He was a brilliant winger in a team on the rise under a manager who loved a bit of flair. But, as Adam Powley reports, that's when it all started going wrong
You know that story about the brilliantly talented kid at school who was so good, he seemed born to be a footballer? Invariably, there’s no happy ending: the precociously gifted youngster fails to make the grade for a variety of frustrating reasons – poor coaching, a lack of application, or simply bad luck – and it all ends up as a case of what might have been.
That thought might occur to those watching Paul Brooker ply his fitful trade for Brighton & Hove Albion. Not that this skilful winger is by any means a failure. As a member of a promotion-chasing squad at a club enjoying an impressive revival, Brooker has a career many would love to emulate. But you can’t help thinking he should be achieving so much more.
“Naturally gifted” is an over-used term. With a few players, however, it is possible to believe in genetically pre-determined skills and in Brooker control, passing and balance appear inherent. He’s no Maradona, but he has a conspicuous talent. And therein lies the problem. I first saw Brooker play – and witnessed what has proved to be his undoing – in 1996. A Fulham supporting friend said there was this “fantastic” winger who had just broken through at Craven Cottage. He was so good, it was claimed, he was being described as the new Giggs.
In a midweek game against Plymouth, just as Fulham were about to embark on their Al Fayed-inspired rise, Brooker was indeed very good, blessed with real pace and an ability to keep control while running at full pelt. Confirmation of his standing was that Fulham fans, normally renowned for their detached cynicism, seemed to like him. Unfortunately, Brooker’s obvious qualities didn’t endear him to lower division defenders. The Plymouth game encapsulated his whole career, with a promising start undone by the most rudimentary tactics. In short, Brooker was kicked to pieces and played an increasingly peripheral role.
Times have changed – Fulham fans are now disconcertingly confident – but for Brooker, it’s pretty much as you were. Having been in the “one to watch” category, he soon fell into the “what the hell happened to him?” bracket as his effectiveness was increasingly blunted. Even the idealistic Kevin Keegan felt he wasn’t equipped to take part in Fulham’s charge up the league and by 1999 he was struggling to get a game.
All went quiet on the Brooker front until a Brighton supporting friend told me: “We’ve signed this fantastic winger who plays just like Giggs.” Brooker had moved to the south coast to team up again with his erstwhile boss Micky Adams. Initially Brooker did well, playing 41 games in Albion’s promotion winning season of 2000-01. Now in the Second Division, however, he is finding it hard going to keep his place.
In Peter Taylor, Brooker might have expected to find a manager who recognises in the 25-year-old some of the same qualities Taylor himself had as a player. Instead, Brooker finds himself usurped by one Nathan Jones. The Welshman isn’t averse to the odd trick of his own (he has perfected an elaborate stepover dubbed the “South Wales Shuffle”), but he’s not as clearly gifted as Brooker. You can see why he’s picked, though, because he can stand up to the rough stuff better.
Brooker has turned in a couple of decent performances of late and started to do the dirty work of tracking and tackling back, something that brought out an allergic reaction in him in the past. You still sense he’s missed the boat, however. Unless the ten-stone winger suddenly ingests a year’s supply of Creatine, he could find himself marginalised, perhaps forced to drop down a level in order to rely on his speed to evade clumsier defenders. It’s a shame, because the feeling persists that he deserves a more amenable stage.
Britain’s elite league is still over-populated with oafish cloggers, but a move to a decent Premiership side who view the ball as a tool rather than a disposable irrelevance might enable Brooker’s talents to flourish. It won’t happen though. Football minds with infinitely more knowledge about the game than you or I have no doubt quite rightly decided Brooker is not made of top-flight material. Footballers at any level find their niche and it seems Brooker has discovered his: a mercurial, naturally talented player who did make it – but not as much as he could have.
From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month