Brass has the mettle to earn respect

The fast-track manager: The youngest boss in the game must be bold to silence the critics. Nick Townsend meets him
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The Independent Online

The metamorphosis first became cruelly apparent at the start of pre-season training. Back in May, he had still been acknowledged by all as "Brassy", the popular defender and highly respected captain of York City who would revel in players' repartee. "When I walked into the dressing-room on that first day back it all went hushly silent," he says ruefully. "When we walked down to the river to have a training run no one spoke to me, no one asked me how my holiday was.

The metamorphosis first became cruelly apparent at the start of pre-season training. Back in May, he had still been acknowledged by all as "Brassy", the popular defender and highly respected captain of York City who would revel in players' repartee. "When I walked into the dressing-room on that first day back it all went hushly silent," he says ruefully. "When we walked down to the river to have a training run no one spoke to me, no one asked me how my holiday was.

"I just stood there with the fitness coach, Kevin Hornsby, and said, 'I'm the manager now, aren't I?' and he said, 'Yeah, but that distance is good'. I do have to have that boundary now. It's just a shame that the banter's gone between me and the others, but without that respect, the job won't be done right."

Chris Brass may not be the only new manager who prepares for next Saturday's Nationwide kick-off motivated by lofty aspirations of what the season may bring, but he is by a long way the youngest. And he could pass for considerably fewer than his 28 years. In truth, when the recently installed "gaffer" opens the door to his office and greets you, it takes an effort not to peer instinctively beyond him for a sight of the real man in charge - probably a character of greying hair, cynical disposition and hollowed eyes.

Brass is actually two months younger than David Beckham, to whom, incidentally, he bears a passing resemblance, and does share certain of his attributes on the field, notably an indefatigable attitude. At his own level, Brass is at the zenith of his playing career. Yet nine weeks ago he agreed to accept the stewardship of the Third Division club, an act that has brought approval from the football-supporting folk of the city but condemnation from John Barnwell, chief executive of the League Managers' Association.

This is the controversial replacement for Terry Dolan, who had been "relieved of his duties" despite a season in which a play-off position narrowly eluded City. Brass recalls: "I'd had a good working relationship with Terry and, like any player at such a moment, you suffer all the insecurities brought about by the current climate of football. I asked myself, 'Who the hell's going to be my new manager?' and, 'Will he like me?' "

Brass was to discover that the new manager would definitely have a lot of time for him, although, as he concedes, there was no certainty he would select him. Within 24 hours, Brass was called in to see the club chairman, Steve Beck, and was told that the board - which consists of members of the supporters' trust, now that the club are out of administration - wanted him to succeed Dolan. "I asked a lot of questions, like, 'Are the club safe? Are they as ambitious as I am?' But I got back extremely positive answers to everything."

He adds: "I understand that I wouldn't have this opportunity if York had not been in the situation they were. I told the board that I didn't want to feel like a pawn, feel that they were just getting me for financial reasons. But they insisted I was their number one choice. The most important thing was to get Terry's blessing, which I did, otherwise I wouldn't have considered it.

"After that, I went on holiday to Portugal with my wife, Kim, met up there with Lee [Nogan, appointed his assistant], and spoke about all the players and what we felt we needed in order to strengthen the squad."

He has signed six, including the former Barnsley midfielder Mitch Ward, and three further additions are planned for his 18-man squad, who include several players from the youth ranks. "Unfortunately, now I'm in a position where, somewhere along the line, I'll have to upset individuals who three months ago were team-mates and friends. You can only keep 11 players happy, and if I'm still playing, it'll be 10."

A recent 1-1 draw in a friendly against Leeds bodes well. "Both Peter Reid and Mick McCarthy, whose Sunderland team played here, told me, 'Don't be afraid to pick up the phone to us'. That's been refreshing to know," says Brass. "So far, though, I don't need to, because everyone's pulling together. But 9 August [away at Carlisle], that's when we'll be judged."

Even a Third Division club burdened by financial constraints could have anticipated at least 50 applications when such a post became vacant. So, who is this man who has entered management by fast-track? Originally from Durham, Brass was a bright scholar, and he considered entering one of the professions, but football possessed too strong an allure. "My careers adviser said, 'If you never do it [join Burnley as an apprentice], you'll never know. You can always come back to education'." An inspirational midfielder-turned-defender, who played at Turf Moor for close on a decade, he adjudged his high point as the day he successfully man-marked Steve McManaman in an FA Cup tie.

That was as close as he got to the élite. "Now I'm thinking, 'Can I go on and manage at that level?' Why shouldn't I? A lot of our best managers weren't necessarily top players in the game first, men like Arsène Wenger and Graham Taylor. I'd hate to think that at 35 I'd have finished my career, and wondered what might have been. That's I why took this oppor-tunity. Asking yourself, 'What if?' can be a horrible feeling."

Having played under the formidable Stan Ternent, among others, Brass has amassed a wealth of expertise. But should a man of such inexperience even be granted the opportunity? Brass, on a two-year contract, remains philosophical about Barnwell's conclusion that the appointment was "for financial reasons and not on management ability", and that "player-managers were rarely successful".

The York manager, who already has his Uefa B coaching licence and expects to add the full A qualification this season, responds: "There's an awful lot of managers out of work, and I understand he's got to look out for his union. Ideally, there would be a manager's role and there would be a player's role. I'm under no illusion of that. But the board feel I can do an adequate job. I wouldn't have taken it unless I felt I could do it. I had to be true to myself, and true to them."

Come May, the truth will out. But if there's Brass, there's luck, and you feel he deserves it.

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