Bramble in search of happy ending to troubled campaign

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The Independent Football

Titus Bramble will tomorrow find himself in the unaccustomed position of being the most important man in the Newcastle dressing room.

Titus Bramble will tomorrow find himself in the unaccustomed position of being the most important man in the Newcastle dressing room.

Alan Shearer's continuing goalscoring heroics and the excellence of Shay Given and Gary Speed have been the rocks upon which United's recent resurgence has been built, but as he runs out at Manchester City Bramble will do so with manager Sir Bobby Robson knowing his dreams for the remaining weeks of the season could rest in large part on the broad shoulders of the Ipswich-born 22-year-old.

Bramble, a £4.5million signing from the Suffolk club back in July 2002, has suffered a chequered start to his career on Tyneside, blending a series of commanding performances with others in which he has made high-profile, and ultimately costly, blunders.

He has also found himself gaining attention for off-field matters but in recent months he has quietly gone about re-establishing himself as an important member of Robson's squad.

Jonathan Woodgate's injury problems have seen Bramble start 35 games so far this season, some alongside the England international but many of them in partnership with Andy O'Brien.

However, Woodgate's torn thigh muscle, which threatens his participation in this summer's Euro 2004 finals, and O'Brien's impending Barclaycard Premiership suspension, mean that he will be the Magpies' defensive linchpin for the end of a campaign which promises so much but could yet be ripped apart by injury.

Fourth place in the league and a taste of UEFA Cup glory would provide Bramble with a hugely satisfactory conclusion to a difficult season.

"I think what has happened to me earlier this season has made me a stronger individual," he said.

"If you start worrying about things on the pitch and let it get inside your head, it is no good for the team.

"You have to stay strong and stay focused and not give anyone anything to write about. "That's one of Bobby Robson's strengths. He is a great manager. He sat down with me lots of times and he was very supportive towards me.

"That's when you need support from your manager. That is one of his main strengths as a manager. He is great with the players and he helps you a lot.

"It was a difficult time, but you have to put it to the back of your mind and let your football do the talking, really. You have to just do it on the pitch and try to forget about everything else."

Bramble admits that, despite having experienced Premiership football at Ipswich, it has taken him time to settle at St James' Park.

"I think I have toughened up since coming to the Premiership, but I have had to because this is a massive step up from Ipswich," he said.

"I had to improve my performances because you are playing in front of 52,000 fans at Newcastle every week.

"I feel I have been playing a lot better recently, but it is all about confidence at this level.

"The game is so much quicker in the Premiership and you have to defend a lot better. If a striker misses a chance in the first division it doesn't get recognised as much, but if you make a mistake in the Premiership, the ball is in the back of the net and it gets far more noticed.

"If you make clangers in the Premiership, it gets seen by so many more people because everywhere you look, there are games on television."

Bramble and O'Brien will have to shackle Nicolas Anelka and whichever of his pool of strikers under-pressure Kevin Keegan decides to throw into the fight against relegation if their side is to leave with three points, but the England Under-21 international is confident that they can do the job.

"It does help that myself and Andy have played a lot together already this season because if we hadn't, I don't think it would be beneficial to the team to put us together for the first time right now," he said.

"We know each other's game and we have been playing together all season, so it shouldn't be a problem."