When the official website caught up with former Academy Manager Gary Brazil to discuss Sunday’s match between two of his former sides, his initial reaction was that he was the subject of a practical joke set-up by his colleagues at Fulham.
“This isn’t Kit Symons and the rest of them having me on, is it?” Gary queried with concern. “Because, if the boot was on the other foot, I’d definitely be doing this to them!”
After being reassured that the focus of the chat was our Barclays Premier League clash with Newcastle United, the ex-striker looked back on his stint in the North-East with fondness, despite the brevity of time he spent at St James’ Park.
“It’s a fantastic football club and it was a privilege to be able to play for a club of that stature,” he explained. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time up there and learnt a lot in that period, so I’ve got only good memories.
“You could say my spell there was short-lived as I probably spent a little bit too much time injured. I picked up a nasty back injury and I’d also picked up quite a bad shoulder injury playing for them at Stoke City that kept me out for about four months.
“I spent too much time injured to be fair, but the quality of strikers they had was decent, too. When I first arrived they had Mirandinha up front, then I was working to get in against people like Micky Quinn and Mark McGhee, who were good players.
“I found myself, at times, playing down the sides of midfield, but I had no complaints as it was something that I wouldn’t have missed out on. When you play with good players you learn more.”
After going from being a free-scoring crowd favourite at Preston North End to fringe player with the Magpies, Brazil was keen to recapture his status as the latter, and it was Fulham who gave him the opportunity to do just that in September 1990.
“I found myself in a position where I wasn’t in the first team,” he recalled. “I wasn’t one of those players who’d be content sitting in the reserves and just training without playing first-team football.
“I wanted to play regularly and Fulham were the first team to come in and show an interest in me and, from my point of view, that was a clear opportunity to play first-team football, and I grabbed it.”
Brazil’s stay in SW6 coincided with a relatively dark period for the Club, with the Whites narrowly avoiding relegation from the third tier in his debut season. Two mid-table finishes followed in the subsequent campaigns, but 1993/94 saw us drop into the bottom tier of the Football League.
Despite the Club’s struggles, Brazil was a regular contributor of goals during his playing days at the Cottage, with the striker scoring 50 times in little more than 200 matches.
“I had five years playing for Fulham,” he said. “It wasn’t the best of times in terms of how we did as a Club at that point, but it was a period of my career where I enjoyed playing and, personally, I did quite well.
“At that stage of my career I probably could have done with playing another league up but when you look at where the Club is now – which is absolutely fantastic – it’s obviously a part of the Club’s history that they look back on with a smile on their face as it helps to really appreciate where they are now. The fans that were there when we were playing in the early to mid-90s will really appreciate where they are now.”
Brazil departed Fulham shortly before we began our swift ascent up the Football League ladder, but he was back at the Club just over a decade later when he took over our Under-18 side.
“It was fantastic to return,” he admitted. “[Former Head of Youth] John Murtough was kind enough to offer me the job of taking the 18s in 2007. There was a lot of hard work to do and we put a lot of principles and disciplines in place that I think helped to start the ball rolling.
“The real change came when [Academy Director] Huw Jennings came in and [Head of Talent ID and Recruitment] Malcolm Elias came in as it allowed us to bring in better players. The programme and the foundation was there for good players to come in and succeed, and I think that’s what happened.
“It’s probably the toughest decision of my professional life to decide to move back up into the Midlands and leave the Club. I knew it was going to be something that I would find very hard to get over and I still miss the Club now, but I’m really pleased with the way it’s moved on.
“It was two o’clock the other morning and I was sat there on my laptop watching them win the Dallas Cup as I still share a keen interest in what’s going on there and I’ve still got some very, very good friends working down there.”
The recent success in Texas is just one example of the progress made by the Academy in recent years, and Gary is pleased to see how well his former colleagues are doing at Fulham.
He stated: “It’s lovely to see how the Academy has moved forward because you’ve got some really good members of staff in there and you need good members of staff to set good attitudes and good principles.
“You’ve got people behind the scenes like Huw - who runs it very, very well - but you’ve also got people like [Academy Manager] Lee Hagger in there, you’ve got the Mark Pembridges, the Vic Bettinellis, the Kit Symons. Steve Wigley has walked into a very nice job there and he’s doing a very good job from what everybody tells me.
“There’s good staff in there – [Coach Developer] Geoff Noonan is another one who does a really good job with the lower age groups. They’re good, dedicated people who understand the development of young lads and I’m really pleased now that they’ve managed to move it on. It was lovely to be part of it.
“It was a big disappointment that I couldn’t stay there and enjoy the success that they’re having now but I knew I was leaving something that was only going to get stronger and stronger and then do very well.”
After passionately discussing his affection for the Fulham Academy and its staff, Brazil turned his attention back to the First Team and their trip north to face the 15th-placed Geordies.
Whereas Fulham’s form since the turn of the year has all but banished any relegation concerns, Newcastle continue to hover perilously close to the drop zone, and so Gary believes the pressure will be on the home side at the weekend.
“I think it’s going to be a tight game for different reasons,” he explained. “After the win against Queens Park Rangers on Monday night, Fulham are in a much better place now and when they’re relaxed they can go and play some good football as they’ve got players that can open the opposition up.
“Newcastle are scrapping for their Premier League lives. The game could go either way but I think the first goal in encounters like this is really important. It’s a massive game for Newcastle when you look at where they are and it’ll be a match that they will need to pick up points from because they’re slowly getting dragged closer to that bottom three.”
Fulham go into the match a point behind Swansea City in ninth – with a game in hand – and a top-half finish is now looking a very distinct possibility.
Should we conclude the campaign in the top 10, it will be the fourth time in five years that we have done so, and Gary was quick to highlight the magnitude of those achievements, before praising – one more time – how far the Club has come.
“When you look at the quality of the sides that are in the Premier League, if you keep consistently doing what Fulham do, it’s fantastic,” he said. “Being fortunate enough to come back to the Club and work on the staff there as a coach and seeing the change and seeing the professional nature of the Club now, I have to say it’s a fantastically professional outfit that really understands how to look after the customer.
“Everyone at the Club has a lovely, positive attitude and it was a pleasure to work there. It’s moved on fantastically and it’s a respected Premier League football club that you expect will stay there for a number of years now.”