Ask any Leeds United fan about Tomas Brolin, and they will delineate the same reproval. They will tell you that their Swedish £4.5 million signing arrived with a colossal reputation but departed with only a bigger gut. What they would not tell you, though, through design, indolence, or irrationality, is that he was a truly stellar striker in his prime.
Brolin was an auspicious youngster during a sanguine period for Sweden on the football stage. When he made his debut for fourth-tier Näsvikens IK, as a 14-year-old in 1984, the nation’s football zealots were rejuvenated, having been disconcerted by their absence from the 1982 edition of the World Cup. He was as adroit as he was brave, amongst the ferocity of senior football, which saw him lauded as the headline act in a generation of prospective national team regulars who were set to reinvigorate Sweden on the world stage.
He went on to make 36 senior appearances by the age of 17, before joining Allsvenskan side GIF Sundsvall, in 1987. They had offered him the opportunity to play at a higher level of the Swedish game, whilst continuing his education at Sundsvall’s football academy, the Fotbollsgymnasiet.
After a half-century of appearances, in 1990 he joined fellow top-flight side IFK Norrköping. He played only nine Allsvenskan matches for the eventual runners-up, in which he scored seven goals, before earning a move to the minacious threat to the Calcio’s nonpareils at the time, Parma, after a goal against Brazil at Italia 90 and his first Guldbollen award.
Brolin joined in the pre-season ahead of their return to Serie A for 1990/91, after reportedly rejecting offers from as many as 11 other clubs. He scored seven goals in his debut campaign, partnering Alessandro Melli in attack, as Nevio Scala’s side secured fifth place, ergo qualification for the UEFA Cup ahead of Juventus, Napoli, and AS Roma. He then featured in every league match of 1991/92, as Parma finished seventh, and scored two goals en route to Coppa Italia success; the club’s first major silverware. A year later, the European Cup Winners’ Cup followed.
The regulars in The Old Peacock pub on Elland Road would not elucidate on these early epochs of his career, though. They would overlook his imperious form for Sweden, too. His form in the Allsvenskan had attracted the attention of the national team’s manager, Olle Nordin, in 1990, and he remained an ever-present thereafter; he was joint top goalscorer, with three, at UEFA Euro 1992, alongside Denmark’s Henrik Larsen, the Netherlands’ Dennis Bergkamp and Germany’s Karl-Heinz Riedle. Included in his trio of strikes was his embellishment to a wonderful team move against England, which he scored from the edge of the penalty area into Chris Woods’ top-left corner.
After continuing his good form for Parma, who had by now signed Faustino Asprilla and Gianfranco Zola, he entered the 1994 World Cup in the best form of his career. He scored three goals, including from an intricate free-kick routine in the quarter-final against Romania, which helped Sweden to third place. In doing so, he earned a place in the World Cup All-Star team, and his second Guldbollen. He was the antagonist; the pitch was his stage, and the world was desperate for a ticket. Football, though, metamorphs rapidly, and the predator can quickly become the prey.
Wednesday 16 November 1994. At the Råsunda Stadion, as his side played Hungary, Brolin fell awkwardly attempting to cross the ball from the byline. He was stretchered off, and tests later showed that he had broken a bone in his foot. He was aged only 24 at the time, but it proved to be the beginning of the end for a player who was so magnificent in his youth.
He returned to fitness in time for the 1995/96 Serie A season, but his passage back into Scala’s team was blocked by the signing of Hristo Stoichkov from Barcelona. Scala experimented with Brolin as a supplementary forward and as a central midfielder, in the summer of 1995, but judged him to be lacking fitness. By November of that year, he was made available for transfer.
In England, Leeds had finished the 1994/95 Premiership season in fifth place, therefore qualifying for the UEFA Cup; helped there in no small way by the goals of Tony Yeboah, who had notched 18 strikes. What manager Howard Wilkinson needed for 1995/96, though, was a forward to supplement the Ghanaian and add depth to his thin squad. Brolin was his choice.
He signed on 7 November 1995 and made his debut against Newcastle United, at St. James Park the following day. Four days later, he made his first start, against Blackburn Rovers in a 2-1 League Cup win. Wilkinson, evidently, did not share Scala’s concerns about his fitness — yet.
Against Sheffield Wednesday, at Elland Road, Brolin squeezed a shot under the onrushing goalkeeper, Kevin Pressman, which Steve Nicol got round to the goal line to clear. However, he struck his clearance straight into Brolin, who was laid face down on the pitch, bewildered, and it rebounded in for his first goal in the white of Leeds. In the following weeks, Brolin scored solitary goals in 2-0 victories against Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United. With Stoichkov struggling after moving to Italy, you have to wonder whether Scala thought he had made a mistake in selling Brolin.
He had been used at Parma as an ancillary forward, alongside Messrs Melli, Asprilla and Zola, to good effect, and had to be replaced by Stoichkov, who had scored 76 goals in 151 La Liga appearances for Barcelona. He was not, you would think, therefore suited to a position on either flank, but Wilkinson utilised him out-wide, with added defensive responsibilities. The Crociati who follow Parma would illustrate his genius as a constituent between the midfield and attack, in another episode of the multifarious series of creative players in England’s top-flight being ransacked of their outré of times gone by.
Indeed, Brolin clashed with Wilkinson after a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, in January 1996, because he protested he was not defending well enough. If Leeds needed a winger to get up and down the pitch, Brolin was certainly not the player to have signed. In an age when Calcio was available with the merest of clicks of the number four on a television remote, it is dismaying that he was so misunderstood.
In a Premiership match against Aston Villa soon after, he did not feature, even though Leeds were missing nine first-team players through injuries, suspensions and international duty. Sadly for Brolin, the Elland Road faithful sided with Wilkinson, who had won the First Division title only four years previous. On April Fool’s Day of 1996, the pair’s mutual abhorrence moved from a football level to a personal one: Brolin joked to Swedish television that he was set to move to his former club, IFK Norrköping, but it was watched by the international media and reported as a fact. Wilkinson was furious.
Despite assisting Gary McAllister’s goal against Chelsea, the damage was done. After a series of disputes, in which Wilkinson enquired to the Professional Footballers’ about the legality of withholding Brolin’s wages after he had missed pre-season training, he joined FC Zürich on loan. He stayed for only a handful of appearances, before being recalled by Wilkinson’s replacement, George Graham. But he, too, soon that he wanted to offload him. A move to Sampdoria collapsed after he suffered a complication from the foot injury he suffered in 1994. Leeds urged him to stay in England for medical treatment but he instead put £500,000 of his own money towards a deal with Parma to sign on loan for the remainder of the 1996/97 season.
When he returned to Yorkshire once more, he saw moves to Real Zaragoza and Hearts fall through because of a lack of fitness, before his contract was eventually terminated with immediate effect on 28 October 1997. He ended his time at Leeds with 19 Premiership appearances and four goals; shattered confidence and a stigma about his weight and fitness.
It is, to this day, stupefying that Wilkinson was willing to spend £4.5 million on a player he did not fully understand. Brolin was a foremost integrant of the best Parma and Sweden sides of recent memory, but he was used as a wide player at Leeds, expected to effectuate defensive work which he had never before been asked to do.
A great white shark is a markedly ingenious beast, at the very top of the food chain, but it simply cannot climb a tree. The shark could not make a success of loan spells at Crystal Palace and Hudiksvalls ABK before retiring in 1998, either, nor turn the tide of his ultimately, tragically disappointing legacy.
By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998