(Photo: Action Images)
By Chris Dunlavy
GOOD player. Bad timing. Those four words will probably be etched on Gary Brazil’s gravestone.
For all the goals, tricks and deft touches that prompted legendary Preston boss John McGrath to describe his striker as a “prize rose”, the 54-year-old had a remarkable knack for joining big clubs in their bleakest hours.
Sheffield United’s only relegation to the Fourth Division in their 127-year history. Preston’s slump to 91st in the table, a position that forced the Lilywhites to beg for re-election.
Newcastle’s post-Gascoigne descent from the top-flight, Fulham’s mid-90s nadir in the basement division before Mohammed Al-Fayed saved the day.
Like Alan Rickman in Prince of Thieves, Brazil was the star performer in a terrible movie, his goals – often spectacular – illuminating dark days and barren afternoons. Relegation was a constant companion.
“He was a terrific player,” said former Preston team-mate Garry Swann. “You just have to look at his record. Everywhere he went, no matter what the circumstances, he scored goals.
“The season Preston finished second-bottom of the Fourth Division, he scored 18 times. How many players would manage that?”
Born in Tunbridge Wells and raised watching the flamboyant Chelsea side of the early 70s, Brazil’s acquaintance with football misery started early.
Released by Terry Venables’ Crystal Palace in 1980, he was signed by Sheffield United and almost immediately relegated to the Fourth Division.
Yet it says much about Brazil’s quality that he was regularly retained to lead the fightback. At Bramall Lane, it was Ian Porterfield who kept the faith, his young forward hitting ten goals in 72 games as the Blades scrabbled back to Division Two.
Then, after the shame of 1985-86, when gates at Deepdale averaged just 3,500 and even the floodlights went on strike, McGrath crafted a spearhead of Brazil and John Thompson and was rewarded with an exhilarating surge to the Division Four title.
“John used to call them his prize roses,” recalls midfielder Oshor Williams. “He said to the likes of me and Sam Allardyce – ‘I want people to come and see my best roses so you protect them because they will be the finest in Lancashire’.”
Brazil scored a career-best 18 league goals that term and was named Preston fans’ player of the year.
“John was a wonderful manager who galvanised the whole club,” said Alex Jones, another member of that side. “But Gary was absolutely outstanding that season we won promotion. I don’t think we’d have done it without him.”
Fleetingly, the big time beckoned. Unlike many a lower-league striker of his day, Brazil was no brainless bruiser. Skilful and quick, he largely relied on technique and positioning for his goals.
Those qualities impressed Jim Smith and, in 1988, Brazil joined a Newcastle side fighting for their top-flight lives. Eighteen months, eight starts and a relegation later, he was a footnote in Toon history.
“I spent too much time injured, but the quality of strikers they had was decent, too,” he said. “I was working to get in against people like Micky Quinn and Mark McGhee. Good players.”
So to Fulham, with 59 goals in 254 matches and six years that, for all Fulham’s struggles, are fondly remembered – at least by most.
“Gary was a Marmite player, very much the Tomasz Radzinski of his day,” recalls fan Jonathan Sim. “Personally, I loved him. He was a nimble-footed, skilful forward rather than an out-and-out goal scorer, but anyone who followed Fulham home and away during this time will remember some stunning strikes.”
Brazil’s technical qualities always suggested a future in coaching and so it proved. Following a premature dip into management with Notts County in 1999-00, he has worked at Doncaster, Fulham and, since 2012, Nottingham Forest, forging a reputation as one of the UK’s finest academy coaches.
The City Ground production line is testament to that: Oliver Burke, sold for £13m to RB Leipzig, Ben Osborn, a target for Newcastle, Matty Cash, extensively monitored by Chelsea.
“I’ve got to say thank you to my coaches and particularly Gary,” said Burke before leaving in August. “Without his input and help, I wouldn’t be the player people are talking about today.”
Cash, who made his debut on the opening day of the season and was this month subject to a £4m bid from Leipzig, expressed similar sentiments.
“Gary’s been a massive part of my progression in the last year and a half,” he said. “When I was on loan at Dagenham, he was always asking how I was getting on and always had his eyes on me.
“He was always in contact, which is a massive thing from such an experienced coach. At other clubs, you do not get the same qualities they give to young players here.
“They make sure you do things right – on and off the pitch – and that is why so many play for the first team.”
Mark Pembridge, who worked under Brazil at Fulham, said: “He’s a great coach, really innovative and full of ideas. I’d watch his sessions and pick up little techniques that I’d use with my Under-15s. And they invariably worked.”
Promoted to replace Philippe Montanier on a caretaker basis earlier this month, Brazil’s stay in the dugout is likely to be brief.
With so many proteges on the pitch, however, his legacy should last considerably longer.