Titus takes the eye and the risks

Alex Hayes feels the Ipswich defender can be a classic contender
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The Independent Online

Titus "Bear" Bramble very nearly fell off his chair last Wednesday. A local Suffolk reporter had just called to tell him he was being brought into the England Under-21 squad for the first time. "I really thought he was kidding," said the Ipswich teenager.

Titus "Bear" Bramble very nearly fell off his chair last Wednesday. A local Suffolk reporter had just called to tell him he was being brought into the England Under-21 squad for the first time. "I really thought he was kidding," said the Ipswich teenager.

Bramble, of course, is supposed to say he was shocked. Players are never meant to expect selection. But, on this occasion, the player's surprise was genuine. Following aninjury-ravaged couple of seasons, the 19-year-old would have been content with a few appearances for his club. "I didn't even expect to be in the Ipswich first team for some time," Bramble said. "I thought I'd get a chance in October or November, when there might be the odd injury, but I never imagined I'd be in the starting line-up on the opening day."

Two weeks ago, he was outstanding against Manchester United and last Saturday, he contained the threat of Sunderland's Niall Quinn and scored the goal that brought Ipswich their first victory. "He's still got a lot to learn but he's been outstanding for us since our promotion," George Burley, the Ipswich manager, said.

Bramble's England debut was not quite as impressive, a momentary lapse of concentration leading to the Georgian equaliser at Middlesbrough on Thursday. But the mistake was, says his international manager, only a blip on an otherwise good performance. "He'll learn from that," Howard Wilkinson said. "I'd rather he do that in a 6-1 friendly win rather than in a qualifier."

Overall, Bramble impressed enough during his first-half appearance to suggest he could one day play alongside his hero in the senior team. "Sol Campbell is the one player I've always looked up to," he said. "Along with Jason Dozzell, Sol's the guy I watched play when I was growing up. I've always been impressed with the way he comes out of defence, while remaining strong in the tackle. He's a complete player."

It will be some time before Bramble's dream of playing alongside Campbell in an England shirt is realised, but judging by his calm transition from Ipswich reserves defender to "junior" international, there is no reason why it might not happen. "I don't look too far forward," he said. "I just hope to prove myself at club and Under-21 level; then we'll see."

Bramble's inclusion in the Under-21 squad was particularly relevant at a time when England are crying out for defenders who are comfortable in possession. Rio Ferdinand remains a prime candidate, but if Bramble can sustain his level of performances, he too may have a part to play in England's future. His club captain, Matt Holland, certainly believes Bramble has the necessary attributes. "He's so composed for a young lad," he said. "It's incredible. He's quick, strong, clever and willing to learn. Titus can get to the very top."

The young defender's rise may appear meteoric, but he made his Ipswich debut two years ago, aged 17. His early performances were, he says, impressive enough, but the run in the first team came to a end after he picked up an injury. "I had two good games and then broke my ankle in training," Bramble said. "I never got back in the team after that."

Last season was equally disappointing for the 6ft 1in defender, affectionately known as "Bear", at Portman Road. The ankle swelled up again and Bramble spent the first half of the promotion campaign in the treatment room. Unable to secure a first-team place on his return, he was sent to Second Division Colchester on loan. It was the wake-up call he needed. "It made me realise what I had to do to get back in the Ipswich side. I thought, 'Right, I'm going to knuckle down and prove I'm good enough'."

Now fully recovered and back in Ipswich, Bramble has excelled at the heart of the club's three-man defence. Much of his good football education can be attributed to Burley. The Scotsman has always favoured an expansive style and encourages his young players to take risks. "We want them to play and if that means stepping into midfield or going forward, so be it," he said.

"We don't have robots here. We let our players express themselves, which Titus does. I was brought up as a full-back, but no one was going to stop me getting forward. Why then should I stop my players? You have to trust their ability even though it can be a little nerve-racking at times."

Bramble's name, chosen by his father because he "liked the sound of it", evokes classical images. How appropriate, then, that Burley likes to describe Titus as his "colossus".

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