TITUS Bramble credits Steve Bruce with saving his professional career. But if the Sunderland manager is his footballing guardian angel, Bramble himself must take a lion’s share of the credit for turning his life around in a way that a few of his peers never quite managed.
Bramble has grown up, of that there is no doubt. Settled professionally and personally, he approaches his 30th birthday barely recognisable from the brash young professional who saw his Newcastle career crumble as he succumbed to the “dangerous temptations” of the city’s Quayside scene.
Sitting back with a bag of ice on his knee following a blistering hour-long training session at Sunderland’s Barsinghausen training base, the defender comes over as the picture of contentment.
Even the brace strapped to his right leg is only a precaution, he says. These days, calamity is invariably averted.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time when most journalists were shunned, Bramble preferring to stay cocooned rather than open himself up to the people who criticised him for mistakes made on and off the field.
They were right, he now admits, and that self-awareness is a recurring theme of a discussion that bristles with positivity. Twelve months ago a couple of mindless morons booed him as he joined Sunderland’s pre-season tour in Portugal – such negativity would be unthinkable now.
“I don’t regret coming back for a minute but I knew I wouldn’t. The North East is one of the best football regions there is. The game is like a religion for people up there,” he told The Journal. “The move has been the best thing that ever happened to me. The first season was a fantastic experience and judging by the way things are going, the second one could be even better for me and the club.”
Part of that optimism comes because Bramble’s life is no longer a whirr of nightclubs and noise. Newcastle suffocated the young defender when he first moved to the North East – he understands the region better now. And he is a better footballer for it. “I think I have changed. I think I have matured as a player and as a person over the last few years,” he said.
“I’m not just a different player to the one I was at Newcastle, I’m a different person. Speak to anyone who knows me from when I was younger and knows me now – I’m a completely different character.
“I live with my girlfriend now. I’m happy, very happy, on and off the pitch. I don’t do the same things I did then that were a bit stupid, looking back.
“People tend to forget how young I was when I went to Newcastle. I was only a kid and I made mistakes on and off the pitch.
“Single life in Newcastle is dangerous. Anyone would tell you that. I don’t care how old you are, being single in Newcastle is dangerous. 28, 29, it doesn’t matter – it can get you. And I know from experience that the Quayside is a very tempting place.”
Mistakes made, Bramble’s life was at a crossroads as he departed St James’ Park. Potentially a Rolls Royce player, his career had stalled. But then came his first meeting with Bruce – the man who risked his own reputation by re-signing him last summer.
“Leaving Newcastle, my career could have gone anywhere. I could have ended up falling down the leagues because it had been a bit up and down there,” he said.
“The gaffer showed interest in me straight away. He came in, showed huge faith in me and it changed my career really. He restored my belief, built up my confidence and yeah – I think he’s repaying my faith now.
“It’s a credit to him, I owe him a lot and I hope I can keep repaying him.”
Bruce’s own time on the North East hasn’t been without its failings. A run of bad form last term saw swathes of the Sunderland support calling for him to be replaced but he never lost the faith of his dressing room. Bramble is thankful for the patience of Ellis Short – grateful because he believes Sunderland have got a manager who can go on to emulate one of his former mentors.
“He’s a great manager. He’s very similar to Sir Bobby Robson I think,” he said.
“They’ve got a lot of similar traits and I think the biggest thing is trust. You trust the manager here. No one is his favourite, everyone is treated the same – he has respect for everyone and he has everyone’s respect too.
“He knows when to give you a kick up the backside, he knows when to put his arm around you. That’s what all good managers do and he can do it.
“He was a big reason why I was so sure it was the right move. When he showed an interest, it was impossible to turn him down really.”
Those sentiments have been shared by the steady procession of new arrivals through the Sunderland entrance door this summer – nine in all to supplement a squad that began with a bang last season, along to fall short following a Spring collapse. Bramble doesn’t see any way that will be repeating. “We’ve got a lot of Premier League experience in this squad now,” he said, “whereas last year we had a lot of lads who were new to the country and new to the Premier League, now there’s a lot of games and a lot of experience in the club.
“When times get tough we can rely on those lads. You fall back on your experience and that will help us. I think it’s too early to talk about Europe. When the season starts, we might know more. Basically, our number one aim is to improve on last season.”
Talking of starts, Sunderland’s couldn’t be much more testing. But in keeping with Bramble’s sunny outlook, it is one to be relished.
“It’s a tough one. Liverpool away and then the Geordies are coming... it’s a huge game and it won’t be easy. But we can’t wait for it,” he said.