose the 2-year deal on offer from Newcastle over the 1-year deal tabled by Sunderland : ?I was a brave man! Sunderland circulated my name on the transfer list and we took a call from Newcastle . I met Kevin Keegan and ended up signing. He explained that it would be ?difficult? but I scored on my debut and things went well from there.?

So was Keegan tactically nave, as some have suggested? ?No ? it was not that simple. There was a good dressing room with experienced pros and it was well organised with good coaches like Terry McDermott.?

Remarkably, Paul moved back to Roker Park in 1995: ?I?d been at Newcastle for 3 seasons but was no longer playing every week. Reidy was manager at Sunderland by then and offered me a step on the management ladder.?

When asked to compare Roker Park (similar in architecture to Goodison and famous for the ?Roker Roar?) to The Stadium of Light, his words make our failure to move to Kings Dock all the more painful: ?You have to move forward; Sunderland were at the forefront of moving to modern stadia. You need to move on to reach the next level and, with a 47,000 full house, the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light is jumping.?

A chance to play more first-team football and link up again with Keegan led to a move south to Craven Cottage in 1997: ?After 4 years at Sunderland , I still thought that I could play. At 35 years old, regular football was the key. I worked with Ray Wilkins and Kevin and we got promoted. When Ray left, Kevin took over as manager; then, when Kevin left to manage England , I was promoted from club captain to manager but eventually the chairman wanted to make changes.? (Jean Tigana was brought in as manager. Fulham, bank-rolled by Mohammed Al-Fayed and featuring a young Louis Saha, went on to reach the Premier League.)

A move north to the Shay followed: ?Managing Halifax was one of the hardest things I ever did. We were 7 points adrift when I joined but we stayed up by one point. We regrouped for the next season but, after a few of games, I realised it was time to move on; I then became an FA National Coach for two-and-a-half years.?

This brought Paul into contact with someone very familiar to Evertonians: ?I was coaching the England U-17s and worked with the likes of Stephen Taylor, Aaron Lennon, James Milner and Wayne Rooney. You could tell that Wayne just wanted to play and score goals. He was a great lad and my Everton links gave us a bond.?

After more than 25 years in professional football, it was time for a change: ?I?m now director of Complete Leisure which runs a football academy in the North East; we work with kids aged 5 and upwards and have links with grassroots football programmes and Newcastle/Sunderland FC community projects.?

?I try to watch Everton as often as possible, and get to Goodison when visiting my parents in Wales . It?s always nice to be back. Hopefully I?ll be on Merseyside more frequently as we have a planning application being submitted for a new football academy in Walton Park.?

Here?s to welcoming ?Brace? more often on the banks of the Royal Blue Mersey.

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