Football: No age concern for the oldest swinger

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NOT FOR nothing is Phil Brown known at Bolton Wanderers as the oldest swinger in town. 'If you see a shirt,' he shouted to his team-mate, Jason McAteer, across the club restaurant, 'grab one for me. A going-out one. You know, something loud.'

Not for nothing does he grieve the lost years, either. Not the ones all men in their 30s wish to retrieve but those inflicted on him by football's reference books. Bring up the subject of his being 36 and a weary smile comes across his face. 'Again,' he said ruefully.

Look in some editions of the Rothmans Football Yearbook and Brown has two years lumped on to his age. 'It happened about eight years ago,' he said, 'and I wrote to them about it three times. It wasn't just a case of vanity, it worried me that managers might be put off buying me because they thought I was too old.'

Thankfully, his birth date has been restored as 30 May 1959 but, even if potential purchasers were deterred before, Brown finds it difficult to imagine bettering his present predicament. To be playing in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup is unexpected for a player once given a free transfer by Hartlepool, but to do it as the eminence grise on borrowed time, in a team oozing underdogs with sharp teeth, is special.

'The manager says that every day you play football over the age of 30 is a bonus,' Brown said, 'but I couldn't imagine as big a bonus as this. The funny thing is I feel I'm playing as well now as I've ever done in my career.'

That career has taken Brown on an unorthodox route. He arrived in football late, aged 20, after first learning his trade as an electrician, and within three years he was Hartlepool's union delegate, leading a dispute as the team went five weeks without pay. That honed his leadership skills, something he has required at his three League clubs. 'He is a great captain, a superb leader and splendid organiser,' Bruce Rioch, his manager, said. 'I keep asking myself why he hasn't played at a higher level.'

It was while he was skipper at Halifax that Brown bumped into Rick Holden. Perhaps crashed would be a better word, as two kindred and individual spirits became sufficiently entangled that Holden was best man at Brown's wedding. They also share an interest in music, and the pub in Ripponden that the Bolton player used to own frequently echoed to the sound of his saxophone and Holden's guitar.

'There's only one way to play Rick and that is go in hard,' Brown said. 'Not that he's soft, he's one of the few wingers who like to tackle themselves, but if you give him too much space he'll murder you with his crosses. For 90 minutes friendship will be suspended but we'll be having a few sherberts together afterwards.'

At Halifax Brown gained a reputation as an attacking full-back, once scoring 14 goals in a season, a Football League record for a player in his position. He won a place in the PFA's Fourth Division select team. He repeated the feat for three successive seasons in a higher division with Bolton, accolades he acknowledges were won thanks, in part, to the tuition he received from his manager, Phil Neal.

It is under Rioch, however, that he feels he has truly blossomed. 'I thought I'd learnt a lot from the previous manager - after all he had been an England full-back - but under Bruce Rioch and Colin Todd my game has improved again. They impress everyone with their professionalism and hard work.

'We were a nearly team. Nearly promoted, nearly good. I remember the first time the manager took part in a practice match he played with the first team and then swapped sides. Suddenly he stopped the game and said: 'Look, I'm 40-odd, I've been playing for an hour and no one has kicked me yet. That's the trouble with you lot, no one puts their foot in.'

Bolton now trade bruise for Bruce in training and the stony edge has honed one of the most edifying teams in the First Division. Enjoyable to watch, that is, for everyone except the supporters of the Premiership teams who have fallen foul of them in the last 14 months: Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Aston Villa.

'They were all wonderful victories, but the one that stands out was at Highbury,' Brown said. 'They had a team bristling with internationals who are fit, skilful and used to winning. With Merson, Campbell and Wright it was always going to be a battle of pace and that night I believe our defence won it for us. I know we scored three goals but it was at the back that Arsenal were beaten.

'What sticks in my mind was Ian Wright. He's an aggressive player, someone who likes to battle. Yet he stayed behind in the tunnel after the match to make sure he congratulated every Bolton player as he left the field. That says everything about him and a big club like Arsenal.'

At Bolton, a club that until recently was big only in a historical sense, it is Brown who sets the players' standards. A captain under Rioch does more than toss the coin and have first touch on the trophies: he is expected to be part players' representative, part social secretary.

'It's where the oldest swinger line comes from,' Brown said. 'It's partly my lifestyle but mainly because I'm the one that organises the others for social events. The manager puts a lot of emphasis on us mixing with the community. He wants us to know what the supporter is thinking.'

It was last week, at one among a myriad such occasions, that Brown tapped the pride the Cup run has instilled in the town. 'Normally you get a polite ripple of applause,' he said, 'but this time there was a standing ovation.'

Brown's shirts are not the only loud things in Bolton.

Comments