'This could be as memorable as my Cup final header'

The Interview - Trevor Brooking: The pundit who donned a tracksuit loves his club with a rare passion. Nick Townsend hears it might well be a case of Carry On Caretaker
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The Independent Football

It was, Trevor Brooking recalled, the morning after West Ham had secured the crucial first victory under his stewardship, at Maine Road, that a text message appeared on his mobile. The sender was one Gary Lineker and it read: "Go now, while you're unbeaten. It won't get any better than this..." It was purely a touch of mischief from the former England striker turned TV anchor-man; yet privately Lineker must have been aghast at what commitment Brooking had made, albeit for three weeks. It was almost as if he had defiled the very faith of that triumvirate of punditry brethren, Lineker, Brooking and Hansen – thou shalt not walk amongst the infidels of club management.

Like his BBC colleague, Brooking had never been remotely seduced by the concept of becoming Tracksuit Man. Fantasy football was about as close as he had got to the job. "I did it in a couple of the papers for a season or two, but it doesn't quite consume you in the same way," he reflects, with a chuckle. "Now the fantasy element has gone."

Previously Brooking had tended to concur with Lineker's denouncement of "the ridiculous pressures that come in management. It's a nightmare... every supporter watching the team from the stand has got his own ideas; every player, every chairman, thinks it should be different from how it actually is."

Yet, there are times when circumstances command that a man must thrust himself, body and soul, into the breach. And, after Glenn Roeder had suffered a minor stroke, an approach to Brooking, already a club director and an esteemed old boy, asking him to fulfil at least the responsibilities at the front of the House of Hammers, was accepted with alacrity.

You sense Brooking has really rather enjoyed it, albeit in a kind of masochistic way, considerably more than he may have suspected. "There will be some great moments to reflect back on," he says. "Mind you, if we'd got done on that first weekend and been relegated, and then lost to Chelsea, this would have been a doom and gloom area, and you'd have just been here, if at all, to pick over the bones of what relegation means to the club."

What have surprised many observers are Brooking's displays of emotion as events have been played out. He is deemed by most a serious sports politico, or a rather anodyne analyst, but there has almost been a touch of the Martin O'Neill about his responses to his team's two successes since he took charge. "If you've played you've got to have a bit of passion and emotion otherwise you'll never play to the level that you wanted to," says Brooking, who, as a stylish, intelligent midfielder espoused all the more benign virtues in the game.

"It's just that you don't always express it outwardly. I remember Kevin Keegan saying he could never, ever be a manager. 'Fancy letting them go out on the pitch and it's your future in their hands,' he used to say. Then after about seven years' golfing out in Spain, he came back and within a few months was in management."

The obvious conclusion is that Brooking will continue, if necessary, at the beginning of next season, should Roeder's convalescence from brain surgery take longer than anticipated. Or would that be demanding too much of his sense of duty?

The understudy doesn't exactly scoff at the prospect. "It's not one of those things that we've even thought about," he says in that laugh-it-off manner of his which actually fools no one. "If it gets to the stage in July or August where Glenn's recuperation may be taking longer than expected, we'll face that then."

Whatever the dénouement today, it is a remarkable story. From politician and pontificator to practitioner, no fewer than 19 years have elapsed since he was last seriously involved with a football team, and then as a player. It is a transition which few would have entertained, although he does stress, lest anyone should dispute his credentials, that he took his FA coaching badge in 1975, and worked under "two great managers here", Ron Greenwood and John Lyall. "My initial concern was the first week; I knew I could have ended up with a lot of egg on my face," concedes the former chairman of Sport England. "Everyone would have said 'How on earth did they [West Ham] think that punditry was going to be the same as management. Why on earth has Trevor set himself up for this?'"

It is Friday morning, early, and the Jags and Porsches have started to pull into West Ham's unprepossessing Chadwell Heath training "complex". The players and backroom staff gather to witness a "rowing" competition – on machines, it must be stressed – in the gym, in which Don Hutchison takes on the club masseur. Cheered on vociferously, Hutchison wins. There is an end-of-term feel about the place. Or, as prophets of doom might contend, an end to Premiership membership.

Brooking, who holds court in a prefab (he refuses, out of respect, to use Roeder's office) is clad in dark slacks and a polo shirt, adorned with a 2002 Ryder Cup logo. It is a reminder that those consigned to defeat by the bookmakers, and yes, the expert analysts, can defy logic.

Yet, the feasibility of West Ham winning at Birmingham this afternoon and Middlesbrough – those unhappy travellers – gaining at least a draw at Bolton, the twin requirements for West Ham's safety, is on the periphery of sporting expectation.

"You try to hang on to your belief that you'll get out of trouble, but there aren't many happy endings in real life," he concedes. "We've just got to do our part. If we do, it'll be a huge disappointment if Bolton have won themselves."

Much has been made of the fact that West Ham have a firm belief in the development of home-grown players while Bolton, at least recently, have acquired mostly foreign personnel? The diplomat in him prevents Brooking from stumbling into that trap, when asked if that is why his club have attracted the neutral vote. "Yeah... I don't know," he starts, before correcting himself. "If you have the right overseas players I wouldn't criticise that. We've always tried to build up our academy and that's provided the nucleus for us."

Four of those former youth players will be among those whom West Ham will attempt to retain, whatever the outcome today. "Joe Cole, our captain, has worn his heart on his sleeve, Jermain [Defoe] has played every game," says Brooking. "When you look at the size of him, and consider his age [20], he's responded superbly to the responsibility. Michael [Carrick] we've missed badly in the last seven, eight games, and then there's been Glen [Johnson] who's been a little jewel coming through in the last three months."

Whether that quartet stay, should West Ham drop into the Nationwide, will not be purely their decision, of course. Brooking recalls the three years spent in the then Second Division when he was a player. "The [Sky] TV money wasn't around then and a lot more depended on gate revenue. Because we always had good crowds, it meant that we could hold on to people. But now if we go down we're £15-to-20 million short on what we've had this year for the wage bill."

That will be a matter for Roeder and the board to resolve when he returns. For the moment, the manager is at home, resting, while he awaits surgery. Brooking and some of the players have visited him, including Cole, who has been the conduit between Roeder and the team. Cole relayed a message of encouragement from him in the dressing-room before the Chelsea game.

For the London derby, Brooking deployed three forwards. "We were at home, we needed to win. For the first time, with Paolo [Di Canio] coming through fit, we had four top-class strikers available," he explains. "So that made the decision easier." And will Di Canio – the match-winning substitute – start today at Birmingham? "The squad will be the same, and Paolo will be there," is all Brooking will confirm.

There will be no Churchillian-style exhortations before the kick-off. "I know I'm old but I probably couldn't remember too many of his speeches," Brooking says. "Naah, the mood has been right for the last two games. I'm sure it'll be right on Sunday. We've got to make sure in a heated atmosphere that we don't start getting red cards. We have to make sure that everyone is focused but not go OTT – and try to get them to enjoy it."

He seems almost coy when asked about the achievements thus far under his management. "I'd feel uncomfortable trying to make out it was all about myself. But it is something I will look back on and it will be something that comes close to my Cup final header [in 1980]," Brooking says. "That's been a part of my life for the past 23 years. Not a week's gone by when somebody hasn't mentioned it."

If West Ham should escape this time, the feat will surely surpass everything he has accomplished on the field and in sports administration. Who knows, he may even be granted that knighthood that has mysteriously eluded him? Whatever, he will certainly be dubbed Sir Trev at Upton Park.

Biography: Trevor Brooking

Born: 2 October 1948 in London.

Family: Married, has two sons.

As a player: West Ham 1965-84 (528 League appearances, 88 goals; 104 cup appearances, 14 goals).

In a nutshell: No one embodied the style with which West Ham United played their football throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s more than Brooking, one of the finest midfielders of his generation. Career highlight, scoring the winner against Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup final at Wembley.

Now: Caretaker coach of West Ham. Two matches have brought two wins.

Also: Former chairman of Sport England (1998-2002), but is more readily associated with the BBC as a leading radio and TV pundit. Managing director of own printing company.