Steve Bruce’s journey to the top was a long and hard one
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.”
Tom Clare has been following United for over half a century and has had the pleasure of seeing some of our finest players in all their pomp.
Next week he will chronicle The King – Eric Cantona