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tomclare 29th October 2010 15:14

United Captains - Steve Bruce
 
United Captains - Steve Bruce 1992 -1996

For Steve Bruce, who eventually found his way to the top of the professional game at Manchester United, the journey there could never be described as an easy one. Born in Corbridge, Northumberland, of a Geordie father, and Irish mother, like all of his young contemporaries, Steve grew up playing football. The area in which he grew up in has always been a hotbed for producing footballers who went on to have careers at the professional level. Not unsurprisingly, he was a Newcastle United fan as a boy and was often found at St. James’s Park watching his heroes on Saturdays when he wasn’t playing himself.

As a young schoolboy player, Steve worked his way up through the various schoolboy levels until he was selected for the Newcastle Schoolboys. Outside of school, like many good players before him, he found himself playing for the famous Wallsend Boys Club team whose impressive roll of honour includes Eric Steele, Steve Watson, Tony Sealey, Alan Thompson, Lee Clark, Robbie Elliott, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, and Michael Carrick. Whereas other young players before him were quickly snapped up by watching league club scouts, it didn’t happen for young Steve. He was turned down by a number of clubs including his beloved Newcastle United, and their arch rivals Sunderland.

After these disappointments, the future in football did not look too bright for the affable young Geordie and he was just about to start work as an apprentice plumber, when a telephone call from Gerry Summers, who was then managing Gillingham, offered him a weeks trial at Priestfield. That call was to change his whole life. Together with Peter Beardsley (who also had been offered the same weeks trial) he made his way south to Gillingham in Kent. Talking in later years about Wallsend Boys Club, and of his early years at Gillingham, Steve was to say:

“It’s got a wonderful tradition, and the number of professional players to come out of that boys club is incredible. I think there’s even a rule to this day that you have to live in a five mile radius of the club. I spent the best part of my youth in that boys club. In my opinion, more kids should be doing exactly the same, it’s how I started on the journey to where I am now.

“The two of us came to Gillingham, unfortunately, they turned Peter away and he went on to Cambridge who were in the Fourth Division then, and didn’t make it at Cambridge either. The pair of us were small – undernourished might be the best word for it!”

Young Steve was offered an apprenticeship at Priestfield, and while Gerry Summers looked after the first team, Bruce came under the watchful eye of a wonderful mentor by the name of Bill ‘Buster’ Collins, who was in charge of Gillingham’s youth scheme. Collins was of the ‘old school’, and would help shape Steve’s life both on, and off the pitch. Born in Belfast in 1920, he’d come up through the ranks of professional football albeit at the lower end of the scale playing for Irish league clubs Distillery and Belfast Celtic, before moving across the Irish Sea to join Luton Town, and then finally Gillingham, where he finished playing in 1956. Collins drifted about in various positions in non-league football but then, in 1965, Freddie Cox, the Gillingham manager, asked Collins to take over the reserve team manager’s role, and also put him in charge of Gillingham’s newly formed youth set up. It was a post that he would oversee for twenty years. Steve Bruce reveres him.

‘I think that he has possibly been one of the biggest influences on my life. Without him and his family, I could quite easily have gone home. In the end, I became part of his family really. I still call them today, and go and see them whenever I have the opportunity. He was an influence not just on my football career, but also the way I wanted to be as an adult. He taught me so many things and for that I’ll always be extremely grateful.’

In the early years, Bruce used to play in midfield, but he wasn’t making the progress that he should have been doing. When he was 18, Collins moved him from midfield to centreback. He told Steve;

‘I think that you should go and play at the back and have things in front of you. You’re decent in the air, and you like to tackle people. Why don’t you try it?’

It turned out to be a masterstroke. From the minute the young Bruce moved to centre-back, his performances improved significantly. He admitted that looking back on his early years, playing for Gillingham’s first team initially as a midfielder, he didn’t have quick enough feet nor speed of thought, to make it in that position to the very top level. Bruce still has vivid recollections of his early days as a youth player and his introduction into league football. He will tell you that his time at Gillingham was paramount as to how his career was to shape up and develop. It was a terrific grounding as far as he was concerned.

As a young youth player, he would play against all the top London teams – Arsenal, ‘Spurs, Chelsea, West Ham and others. Being Gillingham, they were always up against it, but it developed a pride, a hunger, a passion to do well. It was what ‘Buster’ Collins instilled into his young players and was something that Steve Bruce carried with him all through his career. In his very first match in Gillingham’s first team, he learned a lesson he would never forget. His debut game was against Blackpool at the start of the 1979/80 season. The late Alan Ball was then the Blackpool player-manager, and Steve was in the Gillingham mid-field. As Steve said;

‘I was a young whippersnapper of a boy and I was thinking; “here’s my chance, I’m going to nail him and put him into the stands if I can. I never got near him, I never got a kick. That was my introduction to league football. He was absolutely fantastic. Great days and a huge learning experience.”

Once he was moved back to centre-back, his career blossomed and he went on to make well over 200 appearances in the ‘Gill’s first team, and despite suffering a broken leg during his time at Priestfield, he was to get the move into the big time that he desired. In 1984, shortly after his recovery, Gillingham were drawn against Everton in a Fourth Round FA Cup game. The tie went to three games, but the first two were 0-0 draws. The spotlight fell upon Gillingham. It was these games that persuaded Norwich City to go after him. They obtained his services, but the actual transfer fee was set by a tribunal – it turned out to be 70,000 pounds. Gillingham thought that they had been short-changed – and as things turned out in years to come – they were! On arrival at Carrow Road, Sir Arthur South who was then the Canaries chairman was to ask Steve if he really thought that he was worth 70 grand!

Bruce joined a club that was bristling with good players; Dave Watson (the two would be opposing captains in a FA Cup Final just over ten years later), John Deehan, Asa Hartford, Mick Channon, and Chris Woods. Just six months after signing, Steve was playing at Wembley in a League Cup Final against Sunderland which they won, and gave him his first senior winner’s medal. It wasn’t to be his last! Just a year after their Wembley triumph, Norwich allowed Dave Watson to return to his home city of Liverpool and join the club which he had always supported as a youngster – Everton. Steve Bruce was named as Norwich City’s club captain.

Around this time, Alex Ferguson was taking over at Manchester United. The team was in something of disarray and were not performing to the high standards required at Old Trafford. Big Ron Atkinson had taken his eye of the ball somewhat and had gotten too close to his players. It was a situation in which a lot of the players took advantage of. Ferguson arrived and it was something of a culture shock to them. One of the problems he encountered was in central defence. It shouldn’t have been because the two incumbents, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath, were on paper and on form, as good a central defensive pairing as you could find anywhere. However, both were injury prone, and McGrath had off the the field problems to contend with as well. In reserve, there was only young Scotsman Graeme Hogg, and Salfordian Billy Garton.

Ferguson tried combinations of all four players over a period of 18 months, but he wasn’t getting what he wanted. He looked for replacements. For Manchester United followers, it caught them by surprise when he brought Steve Bruce to Old Trafford from Carrow Road after paying Norwich City some 800, 000 pounds. In just four years, Bruce had moved from tiny Gillingham, to the biggest club in the country. For Norwich City, they had made a profit of some three-quarters of a million pounds. What attracted Ferguson to Bruce? There’s no doubt that in addition to his being a terrific defender who also scored his fair share of goals, and his capacity for hard work, determination to succeed, Ferguson saw that he was also a good leader. At the time, Bruce was almost 27 years old, and was in his prime.

When Bruce arrived at Old Trafford, it must have been somewhat of a little bit of a shock to him in that there were some really strong characters in the dressing room. Bryan Robson was skipper, Chris Turner, Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Viv Anderson, and Brian McClair. He’d arrived in the December of 1987, and by the end of the season had played alongside all four of the other centre backs – Kevin Moran, Graeme Hogg, Paul McGrath, and Billy Garton. With all the talent available at the club, it was evident to him that the team had been underperforming. Ferguson had begun to rebuild the club on the day he’d arrived. He completely reorganized the club’s scouting structure, and began to sort out the senior players as well. There was no doubt that there was a drinking culture at United and it took him some time to sort it out. Some of the players he inherited were definitely past their sell by date. Towards the end of his first season in charge, he sold Peter Barnes, Mark Higgins, John Sivaebek, Terry Gibson and Frank Stapleton, whilst Gary Bailey had his contract cancelled due to injury. In Came Viv Anderson, Brian McClair, and then Steve Bruce. The following season, Remi Moses had to retire due to injury, but the following players were also allowed to leave; Arthur Albiston, Graeme Hogg, Kevin Moran, Chris Turner, Jesper Olsen, Peter Davenport, and Liam O’Brien. In Came Jim Leighton, Mark Hughes, Lee Sharpe, Mal Donaghy, and the infamous Ralph Milne.

Ferguson was searching for a blend, but knew that it would take time. He had to get rid of the driftwood that wasn’t performing. The fans were restless because as they saw it, no progress was being made. The team seemed to be treading water. In 1988/89, gates fell steadily until towards the end of the season, the club was struggling to get 30,000 fans through the gates. Gordon Strachan was allowed to join Leeds United, and before the following season began, both Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath had left. Whiteside to Everton, MGrath to Aston Villa. Ferguson’s patience with the two player’s off the field indiscretions had disintegrated. In came Mike Phelan, Neil Webb, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace, and a tall gangly centre-half from Middlesborough named Gary Pallister. The signing of Pallister was to prove perfect for Steve Bruce. Initially, Pallister had a rough time adjusting to the pace and rigours of the First Division, but once he had settled in at Old Trafford, he blossomed and the central pairing of Bruce and Pallister was as good as anything that has ever played at the club.

Steve Bruce also came out of his shell. Gone were the dressing room personalities from when he had arrived, and he was indeed now one of the more senior players. Bryan Robson was still the club and team captain, and Steve watched and learned from him. The club now had a better feel to it and the players bonded more easily. There was certainly more camaraderie with them. Their league form in 1989/90 was indifferent to say the least, and the fans were not happy. By the turn of the year there was more than a few who were calling for Ferguson’s head. However, in the FA Cup, it was a different matter. After playing every round away from home, they met Oldham Athletic in the semi-final at Maine Road. The first game was a classic for excitement and finished in a 3-3 draw. The replay at the same venue saw United prevail by 2-1 and they were through to meet Crystal Palace in the Final at Wembley.

The Final was memorable for a number of things – first it went into extra time, before finishing 3-3. Jim Leighton had a poor performance in goal, but a young centre forward by the name of Ian Wright came off the Palace bench to lead United a merry dance – and Bruce and Pallister in particular, Wright scoring twice. For the replay at Wembley, Ferguson dropped a bombshell by leaving Jim Leighton out of the team and in came the effervescent Les Sealey. United ended up by lifting the famous old trophy with a 1-0 win, and it was a happy Steve Bruce who jogged around the old stadium with his Cup winner’s medal firmly clutched in his hand. It was the start of a fabulous five year period for the lovable young Geordie!

The following season was another good season for Manchester United because it culminated with them winning the European Cup Winners Cup on a never to be forgotten night in Rotterdam, Holland. They were firm underdogs when matched against the might of the Catalan giants, Barcelona. However, a superb team performance saw them triumph by 2-1 with two terrific goals from Mark Hughes. There was an inspired performance defensively as well in which Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were major contributors. The team had finally come together, and season 1991/92 was eagerly awaited.
In the summer of 1991, Alex Ferguson made one of the most astute signings of his managerial career. He paid 600,000 pounds to the Danish Club Brondby for the services of a 28 years old relatively unknown goalkeeper named Peter Schmeichel. It was another piece in the jig saw of finding the team that would bring back to Old Trafford, the much coveted First Division Championship. All through that 1991/92 season it looked as though it would happen and that the championship would come back to United 25 years after they had last prevailed. Though the team had disappointing results in both the European Cup Winners Cup, and FA Cup competitions, they did reach Wembley again and triumphed in the League Cup Final by beating Nottingham Forest by 1-0. However there was bitter disappointment where the League title was concerned as United lost three of their last four league fixtures to virtually hand the title to arch enemies, Leeds United. The last away game of that season was at Anfield, in Liverpool, and the 2-0 loss was a bitter pill to swallow as this was the final nail in United’s coffin. It was a bitter experience for the players and one they would learn from.

The following season was the inaugural season of the Premier League. The team got off to a poor start losing their first two games away at Sheffield United, and then at home to Everton. However that 1992/93 season was memorable for a number of reasons. The team kept 17 clean sheets in their 42 league games, and the ‘golden triangle’ of Schmeichel, Bruce, and Pallister were major factors in that happening. It was the season that saw Steve Bruce take over the team captaincy from the legendary Bryan Robson. Robson had been Club Captain for almost ten years and had been inspirational in his performances on the field, for both United, and England. He was the most respected player in the United dressing room, but age (he was then 35) and the effects of numerous injuries had finally caught up with him. Bruce had become the elder statesman of the dressing room and his leadership qualities shone through – he was Robson’s natural successor, and Ferguson had recognized this. In early December of 1992, Ferguson surprised everybody by signing the enigmatic Eric Cantona from Leeds United. It was the final piece in the jig saw and the catalyst that was needed to push the United team on to achievements, that before, both the fans and the sporting press could never have imagined. In later years Bruce was to say of Cantona;

“In my entire life, I’ve never seen anyone with a presence like his. When he walked into a room, it went a deathly quiet. But the lads loved him because of his humility. He was different to the rest of us.”

The run in for the title became a two horse race between United and Aston Villa, but one of the pivotal moments of that season’s campaign came on April 10, 1993 in a home game against Sheffield Wednesday. Trailing 1-0 and with time running out, six minutes of injury time was added on. Bruce got himself up into the Wednesday penalty area and twice scored with thumping headers to give United the victory that they really needed. It was the impetus that they needed to go on and win their next three matches. On Sunday, May 2 1993, Aston Villa needed a point at least to stay in the Championship race when they played lowly Oldham Athletic at Villa Park. Lose, and the title was United’s. Villa were hot favourites to beat the ‘Latics at home, but surprisingly ended up losing the game by 1-0. The title came home to Old Trafford for the first time in 26 years.

That evening, all the players gathered at Steve Bruce’s home and the partying went on into the next day – the day that they were playing Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford. It was such a carnival atmosphere that evening inside the stadium, with one wonderful white haired old man sitting up in the stands with a smile as wide as the ocean on his face. It was a proud Steve Bruce who led his team out (even though some of them were still suffering the after affects of the partying from the night before) and an even prouder man when he went up to receive the First Premiership trophy at the end of the game after United had triumphed by 3-1. It said a lot for the man that he also called on Bryan Robson to be alongside him and they jointly took hold of the magnificent new trophy to the delight of the Old Trafford throngs. That gesture said so much about Steve Bruce the man.
The following season Robson was gone to pursue a management career with Middlesborough. Bruce was named club captain. He led from the front by example, and had a tremendous relationship with the manager. It was a happy club to be around and through his sheer grit, determination, example, and indomitability, he drove his team mates to greater heights.

In the 1993/94 season, although United failed in the Champions League, going out to the Turkish team Galatasary on the away goals rule, Bruce led his magnificent team to and FA Cup and League “double”, and they also reached the Final of the League Cup, only to beaten by Aston Villa by 3-1. The Manchester Uniited team of that season, was, according to the big Geordie, the finest during his time at Old Trafford, and he rattles off the names to support his argument;

“Schmeichel, Parker, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin, Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs, Cantona, Hughes. That team could have taken on any team. If they wanted to play football, we could do that. If they wanted a fight, we were okay with that, too. With those guys, it wouldn’t have mattered, they were born to win.”

A few years later, in an interview with David Walsh a sports journalist, he was asked to imagine that he was shipwrecked on a desert island, and which three United players that he would like to have with him. His response was:

“Jesus, I don’t think I’d like to spend time on a deserted island with any of them. If I had to pick three, Gary Pallister would have to be one, although we’d never get off the island because he would just find a palm tree, lie under it and be happy. I was close to Roy Keane at United, he was young, I was a senior lad, and the Premier League was just getting going with live matches on Sunday afternoon. There were a number of times when we’d end up in each other’s company in those days. I would have to have him on the island. And, of course, Bryan Robson, he was always a big pal and as the elder statesman at United in my time, he would be one of the three. Robson, Pallister, Keane, yeah, I like that.”

You could imagine that the two-a-side barefoot on the beach football games played with a coconut wouldn’t have been bad either!

Season 1994/95 turned out to be disappointing given the successes of the previous two years. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Again they were eliminated from the Champions League but the four foreigner rule worked totally against them. The Premiership went down to the very last game of the season when United went to Upton park needing a win to pip Blackburn for the title. It was a day when nothing went right for United as the West Ham goal led a charmed life and the ball just would not go over the line to give them the second goal that would win the match. It ended 1-1 and Blackburn who were playing at Liverpool at Anfield were crowned Champions.Just six days later, United, and Bruce, were back at Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Everton. It was to be a match that Bruce would not finish. He pulled a leg muscle and had to leave the field and be replaced. United were to lose 1-0.

Season 1995/96 was to see Steve Bruce’s swan song from Old Trafford. Age was catching up with him. However, he captained United in regaining the Premiership title, and although United won the “double” by lifting the FA Cup again, he wasn’t in the line-up, or on the bench, for the game at Wembley which was won 1-0 through a stunning volley from Eric Cantona. Ferguson had been looking for a replacement for Bruce and earlier in the season he had brought David May from Blackburn Rovers. As the season was drawing closer to its end, Bruce’s league appearances were getting fewer by the number. The Premiership was won on the final day of the season at Middlesborough’s Riverside Stadium. Although not selected for the team or on the bench, it was however, Bruce who went up to collect his third Premiership trophy, and third winner’s medal. It was to be the last time that fans would see him as a United player.

The following season he had left to play at Birmingham City, and after that he joined the managerial merry-go-round. His time at Manchester United brought out the best in Steve Bruce. It showed people what could be done by sheer guts, determination, and an indefatigable spirit to make it to the top of his trade. He was a shining example and a role model to all young players within the professional game. He listened, and he learned, and lived his life the way that a professional athlete should. He never forgot where he came from, and the last words are his;

“Gillingham was the breakthrough that I needed. They gave me that and it’s still with me. I still look for their result as I still have a big affinity for them. It’s where I spent my formative years in the game.”


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