THEY SERVED AT THE LANE: ALAN BRAZIL INTERVIEW
Today he’s one of the most recognisable voices in football broadcasting, but in the early Eighties Alan Brazil was a striker at the top of his game. A UEFA Cup winner in 1981 with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich team, he had forged a reputation as a prolific marksman, scoring 70 goals in 154 league appearances for the East Anglian club, not far off a goal every other game. But after Robson quit Portman Road for the England manager’s job, Ipswich decided to capitalise on one of their prime assets and Alan Brazil was on the market.
In March 1983, despite rival interest from Manchester United, Ipswich accepted a bid of £470,000 from Tottenham for the 23-year-old striker that. After a short meeting with Keith Burkinshaw at the White Hart Hotel in Braintree, the striker was impressed by the manager’s assurances that Tottenham would build a team to accommodate him and the pair shook hands on the deal. At the time it was seen as a major signing for Spurs and former England striker Malcolm Macdonald even went on record in the press to say that Brazil would “put Spurs back in business”, describing the deal as “easily the best piece of transfer business this season”.
When he arrived at White Hart Lane, Brazil was immediately impressed with the scale of the club and determined to make an immediate impact. Despite his best efforts, however, he failed to forge a meaningful working relationship with his new manager. Having come from a relatively small squad at Ipswich, Brazil was not used to being substituted, and when Burkinshaw pulled him off the pitch three quarters of the way through just his fourth match, it knocked the Scottish striker’s confidence.
Nevertheless, he finished the season having scored six goals in 12 games, helping the club to clinch a place in the UEFA Cup. “We played really well in those final 12 games and I like to think I helped the club get that spot in Europe,” he says today.
The following season started badly for Brazil as he struggled to recapture his Ipswich form. After substitution against Nottingham Forest in October, he was offered a ticket in the stand for a relatively easy Milk Cup game away to Lincoln City and the following day was asked to play for the reserves, a blow that further knocked his by now fragile confidence.
Despite newspaper reports that Ron Atkinson of Manchester United and Everton’s Howard Kendall were maintaining interest in the player, Burkinshaw turned down the approaches out of hand, much to the striker’s dismay. The relationship between manager and player worsened as the season progressed – until, tired of reserve team football, Brazil finally handed in a transfer request.
Three weeks before the end of the season the tension between the two culminated in a touchline argument at QPR. After hearing his manager say, “I suppose you better go on now”, Brazil took offence and refused to take to the field, letting fly with a verbal tirade. Despite having scored four times in five appearances in the club’s European campaign (enough to earn him a winners’ medal), he wasn’t even included in the UEFA Cup final squad and he watched the away leg from his sofa.
The following month Manchester United paid £700,000 to take him to Old Trafford and while White Hart Lane never really saw the best of Alan Brazil, he is still remember fondly by the fans.
What made you sign for Spurs in 1983?
“To be honest it was circumstances. I was at Ipswich and the manager Bobby Robson was ready to move on, which he did. We’d also just built a new stand, the Pioneer Stand, and suddenly the club was skint. We got knocked out of the cup competitions early doors – that meant players would have to be sold and it was inevitable that I was going to be one of them. When a club like Tottenham came in for me I thought it was a great opportunity. I used to enjoy playing against Spurs from my days the South East Counties League with the youth team, through the reserves to the first team so I knew most of the guys.”
Was it a culture shock coming to Tottenham from a club like Ipswich?
“It was different. The main difference that I noticed was that the squad was much bigger and Spurs trained on a daily basis and at a higher tempo, because everyone was fighting for a place. At Ipswich you could have a couple of easy days, knowing there were only 13 players really and as long as you were doing the business on Saturdays, there was no need to overdo it in training. At both Tottenham and later when I was at Manchester United it was like a cup final every day.”
You were already an established star when Spurs signed you. Was there a significant pressure to perform?
“Well at the time there was because they paid five or six hundred grand, which was good money in those days. It was difficult because at the time my last season at Ipswich wasn’t my best season. Little did I know it at the time, but I had a major back problem that I found out about out in 1987 or 1988. Suddenly my fitness levels dropped and I knew that even from the point when I signed for Tottenham.
“I think I played 12 games for Spurs at the end of the season and I scored six goals. Then we had the break and I knew in the following pre-season training that something wasn’t right – I was thinking, ‘Hold on, I’m not as fit as I used to be’. I thought it was hamstrings, groins – I had the same problem when I joined Manchester United and there I could tell because my old Ipswich team-mate Arnold Mühren was at United. I could gauge my fitness against his, because on long runs at Ipswich I would murder Arnold, who was a fit guy, but I was VERY fit. At United I couldn’t get near him anymore, so I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t realise what it was until it was to late.
“When at 27 I had to retire through degenerative changes to the spine. In other words my bottom disc was shot away and I needed a spinal fusion, so that was clearly part of the reason why I was not as fit and probably didn’t take my Ipswich form to Tottenham or Manchester United.”
You had a stormy relationship with Keith Burkinshaw?
“It was okay at first. When I first arrived the team were struggling a bit and I played 12 games and scored six goals and we got into Europe – and of course we won the UEFA Cup the next season. I’m not saying getting into Europe was all down to me, but I did help with that push. And of course there was the 5-0 victory over Arsenal, which was a great game and I enjoyed that. But on a regular basis I was thinking, ‘What’s wrong’. There was something not quite there. I think nowadays they’d have picked it up in a flash.”
What kind of man was Burkinshaw?
“Very quiet and he let you get on with it. If you were doing your job he’d leave you alone but just say the odd word, whereas Peter Shreeves was the day-to-day man. I did fall out with Keith but that was just frustration on my part and probably on his. He wanted the player he bought from Ipswich – he got it now and again but not regularly enough.”
Didn’t you famously explode at him after being substituted?
“Well I did, yes. But that was frustration at coming off. There had been so many times at Ipswich when I was getting two goals at a time and was going for a hat-trick, but it was difficult for me that I wasn’t recapturing that form at Spurs. So it was frustration for both of us.”
Who were the players that you really enjoyed playing with at Spurs?
“Well, there really were some great players at the club at the time, like Ossie Ardiles. He is still a very good friend. Ossie was busy, a great little athlete, always bombing about and very clever little one-twos and nutmegs. He was just a special player. He was a World Cup winner and he’d always want to play little wall passes with you, always wanted to bring you into the game. Ricky Villa was more of an individualist, while Ossie used like to play the ball into feet and get it back. Ossie was a star, no doubt about it.
“There was Micky Hazard too and Glenn Hoddle was a wonderful player. When I was there Glenn was injured a lot, or when I was dropped he was playing, so I never really got a chance to play with Glenn every week but he was some player. Tony Galvin was a great up and down player – you knew what you got with him, it was as simple as that. Steve Perryman was great too, so was Chris Hughton… the two boys at the back were tough as nails. To be honest with you, they were all good as gold.”
What was so special about Glenn Hoddle?
“At that time, like all great players, Glenn was always thinking one step ahead. There were times when he would play a ball through and I hadn’t quite reacted and I’d go, ‘Sorry Hod’. That’s how good he was. I was pretty good at reading players but Glenn was fantastic, he could do it with either feet and he’d always know where you were before the ball came to him so he could always do it first time.”
Spurs won the UEFA Cup in your one full season at the club, but you didn’t get to play in the final.
“Correct, but I’ve got to say I scored more goals in the Tottenham’s run in the UEFA Cup – I scored three or four, I can’t remember now – than I did when I won it with Ipswich in 1981, when I only got one. It was strange – the big final, home and away. That’s what you miss when you’re not playing.”
Who were you playing up front with in your time at White Hart Lane?
“Different people, sometimes Steve Archibald, sometimes Mark Falco, I think Crooksy played now and again. It changed all the time, but if I was on the top of my game I could play with anyone.”
How did your transfer to Manchester United come about?
“That was a weird one. There was always talk of me going to Manchester United even before I went to Spurs, but then I played for Tottenham against Manchester United in an end of season game over in Swaziland, believe it or not. We had a real laugh with the Manchester United team. We mixed together and it was great fun and I played particularly well in that one game. I don’t know how it came about, but United had a spot where they needed someone else to come in with a little bit of experience, whether he was going to play every game or not. Ron Atkinson was always an admirer and I went there from Tottenham.
“It was difficult because I was in and out of the team a lot at Tottenham, but when you get a chance to go to United, you think, ‘Hello, this could change my fortune’, so you take a chance at it. And believe it or not, I was in and out – but although I only played 25 full games I scored 12 goals. But the emergence of Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside made it very difficult to keep a place in the team.”
Tottenham wasn’t the most successful period of your career but do you look back fondly at the memories of your White Hart Lane experience?
“Of course, I wish I’d been banging two or three goals in every month. There were some great players at the club then and you wanted to play at your best with great players, but in my mind now I’m convinced I know why now and that was quite clearly down to my back. If you see me sometime in the morning, you’d understand why.”
What was your least favourite experience at Spurs?
“My worst was just after I first signed for Spurs – I had to play against Ipswich and I scored two. That felt really weird to me.”
In your autobiography you said that when you went to Spurs you wanted to strike up an immediate relationship with the fans.
“Yes. There were a certain section of the fans that were a bit frustrated and gave me a bit of stick but on the whole I used to get some fantastic letters from fans saying, ‘Look it’s not easy, you’ve come to Tottenham and we appreciate the effort you’re putting in’. There were one or two dodgy one but the majority were good as gold to me.”
You seem to be fondly remembered by Spurs fans despite the short time you spent at the club.
“I think you will be as long as you give 100 per cent effort and give it a go… and probably that worked against me for my own game because I was a natural football player and when I had to think about doing things, that was never my game. At Ipswich I knew if you just gave me half a chance I’d score. I would just do whatever came naturally to me. But because I knew that I wasn’t 100 per cent, at Tottenham I tried to change and tried to adapt, hoping to play myself into a good game.”
As a former Tottenham forward, what do you make of Dimitar Berbatov?
“He is excellent, fantastic. He looks a real player, doesn’t he? The goal he scored against Reading at the end of the season, the volley, that’s a player at the very top of his game, with unbelievable confidence to take on strikes like that. He wasn’t even surprised when it went in. I watched him closely when he got up – he just opened his hands out wide to the Tottenham fans. He believes that he can score from anywhere at the moment.”
What did you make of Tottenham’s season?
“We say it every year that we’re going to be getting amongst the big four and we sort of flatter again, don’t we. We can give the best teams a game – we beat Chelsea at home, and then other times we let ourselves down. But I really think we’re getting there but for all the Tottenham fans I know it’s still rather frustrating… It just needs another 15 per cent to be honest, another push and we’ll be breathing down Arsenal’s necks.”
How do you rate Martin Jol as a manager?
“I like him. I think he’s strong and I think he’s honest. Squad wise, Tottenham’s squad is not bad but it’s not as strong as Manchester United’s or Chelsea’s, so there’s still a lot of work to be done, but I definitely wouldn’t be changing the manager.”
Do you ever get back to White Hart Lane?
“Now and again. I’ve made so many friends who are big Tottenham fans who I see regularly and I’m always given a great welcome when I come back.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007