Steve Bruce’s journey to the top was a long and hard one
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.