‘Brace’ has been associated with Sunderland for over thirty years. Currently assistant manager, he made nearly 230 appearances in three stints for the club.
Q. A divine midfielder, why then he is not considered a red-and-white ‘legend’?
A. Because he also played for Newcastle, basically.
End of article.…
Whilst not completely the whole story, that’s pretty much the rub of it. That coupled with the fact he played the very best football of his career for Everton. Paul Bracewell is a part of modern-day Sunderland history, but somehow it has always felt like something akin to a marriage of convenience.
Put simply, Paul Bracewell is a handy benchmark by which all midfielders of a certain ilk should be judged. Some at Sunderland have come close, but none better than Brace. Dependent on your viewpoint that list would include Stefan Schwarz, Yann M’Vila or Don Hutchison; but all of them should be rated on a scale of how they compare to Paul Bracewell.
Some have been quicker, many have scored more goals and a few have been more dynamic; but each is judged against a Brace-scale. As part of that fabled 'midfield engine room' that any great side needs, ‘Brace’ was a pearler.
He read the game, he worked tirelessly and he could pick a pass; but most importantly, he could break up play and tackle and track back intuitively with a holding intelligence that is simply not rated highly enough in football.
For a period he was also one of the footballing faces of the 1980s. With his bowl haircut and '80s football panache, he was part of the blue half of a Merseyside city which, between Liverpool and Everton, dominated English football for a decade.
Q. When was Brace best at Sunderland– during his first or second spell at Roker Park?
A. It would fill an article in its entirety and is a cracking pub debate, for those old enough to remember.
He was only 21 when he first arrived and only lasted one season. Alan Durban, who had brought him to Sunderland, was replaced by Len Ashurst, who served at the Tom Cowie-show that was Sunderland AFC and sold Brace to raise funds to rebuild his team.
Bracewell moved to Everton for £425,000 and the move contrasted sharply between the sleeping giant that was Sunderland and the reawakening one that would become the successful Goodison side of the 1980's.
Whilst there, he won the League title twice and the European Cup Winners Cup. The success of that team was built upon the midfield dynamism of Peter Reid, Kevin Sheedy, Trevor Steven and Paul Bracewell. In an era where the FA Cup was simply huge, Bracewell's career featured four finals, but he never won the treasured trophy.
His Everton career was curtailed by a Billy Whitehurst shocker which ruined his ankle on New Years Day 1986. On a football field, Whitehurst was a sociopath and his renown was not always a positive one.
The injury also prevented Brace from making the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Four operations on the ankle meant he did not return to first team football until January 1988. His return to the Everton line-up saw fading first team showings, and he engineered a loan move back to Sunderland which was eventually made permanent.
Brace spent three years on Wearside in his second spell. His ankle was never fully recovered, but he slotted seamlessly into the Sunderland side. His signing aided the club in reaching that Second Division Play-Off Final which still resulted in promotion thanks to Swindon’s financial shenanigans. Brace made the last of his losing FA Cup final appearances for Sunderland in 1992.
When he left for Newcastle, few Sunderland fans probably really blamed him, despite the clear choice he made in crossing the divide. Certainly some negative press followed him, but the lure of a three-year deal offered by Kevin Keegan was sufficient to entice Brace to St James Park.
The John Hall era in North East sport had probably left the people of Wearside simply glad that they still had a football club of their own, such was the divisive ambition Hall exuded across sport in the wider region beyond his Newcastle experiment. So, the Bracewell transfer was just a side-story in what was occurring in the area at the time as Keegan enticed Tyneside into believing they were the chosen ones. For his part, Bracewell featured in some of the most exciting teams ever assembled at St James Park.
Paul Bracewell’s nigh on 600 senior appearances owe much to his career choices in jumping clubs at the right time to maintain first team football; and so it was that he accepted Peter Reid’s offer to re-join Sunderland in 1995 with a resulting promotion to the Premier League.
Two-fifths of Brace’s career appearances featured under the red and white badge, and it is arguable that his contribution to the Sunderland cause is under-rated. Certainly he never won anything of note on Wearside, but that is true of every modern day Rokerman since the early 1970s.
An FA Cup Final appearance and two promotions to the top flight are comparable achievements to other modern day ‘greats’ such as Kevin Ball, Gary Bennett, Niall Quinn or Marco Gabbiadini. But, it does still stand that amongst fans, whilst highly thought of, Brace just doesn’t quite fit into that ‘legend’ category.
The Newcastle faux pas and the fact he ‘belongs’ to that great Everton team are the probable factors. He will always be remembered in the national footballing consciousness for his slot in the legendary midfield quartet of Steven, Reid, Sheedy and Bracewell, and for his role in the black and white Keegan dream. His single minded devotion to maximising his career, whilst admirable, possibly lessens the impact he has made in the Sunderland psyche.
What we should not forget though, is just how much experience and how much class the man sitting on our bench possesses. Possibly he is not a natural leader in managerial terms or an orator for media duties; but no doubt he ‘gets’ Sunderland and he ‘gets’ Everton.
I’d really like to hear his thoughts on Sunderland’s new big money transfer, Didier Ndong, once our new man makes his debut. Because, the record signing midfielder should be judged, as all midfielders ought, against the Brace-ometer.