It’s fair to say Paul Bracewell’s third coming at Roker Park provoked something of a mixed reaction among Sunderland.
The 33-year-old had returned to Roker Park once again, 12 years after first walking into the famous old ground, as player/assistant manager to his former Everton teammate, Peter Reid.
His quality wasn’t in question – he was a magnificent player, despite the injuries that had compromised his playing style, and had played Premier League football the season before.
No, it was the fact he’d played that football for Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, who he’d joined three years earlier after turning down a contract to stay at Sunderland.
In the interests of fairness and balance, it’s got to be acknowledged that Bob Murray, in his wisdom, only offered Bracewell a one-year deal, believing him to be an injury risk. Up the road they gave him three. Most people understood Bracewell’s decision in theory if not in practice. But seeing our captain playing a pivotal role in Newcastle’s resurgence, while we struggled in Division Two, hurt. Badly.
So, Bracewell had a lot of making up to do when he arrived back at Roker, but make it up he did. It was like he’d never been away.
He performed well and played a key role as we recovered from a rather sluggish start to the new campaign – we were sitting 15th after seven games – to sit fourth in the table before a midweek trip to the Victoria Ground to face Stoke, where Bracewell had started his career.
Things had been looking up – but a 1-0 defeat at Stoke, Ray Wallace (one of the three Wallace brothers who played pro football) scoring on 20 minutes, Bracewell limping off 35 minutes later, and with him any chance of a point or three. “It was ominous that Sunderland’s form deteriorated afterwards,” said the match report.
It was a hernia, and would see him ruled out for the rest of the year.
Manager Peter Reid said:
Brace did not want to be subbed.
He has had the problem for a few weeks now. It’s a groin thing which we think is a hernia and he’s been playing with it and playing very well.
It looks as if he is at the end of playing for now an it looks like surgery.
It’s a blow because he is very influential. But he could not really turn properly and switche play for us in this match.
You don’t pull Paul Bracewell off unless he’s really struggling. He wanted to stay on!
It’s one of those things that happens in football, but he has had more than his fair share of injury and operations.
I think he likes the smell of anaesthetic to tell the truth.
I cannot tell you exactly ow long Paul will be out because it looks like surgery, and I’, not a surgeon.
But it looks like four to six week. I cannot put into words ow big a blow this is. But we’ve still got to get on with it.
Bracewell missed out on five league games in total, however during his spell on the sidelines the team managed to hit the top of the league.
With Steve Agnew coming in to replace Brace, we enjoyed three consecutive wins, including a 6-0 demolition of Mick McCarthy’s Millwall. The Lions were top of the table at the time, and had a handy side that included Anton Rogan and Alex Rae.
Craig Russell’s four goals helped Sunderland convincingly see off the South London side, and we took their place at the top of the league. McCarthy left for the Ireland job a couple of months later and Millwall plummeted, eventually being relegated.
Bracewell, meanwhile, made his comeback in that 2-2 FA Cup draw at Old Trafford, and the games he sat out towards the end of the year were pretty much the only ones he missed that season – playing 44 times in all competitions.
While we didn’t stay at the top of the table after beating Millwall, we didn’t drop out of the top two from the end of February onwards. Bracewell was pivotal, as was on-loan keeper Shay Given, who won the only medal of his career that season.
As for Bracewell, he played every game the following season in the Premier League, performing exceptionally well... only five seasons after Bob Murray viewed him as too risky to warrant any more than a one-year deal.
Another one to file under ‘Typical Sunderland’.