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.