When I moved to enemy territory in my youth, I armed myself on the playground by always 'being' Paul Bracewell in games of football with my new 'Toon Army' school friends. Marco Gabbiadini was my real Sunderland hero, but standing up-front against all the big kids in a Newcastle playground is not really where the young mackem wants to volunteer to spend much his recreation time. It wasn't long, though, before all my mates were wanting to be Bracewell themselves.
Bracewell is one of the rare few who have moved between Tyne and Wear and one of the even rarer few who remain admired by both sets of fans. He was a Roker Park favourite in three spells, played a key role in Sunderland promotions, and captained the club at a Wembley cup final. During his third spell as a player here, he also assisted Peter Reid in setting in place the foundations of the status the club enjoys today.
So when the chance cropped up to have a chat with the man himself, I simply couldn't let any other Roker Reporter get their grubby little mitts on it.
You first arrived at Sunderland as part of Alan Durban's young and vibrant squad. Many have suggested that the club panicked and sacked him too early. Where do you stand on that point?
Paul: I was very disappointed that they sacked him. He was one of the main reasons why I came. Having worked with him while I was at Stoke I thought he was getting very close to getting a very young and exciting team together. But when you're involved in football, watching, playing, and managing. you just never know in this game.
There were a couple of really memorable occasions in your second spell. What are your recollections of the famous night at St James Park in 1990?
Paul: I think after the first leg everyone expected Newcastle to go on and win it, but that wasn't the case. A fantastic night. Rain was pouring down - typical football conditions - with both teams were going at it head to head. It was a massive massive game for both clubs. But at the end of the day, the best team won. We played some good football, produced some good finishes and we were obviously delighted with the result.
… and when home fans poured on the pitch shortly after Gabbiadini put Sunderland two up?
Paul: When it happened we all got off the pitch immediately and the referee said 'look, this game is going to finish. We'll wait for the police to clear the pitch, but we are not going to let people stop it'. You can't set a precedent. He was adamant that whether it took 5 minutes or 15 minutes or 25 minutes, or however long it took to clear the pitch and make sure it was safe for the players and officials, we'd go back on. I am almost certain that he said to the goalie that he'd give him a nod when he was about to blow the whistle. It was important the game was finished properly - and then get the hell off!
What about that 1992 cup-run?
Paul: We were struggling in the league but in terms of the cups we were raising our game and getting some great results.
When did you think something special was happening?
Paul: I think the result at home against Chelsea. It was a full house and Gordon (Armstrong) scored from the corner. All of a sudden you're thinking 'we've got a chance here'. The lads played unbelievably well. In the semi final the support was magnificent when we went down there to Hillsborough.
The disappointing thing was obviously the league form. It was difficult to understand why we were doing so well in the cup but not in the league. I think sometimes when you speak to people they think it has had a positive effect. You have had a great result in the cup and it picks everybody up and then you take that into the league. But I think we were above our game because of the atmosphere and occasion and got the extra 10-15% adrenaline or whatever it was.
...and the final itself?
Paul: To be honest I thought we were the better side first half. John Byrne had a great chance and he had a great record leading up to the final. If we'd have nicked one there it would have been a very different game. To be fair Liverpool came out a lot stronger second half. But it was a magnificent achievement to get there.
Then came that infamous Newcastle move. How did that come about?
Paul: In those days (before Bosman transfers) it was the third Saturday in May that players were offered a contract. The season had finished and that year that Saturday just so happened to be cup final day. As long as they offered you a contract by that time it stopped you leaving the club on a free. Malcolm (Crosby - the manager) wanted me to stay and was negotiating a contract.
On the Thursday before the cup final Malcolm had a board meeting to discuss contracts and I was one of a few lads whose contracts were up. I asked him the question and he said he didn't really want to tell me what they were looking to offer me. I was a little bit disappointed with that because I was the captain of a club going to an FA Cup final and regardless of what was going to happen it wasn't going to affect how I was going to play or how I was going to do.
We had the final and I remember afterwards the lads had gone up for their medals and as captain I was supposed to go and speak to the media and do the press conferences which, with the hurt and disappointment, was the last thing on my mind after losing in four cup finals. I got home and there was a letter in the post from the board offering me a year's contract. They were quite entitled to do that, of course, but in my opinion I felt I was worth a lot more than a year's contract. Back then what you had to do was formerly write back to the club saying it was unacceptable and your name got circulated to all the other clubs. But what I did was physically go into the club and refuse it, which I thought was the right thing to do.
Interestingly enough, once my name was circulated, people range me up and said "your name is on the list, is this right?". Most people thought it was strange. I got a phone call from Terry McDermott and he said exactly the same and asking if I'd like to talk to them. I have heard rumours about being tapped up and speaking to them before that time, but that never happened.
So I went to meet Terry and Kevin (Keegan) in Gosforth Park and the first thing they did was just clarify again that my name was indeed on the list. Then they told me they would understand if I wanted to walk away at this point, because moving from Sunderland to Newcastle was such a massive move for me and my family, but I thought that if that was how Sunderland valued me then I was entitled to speak to whoever I wanted. My intention was just to go and speak to them and listen to Kevin's plans and what he wanted to do, but by the end of it I was sold so we arranged a medical for the following morning.
I went home and I said to the Mrs 'I'll be signing for Newcastle tomorrow' and you can imagine the look of shock and horror on her face. It was quite common knowledge that I didn't pass the medical but having seen the record of games that I'd played it wasn't an issue with Kevin so he contacted the club and instructed them to negotiate a fee - and they thought he was joking! The two clubs couldn't agree a fee, so it went to a tribunal. Sunderland put their case forward, and so did Newcastle, and I remember the chairman of the panel saying to Sunderland 'if you thought of him so highly, then why did you only offer him a year's contract?'.
And coming back (again), were there any concerns in your mind about how you would be received following the way you left?
Paul: People weren't quite sure of the circumstances, but I wanted to stay at Sunderland. Probably in hindsight they wished they had offered me a 3-year contract. I always knew when I went from Sunderland to Newcastle that if things didn't work out I was going to be the one who was going to get it. But in the north east people get judged on how they perform on the field and on what they deliver. I went there with my eyes open. We had a fantastic and successful time at Newcastle and I think people were disappointed in the way that I'd left, but I think people understood the reasons behind it. But when I came back people once again judged me on what I did on the field.
So what was Peter Reid's secret? How did he turn a relegation-haunted squad into Champions inside just a year?
Paul: It's like with any manager. It is all about getting good players and good people and getting the team spirit going. We gave the club back to the supporters because as soon as the players walked past the white line they gave 110% and the club just galvanised. I played with Peter so know he was like as a player and he was like that as a manager too. It was good times, and it was good to bring some good times back having seen the club start to slide away.
Did your dual-role as player and assistant manager cause any complications or resentment within the squad?
Paul: I was purely and simply getting picked on merit as a player first and foremost. I certainly wasn't just getting picked because I was assistant manager. I never socialised with the players because I didn't want to put myself in that position. So the respect was there from day one. The players knew that as soon as we crossed the white line I was with them as a player, and as soon as it was finished I was part of the management team.
Looking back, what do you consider they highlights of your three spells at Sunderland?
Paul: The cup final, getting promotion, and the new stadium. There were so many good times. Obviously the support too. After going to play for Newcastle and coming back, even now they very supportive of what I did as a player, which is always great. It is always nice to go back to former clubs and be appreciated for what you have done.
How often do you get back to see the lads play these days?
Paul: I am still based in the north east so I go to games and see as much as I can. I am still a football person and I like going to watch games.
So what do you make of modern-day Sunderland?
Paul: It has gone past that yo-yo stage, which prior to 3 or 4 years ago was always the case. They have now established themselves as a Premiership club. Good owners, good chairman, good infrastructure. They have a manager who has steadied the ship and now he'll be looking to move it on. In terms of a Sunderland supporter, I think all the ingredients are there. I have read a few comments from Martin O'Neill that he wants to be around for a long time and I don't see why not with all that is in place.
Finally, what you up to these days?
Paul: I am the director of football at a company called Complete Leisure. We are based in the North East and have a football academy at the Race Course in Newcastle. It has gone really really well. We are involved in grass roots football and it works from 5/6-year-olds right they way up to veterans. We have an application in at the moment to go to into Liverpool too, so we are hoping to build these throughout the country. There is a massive demand for grass-roots facilities, and I'm really enjoying still being involved in football and doing my bit for football in this country, even if it isn't the sharp end.
We'd like to offer Paul our thanks for giving up his time to talk to us. If you'd like to check out what he is up to now in a little more detail, and we'd highly reccomend you do, you can do so at www.completefootball.net. They can also be found on Twitter at @completefooty. Paul himself has also been known to dispatch a tweet or two, and can be found at @PaulBracewell4.