There are plenty of great Gialloblu midfielders I could’ve dedicated an individual profile. Juan Sebastian Veron only spent a single season with Parma but he was an excellent playmaker and I’d love to analysis and break his playing style down. Massimo Crippa, the tough-tackling achorman, was one of my favourite Italian players growing-up, and what about Dino Baggio? Stefano Fiore? Diego Fuser?
As good as these players were, none captured my imagination quite like Tomas Brolin. The Swede played for Parma from 1990-95 and again in 1997, so I didn’t see him play as much as Baggio or Crippa, but I was often dazzled by what I saw of him. Brolin was a great player in his pomp, and his story is both sad and fascinating.
Spending his career’s formative years in his native Sweden, Brolin shot to international prominence a series of impressive performances at Italia ’90. Brolin’s club, IFK Norrkoping, were soon inundated with phone calls from potential suitors. In the end newly promoted Parma won the bidding war, and Tomas signed for the Gialloblu in a £1.2m deal later that summer.
Brolin started his Parma career as a deep-lying forward and quickly forged a productive striker partnership with Alessandro Melli, a more advanced striker. The two scored 20 goals between them in Parma’s first-ever season of top-flight football, helping propel the Gialloblu to a 5th-place finish and European qualification. 1991-92 was even more fruitful: Parma finished 6th in Serie A and beat Juventus 2-1 on aggregate to win the Coppa Italia (the first major trophy in the club’s history).
As successful as these two seasons were, the next two were the making of Brolin. Faustino Asprilla, the sporadically brilliant Columbian (and cult hero of mine, as a Newcastle supporter), joined Parma in the summer of 1992 and many expected him to take Brolin’s place in the starting XI. Brolin was benched in favour of Asprilla for most of 1992-93, but an injury ruled the Columbian out of the Cup Winners Cup final. Brolin grabbed his opportunity with both hands and performed well, helping Parma to a 3-1 win over Royal Antwerp.
Future legend Gianfranco Zola signed for Parma the following summer and it widely assumed that the Swede’s days were numbered. Nevio Scala, however, had an ace up his sleeve. The coach, having seen the benefits of playing Brolin in midfield in 92-93, pulled Brolin even deeper and positioned him centrally in a 3-man midfield with Crippa and Gabriele Pin.
Brolin thrived in his new role and was handed his former strike partner Melli’s number 7 shirt. Still only 23, Brolin reinvented himself as a playmaker. His technique, quality on the ball and passing ability made him a great candidate for the role, and his performances as a pseudo-regista helped Parma to another Cup Winners Cup final in 1994 (sadly, they lost 1-0 to Arsenal).
Tomas was in the best shape of his life by the time the 1994 World Cup came around. Playing as a striker (as he always did for his country), Brolin was one of the stars of the tournament. His grinta was vital to an unfancied Sweden side as they battled their way to a fantastic 3rd-place finish after victories over Russia, Saudi Arabia, Romania and Bulgaria, and a group stage draw with eventual champions Brazil.
Brolin scored 3 goals at USA ’94 and was the only Swede to be named in the All-Star team. Tomas had the world at his feet, and there were rumours of him moving to Barcelona as Hristo Stoichkov’s replacement. Despite the Catalans’ interest, Brolin opted to stick with Parma with the belief that they could mount a serious title charge in 94-95.
Sadly, this is where things start to fall apart. On November 16th 1994, Tomas Brolin broke his foot during a Euro ’96 qualifier in Stockholm. Parma were 2 points clear at the top of Serie A when Brolin sustained the injury and they suffered badly in his absence. The Swede eventually returned in April 1995 with his team 8 points adrift of league leaders Juventus. He made his return start for Parma on the 7th May in the absence of Gianfranco Zola and struggled for form and fitness for the rest of the season, failing to complete 90 minutes once. To compound his misery, Brolin was sent-off against Napoli on the last day of the season and Juventus took the Scudetto.
The Swede faced a long, arduous summer. Tasked with recovering his fitness and keeping new signing Stoichkov out of the team, Brolin scored two pre-season goals but Scala saw little improvement in his fitness level. Brolin was dropped for Massimo Bambrilla and never reclaimed his place. Struggling for form, fitness and confidence, Tomas Brolin had fallen out of the loop at Parma.
It was time to move on. Leeds United swooped to sign Brolin on a two and a half year deal and the Swede made his debut a day later at Newcastle. After battling his way into the Leeds XI, Brolin turned in a vintage performance against Manchester United on December 24th, 1995. Even Eric Cantona looked second-class as Tomas tormented the Reds’ defence all evening: Leeds won 3-1 with Brolin having a hand in every goal.
Things seemed to be looking up for Brolin and a good start at Leeds had yielded 4 goals from 8 Premier League games. Things turned sour in January 1996: Leeds were thrashed 5-0 by Liverpool and manager Howard Wilkinson chose to point the finger at Brolin, labelling the forward “lazy” and criticising his defensive contribution.
Things never really improved between Wilkinson and Brolin. Tomas was eventually loaned to FC Zurich after failing to report for pre-season training, but returned to Leeds shortly after Wilkinson was replaced with George Graham. Brolin, however, refused to go back to Elland Road, and only accepted his recall when threatened with legal action by his parent club.
Injuries continued to plague Brolin. A metal staple inserted into his ankle during an scar tissue-removal operation earlier in 1996 scuppered a move to Sampdoria. Oblivious to the staple’s existence, Leeds called Brolin back to Yorkshire to have the injury properly examined amidst fears that his playing career might have reached a premature end. Brolin never played to Leeds again, and was eventually loaned back to Parma in December.
His return to the Stadio Tardini was fruitless, with Brolin restricted mostly to brief cameos and substitute appearances. The Gialloblu decided not to renew the Swede’s deal and he returned to Leeds, only to have his contract terminated in October 1997 for skipping a match without prior permission.
Brolin at Palace: a shadow of his former self.
A free agent for the first time in his career, Brolin wasn’t exactly hot property but managed to secure a deal with Crystal Palace. His spell with the Eagles was every bit as shambolic as his time at Leeds. Brolin failed to score in 13 Palace appearances. By this point he was visibly overweight, completely out of form and a sad shadow of his former sense. He retired in August 1998 aged just 29.
It’s a huge shame that Brolin’s career panned out the way it did. He was once a wonderful player with all the potential in the world, but he never truly recovered from that first injury. Excellent in his first Parma spell and brilliant for the Swedish national side, Brolin was, in 2003, voted Leeds United’s “worst ever signing” in a BBC poll. Few players have fallen quite as far as Brolin, but his conduct at Leeds and Palace didn’t exactly do him any favours.
Most British football fans remember Tomas Brolin as an overweight flop, but not me. His time in Britain was an unmitigated disaster, but Brolin’s brief boom at Parma was absolutely thrilling. A midfield maestro for Parma and a deadly marksman for his country, I choose to remember Tomas Brolin, the wonderkid, not Tomas Brolin, podgy waster.
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