Steve Bruce: Man Utd, captaincy, headers, management and more | Off Script
Steve Bruce on his decade at Old Trafford, his acrimonious Old Trafford exit, transition to management, and why he prefers the level playing field in the Championship
Last Updated: 30/05/20 7:37am
Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has delivered some truly iconic football moments - from Sergio Aguero's last-gasp winner to Arsenal's Invincibles, from Leicester's incredible fairy-tale to Kevin Keegan's rant.
What was the first such moment that could be considered truly iconic? A select few can stake a claim - but one that stands head and shoulders above the rest is the brace of headers scored by Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993.
Not only did those headers propel Manchester United towards the title in the inaugural Premier League season, they also acted as the forerunner for the club's era of domination, as well as marking the birth of 'Fergie time'.
In the latest edition of Off Script, Bruce sits down with Geoff Shreeves to reflect on his eventful spell as captain at Old Trafford, his acrimonious exit, his transition into management, and why he prefers the level playing field of the Sky Bet Championship...
The enormity of Man Utd
United signed Bruce from Norwich City for £825,000 in December 1987. The uncompromising centre-back had won the Second Division title and League Cup during his three seasons at Carrow Road, but nothing could prepare him for the jump in expectations at Manchester United...
"For a start, it was difficult walking into the dressing room and seeing Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Gordon Strachan, and Jesper Olsen.
"I came in on my first day and sat next to Paul McGrath who, after training with him for just two days, I was thinking, 'oh my gosh, am I meant to be replacing him?' He was absolutely unbelievable. Unfortunately, he had problems with injuries, and maybe didn't play enough. He went to Aston Villa, trained on a bike, and I think was named four times Player of the Year.
"It was the enormity of playing for Manchester United. There's no such thing as playing a friendly if you play for United - everybody wants to beat you. The enormity of it - from back pages to front pages - and the increased demand on you was instant.
"That is the big thing that a lot of players have to come to terms with quickly, as it can quite easily swallow you up. Fortunately for myself, I thought, 'I've worked 10 years to get here, I'm going to give it my best shot and I wouldn't be daunted or put off by it because it's been a long road to get here'. I was determined to see it through."
Sir Alex: The early years
Bruce was one of the first signings Sir Alex Ferguson brought to Old Trafford following his appointment in 1986. Though success was not immediately forthcoming, it was clear the Scot had laid the foundations for the future...
"It was tough in the early years of Sir Alex. The biggest thing for United at the time was that we had to win the league. That was pressed upon you very quickly that it was something like 25 years since we last won it - a bit like Liverpool now.
"It wasn't the United team that Sir Alex put together after a while. We got a great team together by 1994 with Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs and Gary Pallister... and by 1995, it was gone, it had been ripped up.
"The new kids on the block had arrived. We all wondered if Sir Alex knew what he was doing... but looking back on it, I was determined, and I enjoyed every minute of it. There were some huge ups and there were some huge disappointments as well. Overall, it was a wonderful nearly 10 years."
Captaincy and a cup of tea
As United's 'captain marvel', Bryan Robson's influence on the team began to diminish at the start of the 1990s. Ferguson turned to Bruce to shoulder the captaincy responsibilities, but only after conducting a fact-finding mission at the centre-back's house...
"I got a phone call from Sir Alex one afternoon. 'Are you in the house? Can I call in and have a cup of tea?', he said. I said to my wife Janet that she'd better get the best china out because the boss is coming over.
"We were wondering what was wrong and why he wanted to come to the house, because that was unprecedented. We sat down over a cup of tea and a biscuit and he said he wanted me to be the new captain of Manchester United. He asked me what I thought, and I was like 'absolutely, bring it on'.
"I do think he came to have a look at where and how I lived, and what I was about, and that little personal touch stays with you. After 40 years of management, for him to come and tell me personally over a cup of tea in my house was terrific."
Those Sheff Wed headers
Under Bruce's captaincy, United ended their 26-year wait for the title in the inaugural Premier League season in 1992/93. The iconic moment from that campaign came on April 10, 1993, as Bruce scored two late headers against Sheffield Wednesday to move the title to within touching distance...
"On a personal level, that was probably the highlight because everyone associates those two headers as the ones that won us the league.
"We still had five games to play, but it was probably the turning point. We went to Coventry three days later, and Denis Irwin played a one-two and smashed one in from 25 yards, we win 1-0.
"Nobody talks about that; they talk about the two headers. That was because it was in Fergie time, six minutes in when I got the winner. Sir Alex and Brian Kidd jumping around is arguably the highlight.
"The number of people that tap me on the shoulder and say they remember where they were when I scored twice against Sheffield Wednesday is quite remarkable."
1993 title party
The 1992/93 title was sealed without United kicking a ball, with Oldham stunning title-rivals Aston Villa to confirm United as champions on May 2. Bruce had the entire United squad, and the Sky Sports cameras, around his house to watch the game, and what subsequently turned out to be the first of many title celebrations...
"We never expected Oldham, who were fighting relegation, to turn over Aston Villa. I don't know how the players ended up coming over to my house, we didn't have mobile phones in those days but the message sort of went around like wildfire.
"Geoff Shreeves asked to come around with a little camera and Jodrell Bank turned up in the cul-de-sac! The neighbours were wondering what the hell was going on, but the pictures from the party were terrific.
"We were playing Blackburn the next day, so I rang Sir Alex and said told him the players were coming over for a few drinks. He has it was OK only if we had a couple because we had a big game the next day.
"At six in the morning, I could hear the 'clink clank' of glasses and I thought some people were still at it, but it was Bryan Robson and his wife Denise - they had got up early to clean the mess up. There he was, the captain of England and former captain of Manchester United, clearing the glasses up. It was incredible."
How hard was it leaving United?
Bruce's five-year tenure as United captain came to an end in acrimonious circumstances following his omission from the 1996 FA Cup final victory over Liverpool, as he joined Birmingham City on a free transfer...
"I left United in a bit of a huff, which I regret now. There was probably a bit of the way Sir Alex used to say about going out at the top as well. In that respect I am pleased; even until I was 36, I still managed to play 39 games that year. After captaining the club for five years, I didn't want to become a bit-part player.
"But leaving United does dawn on you, especially in the manner I did. Being left out of a cup final was disappointing, to say the least. [Birmingham City manager] Trevor Francis jumped on it and rang me immediately. I didn't regret leaving because I had a couple of great years at Birmingham, and that's probably why I ended up back at Birmingham as manager.
"It was the right time [to leave United]. We'd just won the double again - we should have won three doubles in a row, but we drew at West Ham on the final day in 1995 and then lost to Everton in the FA Cup final, but those were great times, and it was just the start for United.
"Unfortunately, I was 36. I hadn't won anything since I was 31 and my best years were arguably from 30 to 35. Physically, I felt better than I was at 25, I knew what to eat, how to look after myself, how to prepare.
"I was lucky with injuries - me and Pallister played five years together and I think we only missed six games, it was ridiculous. We never got a rest, mind. Fergie rotated, but he would send us two out and say we never did anything anyway!"
Management - an inevitable next step?
Despite not harbouring strong aspirations to make the transition into management, when the opportunity came in the twilight of his career, Bruce showed no hesitation accepting Sheffield United's advances...
"When the call came in from Sheffield United, I was still playing and went there as player-manager. I only played a dozen or so times, I was 38 or 39, but that was ridiculously hard.
"At the time, I was either thinking of going into the media or coaching kids. I had soccer schools at the time and enjoyed that. But when management came along, I thought I had to have a crack, and Sheffield United gave me that opportunity.
"I have to say it was a pretty quick learning experience of exactly what management was. We had to sell players; Dean Saunders was sold to Benfica and I didn't even know two hours before we were meant to play a game. It was an experience that opened my eyes to how things were, very quickly.
"I left Sheffield after 12 months, went to Huddersfield, got the sack, and that was the first time in my life that I became a little bit reclusive, disappointed and upset that I'd had been given a big kicking. I didn't think they could sack me but that is management - if you don't win enough on a Saturday, no matter how good you think are, you going to get the bullet.
"That was the first time I questioned whether management was really for me. I had six months off, and John Benson called me one day and said there was an opportunity to come to Wigan. I really enjoyed working with Dave Whelan and that opened my eyes that if you could get a good relationship with a chairman, then it can be a really rewarding job."
'You think you've failed...'
As is the territory in management, unbelievable highs come with their fair share of lows. Bruce has been unable to escape the brutal nature of the job, but it's his determination to come back fighting that helps him cope with the disappointment...
"When you get the sack - no matter who you are or what you do - it lingers over you and it's a horrible feeling. You're engrossed with the job, especially at Premier League level, and all of a sudden, it's gone and you're a front-page headline.
"Even with experience, you think you've failed, and I always felt hurt and disappointed, that's my nature. People say another job will come up but you're never sure if it will.
"When I lost my job at Sunderland, I thought we did OK, but a couple of bad results and it was off with my head. The phone didn't ring for the best part of eight months until Hull called.
"No disrespect to Hull but a few of my mates questioned me. But I was determined to get back to work and maybe prove people wrong."
Championship is a level playing field
With a CV that boasts four promotions to the Premier League - two automatic, two via the playoffs - it should come as no surprise to hear Bruce prefers the challenge of managing in the Championship...
"That is why I've always enjoyed working in the Championship because it is an even playing field in which I would always back myself.
"The Premier League has three divisions in it; if you're at Hull, Sunderland or Birmingham, you're not going to win the Premier League. What is achievement in the Premier League? People say, 'oh, he hasn't won anything', but how can you win anything in the Premier League?
"However, in the Championship you can beg, steal and borrow, get a player in on loan, and put a team together. If you look at the team that nearly got up at Aston Villa, there were five loan players and three free transfers.
"That is why I've always enjoyed the Championship because it's a level playing field - the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham aren't there, and you've always got a chance."