Bracewell: I Would Have Loved For It To Have Been Different For Me At Everton

The exceptional Paul Bracewell scaled soaring peaks as an Everton footballer but was cut down in his prime. The former midfielder, who is 58 today, told Everton’s matchday programme about his exhausting start as a footballer, maturing into one the Club’s greatest midfielders and accepting in his mid-20s that he would ‘never be the same player again’.

The fundamental motivation of Rob Sloman, when he embarked on a mission to tell the story of Everton’s fabulous mid-1980s’ team, was to gain overdue recognition for Howard Kendall and a group of players peculiarly unheralded outside L4.

To illustrate his point, Sloman cites one player who embodies the understated profile of a side which could legitimately have claimed to be Europe’s best.

Paul Bracewell works as a coaching consultant for Tottenham Hotspur today and is poised to launch an innovative app designed to act as a development tool for professional and amateur players.

Still, reckons Sloman, the producer of Everton – Howard’s Way, Bracewell, for his brilliance in Everton’s midfield, should be a universally recognised figure.

Bracewell describes himself as “box-to-box, could tackle, head it and score the occasional goal”.

He sells himself short.

Bracewell was unhurried in possession at a time when football was played at a pace to suck the air from your lungs and a magnificent passer of the ball.

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Signed from Sunderland following Everton’s FA Cup success in 1984, Bracewell duly combined with Peter Reid in the engine room of a side which claimed the unique double of League title and European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Midway through the following season, aged 23, Bracewell damaged his ankle in a challenge with Billy Whitehurst of Newcastle United, beginning a torturous two-and-a-half years as the player’s Everton career suffered death by a thousand cuts.

“I will always remember 1 January 1986,” confirms Bracewell of the incident in the second half of a 2-2 draw at St James’s Park.

“If I’d won more for Everton and established myself with England... who knows what could have happened?”

Bracewell played again three weeks after being hurt but for the remainder of the season knew “something wasn’t right”.

Bracewell with Kevin Ratcliffe after Everton's European Cup Winners' Cup triumph in May 1985

His frustration was compounded by the absence of any visible evidence of a problem.

Kevin Ratcliffe, Everton’s captain, questioned Bracewell when he succumbed to his troublesome joint at half-time of the Anfield Merseyside derby in February 1986.

An end-of-season X-ray revealed “some bone floating about”.

“Every now and again the bone would stick in a certain position and I’d be in excruciating pain,” says Bracewell.

“I didn’t lose my enjoyment of playing but started to worry it was affecting my game.”

The surgery expected to cure Bracewell didn’t work and he remained lame as Everton reclaimed the title in 1986/87.

Bracewell feared he’d been forgotten until his return as a substitute in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday in January 1988 was greeted with a roaring ovation from the travelling Evertonians.

Weeks later, however, “the process started all over again”.

Bracewell couldn’t walk after Everton’s League Cup semi-final at Arsenal. His ankle “turned solid” after icing and a trapped nerve was discovered.

The process, as Bracewell has it, sounds by turns exhausting, dispiriting and downright depressing.

“You’d have your operation, be told, ‘Yes, we’ve found something’,” starts Bracewell, “and think, ‘Great, it’s fixed’.

“You’d come out of plaster after six weeks, there’s no muscle, so you work tirelessly for three or four months to build it up.

“Then you’d get on the pitch and break down again.

“You’d have another operation, they’d tell you they’d found something else, and it started again.”

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02:27 Sat 11 Jul 2020

BRACEWELL ON KENDALL'S EXTRAORDINARY GESTURE OF FAITH

Midfielder won multiple honours with Everton before serious ankle injury.


By summer 1988, five operations after the original injury, Bracewell’s problem continued to confound experts.

“But,” he asserts, “Everton stuck by me.

“Howard always said, ‘If he thinks there’s something there, let’s get to the bottom of it’.”

Everton sent Bracewell for fresh medical opinion from a specialist in London.

“He recommended I go to see a guy called Roger Mann in San Francisco,,” says Bracewell.

The player was joined on the flight by his dad – who had accompanied his son to a Heathrow Airport hotel when Bracewell met Kendall to verbally agree his move to Everton before jetting to Spain for the first leg of England Under-21s’ successful European Championship final tie – and stayed in America nine days.

"Their scanning was so far advanced of ours and I remember lying in the hospital bed and seeing the piece of bone they found,” says Bracewell. “It had been growing for 18 months.

“I was so relieved because I knew something was there.

“Even if I never played football again, so be it. I had an answer.

“The bone had attached [to the tibia, above the ankle] and was working its way in.

“When they operated, they went through a ligament, took off the bone and brought it out.

“I came back wearing a walking boot, no one here had seen one, and with the staple gun they’d used on me.

“The doctor was practising removing staples from things before he took mine out.”

Bracewell’s return luggage also included the offending bone, contained in a jar, which he presented to physiotherapist John Clinkard.

“John and the players were good with me but only one person can go through it,” says Bracewell.

“My wife was brilliant, having me round the house on my crutches.

“I just wanted to get fit and play football.

“But I knew I would never be the same player again.”

Bracewell’s mobility in his ankle was reduced by 50 per cent and he never passed another medical.

He played for a further decade nevertheless, adopting a “realistic” outlook and converting himself into a “sitter and passer”.

“I had to accept my career was going in a different direction,” says Bracewell.

“I was playing for the champions, had won a European trophy and was possibly going to the World Cup [in Mexico], then it’s all taken away from you.

“If I got to the Premier League again, brilliant.

“If I was playing in the next division, with the chance of getting back, that was okay.”

Bracewell made the last of his 146 Everton appearances in the 1989 FA Cup final after returning against Tottenham Hotspur midway through the season – “the first tackle was always going to be, ‘Oof’, but I was never one to shy away, if it goes, it goes” – to claim a regular place.

Suspecting he would fall down the pecking order as Kendall’s successor Colin Harvey reshaped his team, Bracewell– with Harvey’s permission – organised a loan to Sunderland, managed by ex-Stoke City teammate Denis Smith.

The move was eventually made permanent despite Bracewell conclusively failing a medical, a dynamic performance in his supposed farewell game persuading Sunderland’s doctor to wave through the deal.

Bracewell originally joined Sunderland from Stoke, where he first encountered Kendall and played three seasons of top-division football following a senior debut at Liverpool, aged 17.

“I was a nine-stone weakling but energetic and unfazed by the crowds, I just wanted to play,” says Bracewell.

He is grateful to youth-team coach Tony Lacey for individual coaching sessions which instilled “good habits and qualities that stayed with me”.

Bracewell left home for digs at 15, before moving into club premises with two teammates when Stoke knocked together two terraced houses close to their unprepossessing old Victoria Ground.

“When I started in football,” begins Bracewell, who joined Stoke straight out of school, “my hands were covered in blisters from sweeping the terraces.

“You’d be up early doing your jobs, then train, before weight training and more jobs in the afternoon.

“I’d come back, go to my room and crash out.

“A little bell from the landlady would tell you to come down to eat.

“Then it was back up to bed.

“The first six months I was absolutely shattered but… ultimately, you are getting up to play football, which is brilliant.”

Bracewell with former Blues striker and manager Joe Royle

Bracewell went to Sunderland in 1983 to reunite with his old Stoke boss Alan Durban but sensed a wind of change when the Welshman was axed late in the season.

Sure enough, replacement Len Ashurst viewed Bracewell as his “most sellable asset” and Kendall swooped.

Bracewell’s excitement at joining a “club on the up” when he watched on television as Everton beat Watford in the Cup final was tempered by the thought of a fierce scrap for selection.

He landed a hammer blow in the fight for midfield positions with a consummate display on debut in Everton’s Charity Shield success against Liverpool.

“That was a chance for me to stamp my authority and say, ‘I want to be part of this’,” says Bracewell.

“The dressing room was full of winners.

“They made me feel welcome but there was an element of, ‘This is how we do it, here’.

“You’d have soon found out if you didn’t fit in.”

It was in a game against Ashurst’s Sunderland that Bracewell delivered arguably Goodison’s most famous pass, a beautiful, sweeping volley to Trevor Steven, who cut infield to score.

“When I work with young players, they see me with the grey hair and wonder if I could play,” says Bracewell.

“I tell them to look at that pass on YouTube.

“They come back and say, ‘Did you mean that?’

“I did. Obviously.”

Bracewell’s second Sunderland spell brought one promotion and one relegation and the fourth FA Cup final defeat of his career.

Sunderland lost to Liverpool at Wembley and a disconsolate Bracewell failed to notice his side had errantly been handed winners’ medals.

“I hadn’t looked, I wasn’t interested,” says Bracewell.

“[Liverpool coach] Roy Evans came in and said, ‘They’ve made a mess of this’.

“I was captain and had to do the press.

“I said, ‘What do you want me to talk about? It’s my fourth Cup final and I’ve been beaten again’.”

Bracewell admits he was a “brave man” to swap Sunderland for Newcastle in 1992 and a pivotal role in Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers, who had a barnstorming promotion season before establishing themselves towards the top of the Premier League.

“Me and the centre-backs would sit while everyone else bombed on,” says Bracewell.

“We had 6,000 watching us train and it was a fantastic time to be at Newcastle.”

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Bracewell couldn’t resist a return to Sunderland three years later when former Everton ally Reid, in charge of the Wearsiders, offered a player/assistant manager remit.

He had studied for his first coaching badge on a two-week residential course at the FA’s old Lilleshall headquarters weeks after the 1992 Cup final.

“Doing my assessment was the most nervous I’d ever been,” says Bracewell.

“Mick Wadsworth [who would manage numerous Football League clubs] was overseeing it and saying to me, ‘How can you be nervous, you’ve just played in front of 100,000 in a Cup final?’

“But I was out of my comfort zone and there was an expectation that because you’re playing at the top, you’ll be great.”

There was a trace of déjà vu about Bracewell’s third Sunderland stay, when relegation followed promotion.

He chose to join Fulham aged 35 in 1997 because “I experienced two-and-a-half years getting up and not being able to play football – and playing is the best.”

Former England colleague Ray Wilkins – Bracewell won his three caps pre-injury – was manager but it was Keegan who inspired Fulham’s runaway Second Division (today’s League One) title success the following season.

When Keegan accepted the England job, Bracewell was appointed boss by chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed.

He was undefeated in his opening 10 games but dismissed when Fulham slipped outside the play-off spots.

“Interesting,” Bracewell answers, on the experience of working for former Harrods owner Fayed.

“I knew what I was letting myself in for.

“I used to meet Mohamed at Harrods every Thursday.

“But he never interfered.

“We had a great start but tailed off towards the end.

“I remember the dreaded walk from the secretary to the chairman’s office.

“For my first job, I did okay. I didn’t think I deserved the sack but that wasn’t my decision.”

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06:30

KENDALL ON EVERTON'S EUROPEAN TRIUMPH

Manager recalled night Blues won Cup Winners' Cup.

Bracewell was six months unemployed before answering a call from Halifax Town, marooned at the bottom of the Football League.

He “begged, borrowed and stole” to recover a bleak situation and rates the effort of securing Halifax’s safety by a solitary point as “the hardest thing I have done”.

“It was an incredible achievement but exceptionally draining,” says Bracewell.

“Certain things that were talked about didn’t come to fruition, so early the next season, I thought, ‘This is my time to get out’.”

After leaving Halifax he had three years working for the FA, which included “scouting, talent ID and coach education” – and coaching a national Under-17 team featuring Aaron Lennon and James Milner.

He feeds his passion for polishing young talent today by working individually with players at Spurs from Under-23 down to Under-9, and his app, two-and-a-half years in the making, is imminent.

Between times, a position with Sunderland’s academy led to Bracewell unexpectedly finding himself right-hand man to managers Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce as the club achieved successive daring escapes from the Premier League drop.

“It was an unbelievable period and you can’t recreate that feeling, the expectation and pressure, anywhere else,” says Bracewell.

“But I get a real buzz developing players and seeing them progress.

“I worked with Bali Mumba and saw him captain Sunderland at 16 [in 2018].”

Bracewell, whose ankle is now “fine… it just gets stiffer when the weather is cold”, was at St George’s Hall last year for the premiere of Sloman’s magical film.

“To have that night with the lads was brilliant,” says Bracewell.

“I would love for it to have been different for me at Everton.

“But I had a fantastic time.

“I wasn’t bothered about the wider recognition.

“Evertonians liked me.

“That was the most important thing.”

Everton - Howard's Way tells the full story of Howard Kendall's glorious trophy-winning team in the 1980s and tales from Merseyside during that era.

All proceeds from the documentary will go to fund The People's Place, Everton's purpose-built mental health facility close to Goodison Park.