Reluctant hero Brooks keen to make up for lost time

2023-24/Player Features/David Brooks/IF_Southampton_Huddersfield_040_ia8jxe

“I’ve wasted – not down to my fault – two years of my career that I’m not going to get back… that’s probably why I’m sat here now in Southampton.”

Time is of the essence for David Brooks. He’s still only 26, coming into the prime years of his career, but he wants to savour every moment. Understandably so.

A regular in the Wales squad from the age of 20, Brooks was a key player in the Bournemouth team chasing promotion to the Premier League in 2021/22, with one eye on helping his country qualify for their first World Cup since 1958.

“I’d not been feeling great for a couple of months really, just playing and grinding through it, thinking I’d get better,” he remembers.

A young David Brooks in action for Sheffield United, where he broke into the first team as a teenager

It was October 2021, just two months into the season, when his world turned upside down. Brooks, a young, thriving footballer, had cancer.

“I went away with Wales and got diagnosed straightaway, as soon as I got there. I was obviously fortunate that the doctors picked it up and it was a swift turnaround.

“I felt tired, more than usual,” he says. “I know you get tired as an athlete, but it was more than usual – I was very fatigued and achy the majority of the time, lost quite a lot of weight, and then I was getting a lot of night sweats and stuff like that, so obviously there were a few signs, but I didn’t really know what the symptoms were, so I never really picked up on it myself.

“I got diagnosed with stage 2 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and then went straight on to treatment and had six months of chemo.”

Brooks celebrates scoring his first Premier League goal for Bournemouth against Crystal Palace in 2018

Brooks lost his energy, lost his hair and lost his first love – football. From his diagnosis in October to the all-clear, in May, he was suffering.

In terms of a timeline, he says it took “two to three months” after treatment to feel back to normal, but he still did not look himself. That would be six months, post-treatment.

Having gained weight and lost fitness, it would take ten months before he would set foot on the pitch again – 18 months in total between games.

In that time, Bournemouth did return to the Premier League and Wales did end their 64-year wait to qualify for the World Cup.

“Anyone who’s been through it or anyone that knows anyone that’s been through it, it’s not fun,” he says, typically understated. Brooks, who hails from Warrington in Cheshire, is not one to make a fuss.

“You wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but it’s just one of those things – you have to get on with it and try to make the best out of a bad situation.”

Celebrating Bournemouth's promotion in 2022, but Brooks was suffering and unable to play his part on the pitch

For all the moments he was missing out on, football, rightly, was not at the forefront of his mind.

“It is cheesy, but it does put things into perspective,” he explains. “You don’t want to have your whole life based around football until that point, and then as soon as you get diagnosed it means nothing, absolutely nothing.

“It kind of puts into perspective how important football actually is in life. It’s still a massive part of my life and I still want to achieve the things I want to achieve, but it’s not the be all and end all of everything.”

But, as the winger points out, football had been “his whole life”. With his health intact and his body on the mend, he knew his appetite for the game remained.

“I always knew that I wanted to, it was just whether I could or not,” he said of his playing prospects.

“They (the doctors) obviously treated the illness to get us back healthy, but they’re not sports specialists or anything like that.

“There were no guarantees, and it would’ve been silly of them to guarantee me something that there is no guarantee. It was just trial and error, trying to get the right people in place to help.

“Once I started doing the rehab, I knew the passion to play again hadn’t gone. It was just whether my body was physically able to do that anymore, and thankfully it has.”

Brooks made his comeback in March 2023, making a handful of sub appearances before starting a Premier League game again in May, against Manchester United no less. By the summer, he was back in the Wales squad at the start of another qualification journey, for Euro 2024.

After playing a full part in Bournemouth’s pre-season, his first since 2021, Brooks was ready to fight for his place, and now had a new boss in highly-rated Spanish coach Andoni Iraola.

Russell Martin's football philosophy convinced Brooks to join Saints on loan in January

Iraola has impressed at Bournemouth with his progressive style and clearly likes Brooks, starting him on the opening day against West Ham and using him in each of the first eight games of his tenure, even handing him the captaincy for a number of cup ties, but Premier League starts were proving hard to come by at the turn of the year.

Perhaps cameos off the bench would have satisfied him in the past, but cancer has changed Brooks’s perspective on his life and career.

“That’s probably why I’m sat here now in Southampton,” he reasons. When you look at your playing career in general, you’ve got ten years if you’ve had a good career.

“I’ve wasted – not down to my fault – two years of my career that I’m not going to get back, so I didn’t want to waste another 12 months of trying to get into the Bournemouth team and it not happening.

“I just wanted to come out and see if I could play again at a good level, try to score and create goals, obviously play and enjoy it.”

His mind was made up, and Brooks joined Saints on loan in the final week of the January transfer window. It was a huge coup in the Championship promotion race.

The talented wide man was not prepared to waste time at Bournemouth and proved he wasn’t going to hang around at St Mary’s, as two assists on his home debut against Huddersfield helped extend Saints’ club-record unbeaten run to 25 matches.

Important goals at West Brom and Birmingham have followed. “I would sign Brooksy to a contract that he has to stay with me until he retires,” Russell Martin recently remarked.

“It’s always nice to get on the scoresheet and get an assist, and that’s what I like to do – get goals and assists. When I can help the team by doing that, it’s a nice feeling,” Brooks says.

“When I was looking from the outside in, obviously they (Saints) played attractive and nice football, and I know what this league is about – it’s a very exciting league and anyone can beat anyone, so that’s why I wanted to be a part of it. I’m just thankful I can be involved and help any way I can.

“I enjoy being on the ball the majority of the game and obviously that’s what the gaffer sets up to do. It suits the way I want to play and how I see the game, so I’m enjoying it.”

Brooks admits another motivation behind the move was to boost his playing prospects for his country.

With their qualification journey for the Euros taking Wales into last month’s play-offs, Brooks wanted to be fit and firing. He was not prepared to watch another tournament from home.

“It’s every kid’s dream to represent their country at a major tournament and I’m no different, I want to do that,” he stated, firmly.

“I wasn’t stupid in the fact that I knew those games were coming up as well, and I think the majority of the lads in with a shout of starting will be starting at club level, so I didn’t want to be any different. I didn’t want that to be a reason for the gaffer, Rob Page, to not pick me when I get there.”

Elation for Brooks after opening the scoring against Finland in Wales' Euro 2024 play-off semi-final

Brooks’s logic was justified when he was picked to start Wales’s play-off semi-final against Finland. Within three minutes, he had set the nation on the way to victory with the opening goal in a 4-1 victory.

But Brooks and Wales would be denied their fairy-tale ending. Cruelly, another bout of illness kept him out of training in the build-up to the play-off final against Jan Bednarek’s Poland in Cardiff five days later.

Brooks was left out of the starting line-up, introduced as a late substitute towards the end of the 90 minutes, then withdrawn in extra time.

Wales were beaten on penalties, with Brooks having lasted only 28 minutes. Manager Rob Page felt it was a gamble worth taking, but the winger, for all his good form at club level and that sublime semi-final showing, was just not fit enough to contribute.

On Saturday he returns to the Cardiff City Stadium on the back of a performance Martin rated his best in a Saints shirt so far against Preston, in which Brooks played a pivotal part in both of Ché Adams’s first-half goals.

With Saints very much alive in the automatic promotion race, maybe the Welshman will get his fairy-tale finish after all. With everything he’s been through, few would deny this reluctant hero his moment in the spotlight.

Viewing this page on a mobile device? Download the Saints app for all the latest news, feature videos and interactive content to get you closer to the action!

Open the Saints app today!