Ex-Sunderland defender Titus Bramble, formerly of Newcastle, speaks to FourFourTwo back in December 2000, when the 19-year-old was at Ipswich Town and being raved about by a certain Thierry Henry...
How good is Titus Bramble? Ask Thierry Henry, who didn't get a touch when Arsenal played Ipswich in September and and left comparing Bramble to Marcel Desailly. Ask Roy Keane, who came off worse in a 50-50 challenge with Bramble when Manchester United came to town. And ask Nial Quinn, whose aerial threat was nullified all afternoon by Bramble and who then had to watch as the teenager went up the other end and scored the winner.
After only a few months of the season, the 19-year-old Ipswich defender boasts a large and impressive fan club. Regulars at Portman Road have long known about Bramble's talents (one fan, Henry Rix, was so impressed that he named one of his champion racehorses after him), but it wasn't until this season that Bramble became recognised outside Suffolk.
"I have been really happy with my form this season," says Bramble. "I think I've done very well. The Premiership is harder than I had expected and I struggled in our first game against Tottenham, but then I found my feet against Manchester United and Sunderland. I was a bit starstruck against United, looking around at Barthez, Beckham and Keane. But I just told myself to treat it like a normal game."
What makes Bramble's ascent even more remarkable is that he didn't play a single game for Ipswich last season. He made his debut two years ago aged just 17 but, after only two first-team starts, broke his ankle in training. The ankle continued to bother him at the beginning of last season, so he was loaned out to Colchester to regain his fitness but found himself sidelined again, this time with knee problems.
"After my injury problems I really didn't expect to get in the side so soon," admits Bramble. "I hoped to get in the team around Christmas when we picked up some injuries. It helped that I came back two weeks before the rest of the team in the summer, determined to get fit."
Bramble isn't content to sit at the back and just defend. George Burley likes his players to be jacks of all trades and this shows in Bramble's composure going forward. As well as scoring a winner against Sunderland with a control and finish reminiscent of Alan Shearer in his prime, Bramble scored in Ipswich's 5-0 victory over Millwall in the Worthington Cup.
"Defending is the most important thing to me, but I like to get forward and scoring is a bonus. The manager has never told me to not get forward – he likes me running with the ball. I'll only do it when it's right, never for the sake of it."
Bramble's performances have drawn comparisons with Sol Campbell and he has tried to emulate the Tottenham captain. "I play like him," says Bramble, "especially the way he brings the ball out of defence, but remains a great and strong defender as well."
Bramble could be partnering his hero in the centre of the England defence sooner rather than later. After only a couple of first-team games, Bramble is being mentioned as a genuine England prospect.
Howard Wilkinson has already handed Bramble three Under-21 caps, and in his second game he managed to do what the senior side couldn't: score against Germany in the Under-21s' 1-1 draw.
Interview: Sam Pilger. From the December 2000 issue of FourFourTwo.