Automatic pilot still glowing

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The Independent Online
Around the time Alan Shearer was resisting the attempts of 20,000 Newcastle United supporters to deify him last Tuesday morning, another down-to-earth son of Wallsend was contemplating a very different phase of his career.

While Geordies fell at Shearer's feet, Steve Bruce was making his own cup of instant coffee and unpeeling a pack of cheese sandwiches in a bedraggled, rainswept marquee that is doing temporary service as Birmingham City's training headquarters just off the M42.

For Bruce, this was perhaps an even harsher reality than he had anticipated when, just after the end of last season, he reconciled himself to the "massive wrench" that was leaving Manchester United, and opted to step down a division and play out what will likely be the last years of his career at Birmingham.

At Old Trafford, Bruce had enjoyed a decade of success the like of which not even Shearer can expect to match. Two Doubles, three Premiership titles, two FA Cups, one League Cup, one European Cup-winners' Cup and one Super Cup are the sort of rewards that give a man a taste for the high life, but at 35, and with injuries starting to take their toll, Bruce knew that the time to move on could not be put off much longer. Indeed, it surprised many people that this most stalwart of central defenders - the United first team's only non-international - hung on as long as he did.

"For the last five years at United they were looking to replace me," Bruce said. "Which I always said was the ultimate challenge. I took great satisfaction in keeping my place. The more new people came in the more determined I was to carry on. It was only at the end of last season that I thought, well, I've got to be realistic. I'm approaching 36, maybe the time was right to leave. And what better way to go out than at the top."

As club captain, being left out of the FA Cup final team brought home to Bruce that his days as an automatic choice for United were numbered. He had been injured for the previous six weeks, "and at my age if you miss three or four matches it becomes harder and harder to get back in". His prospects for 1996-97 were begining to look bleak. "I knew that if I was only going to get a game once every few weeks, I wouldn't be doing justice to myself."

Bruce had received offers to leave United before - Derby County and Wolves had tried to interest him in becoming their player-manager - but he was still under contract and Alex Ferguson would not countenance it. This time, after Trevor Francis, Birmingham's newly-appointed manager, had made his approach to Bruce over dinner, matters were left entirely in the player's hands.

"The issue was never whether I wanted to join Birmingham or not," Bruce said. "If I wasn't convinced that they were genuine about wanting to get into the Premiership I wouldn't be here. Trevor is an old friend and I know he's got the highest standards. It was more a case of whether I could bring myself to leave United. I had many sleepless nights over it. I talked it over with my wife Janet and a few of the United lads. Everyone told me that the most important thing was to go on playing as long as you can." That meant making the break.

The decision made, Bruce disappeared on holiday for four weeks, first to Portugal and then to Barbados, where he found himself staying in the same hotel as three Tottenham Hotspur players, Colin Calderwood, Justin Edinburgh and David Kerslake. "We ended up watching the England-Germany European Championship semi-final together." Calderwood, a member of Scotland's Euro 96 squad, was rooting for the Germans, "so he didn't last very long".

Since his return Bruce has been getting used to the shock of a new life at a club which, for all its status as a sleeping giant, inevitably bears no comparison with what he has been used to, in scale or character. "Any change would be a big change after United. There's no other club in the world like it."

Francis has shown he means business with other signings from the Premiership - Mike Newell, Barry Horne, Gary Ablett, Paul Furlong - which represent a departure from the bargain-basement philosophy of his predecessor, Barry Fry. But can Bruce, as the new captain, hope to instil in Birmingham the practices that helped make United so great?

"Let's get one thing straight," he said. "We didn't have a unique way of doing things at United. What we had was a collection of very good players who had an unbelievable resilience, and a determination to succeed that was second to none. If you're going to achieve anything in life you have to work hard at it. You set your standards, and hopefully those standards will be good enough to help lift this place too."

Like Shearer, Bruce is an honest, unspoilt pro. Like Shearer, he hasn't forgotten how he started out, that he was due to begin an apprenticeship as a plumber in a Tyneside shipyard when Gillingham took him on as a youth trainee half his lifetime ago. He says he is sure that "Birmingham are not so naive that they think they are getting the Steve Bruce of five years ago".

The two years to which Bruce has committed himself are "not very long" to try to turn things round at a club which has not been in the top flight for 11 seasons but has spent all that time thinking it should be. But if they fail, it won't be through any lack of effort on Bruce's part.

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