Bracewell the `Ice Man' with ambition to burn

After 12 operations, a cancer scare and four losing FA Cup finals, Sunderland's assistant player-manager tells Glenn Moore why he still thinks he might be lucky
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Paul Bracewell was a couple of minutes late for our interview. "He's having treatment," said the Sunderland secretary. Not again.

This time it was a bruised big toe. When he arrived, wearing flip-flops, it looked unpleasant - but it was a minor niggle by the standards of Bracewell's medical record.

Bracewell has spent so much time in operating theatres he could, if he were an obsessive, sit watching programmes like ER and Casualty saying "the surgeon doesn't do it like that," and "the heart beat monitor is in the wrong place".

Bracewell is not obsessive and he would far rather discuss Sunderland's prospects against Aston Villa today than his time under the knife. All the same, it is impossible to reflect the man without referring to his injuries.

Eleven years ago Bracewell was one of the outstanding prospects of the English game. With Peter Reid, Trevor Steven and Kevin Sheedy he was part of Everton's supremely balanced midfield. He had just joined Reid and Steven in the England set-up (Sheedy would have done, except he was Irish). Then, on New Years' Day at Newcastle, he suffered an ankle injury. He thought it was a minor knock and, though it gave him problems, he played on. After all, Everton were chasing the Double, and the team seemed more important than the individual.

The sacrifice proved both ill-judged and fruitless. Liverpool won the Double, then, while Reid and Steven consoled themselves with a trip to Mexico and the World Cup, Bracewell went to hospital for an ankle operation.

Two years, four further operations and no football later, it seemed his career was over. He recalled this week: "I was told there was not a lot they could do and I would have to pack it in. It was not until I went to America that they sorted it out." It needed the world's top "ankle man", a San Francisco specialist, to find the rogue piece of "floating bone" which had caused the problems.

Bracewell returned to Goodison but it was not the same. He moved on to Sunderland, where a broken nose required operation number seven. Then it was on to Newcastle, a Second Division title and another operation, on his toe. There was also another ankle injury which means, to this day, he has to put his foot in a special iced boot after games - thus the nickname "Ice Man". Further operations, on groin, adductor and two around the pelvis took him to a dozen. There was also a cancer scare - fortunately the growth was benign.

Yet Bracewell, now 34, has kept on playing. Ask him about risking long- term damage and there is a wry laugh. "I think it's too late for that. Most ex-footballers have arthritis, in their knees and wherever, and the problems I've had will probably speed that process up. But I'm still playing at the highest level, I still have ambitions.

"With the problems I've had a lot of people say I should not be playing, but I am and I'm enjoying it. When you get later on in your career you want to play as many games as possible."

Bracewell was never injury prone as a youngster and, until that first ankle injury, he had rarely missed a game as a professional. "I don't pick up a lot of injuries but the ones I do normally mean surgery," he said. And then he reaches out, in the Roker Park executive box in which we sit, as if to touch the wooden window frame. He stops and adds with a rueful grin: "There's no point in touching wood now." He does so anyway.

Does he feel lucky to have survived so much, or unlucky to have suffered so much?

"I was obviously disappointed at the time. Everton were flying, I had just got in the England side, but that's football. You never know what's round the corner. I've come back. I've played in cup finals, won championships. I'm still playing, I still have ambitions."

One of those is to play in the winning side in an FA Cup final. Uniquely he has played in four finals, and lost them all. "I might be lucky, you have got to have that belief you could make it five. Besides, some very good players never play in one."

At Roker he is assistant manager to Peter Reid, his old Everton room- mate. The phlegmatic Bracewell and the more emotional Reid appear to make a good pair. "I enjoy it," Bracewell said. "We have a great staff here and it reflects through the club, the lads see the staff are together. We all have our own opinions but we all want to play the game the same way, get the ball down and pass it. It is a very healthy environment to work in."

The chief scout is Alan Durban, under whom Bracewell began his career at Stoke. In 1983 Durban then signed him for Sunderland, the first of three spells. That season Sunderland came 13th. Astonishingly you have to go back to 1956, and the team of Len Shackleton and Billy Bingham, to find a higher finish before or since.

"It shows the task ahead of us. We are setting foundations to try and make sure the club stays up for a long time. We have got into the Premier League, now we want to push for honours. There is money available, a new stadium being built. Exciting times are ahead."

The new ground is barely a mile away on the old Wearmouth Colliery site. It already looks impressive and there is not much more than a vast steel skeleton in place. A steady stream of visitors come to view progress including, a few weeks ago, the men who will play in it.

"We took the lads round recently. It will be one of the best in the world, holding 40,000 with the capacity to be bigger. We will have new training facilities in just over a year. We are gearing ourselves to be involved at the highest level."

First they have to stay in the Premiership. Wednesday's Coca- Cola Cup defeat at Tottenham reprised their league matches so far - bright start, poor finish. The worry is that the season will go the same way. As winter arrives, so does the real problem for the promoted clubs: lack of depth. Sunderland have not been helped by the loss of two of their summer signings, Niall Quinn and Tony Coton, to injury.

"It has gone alright but we obviously want more points on the board. The difference in this division is putting the ball in the back of the net, that's why Newcastle spent pounds 15m on Alan Shearer. We have good money to spend [though not that much] and will do as and when the right players become available. We don't want to waste it."

Thus speaks a man who has spent the past 10 years making the most of things. Another nickname is "Colgate" because he is always squeezing out every last bit. One just hopes that, when football boots have been replaced by carpet slippers, Bracewell does not find his body has paid a heavy price for his bravery.