Bruce's eyes fixed on a long goodbye

Manchester United's captain tells Phil Shaw why 34 is no age to contemplate retirement
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"Eyes left, Gary mate." "Down a bit and smile please, David." A phalanx of photographers shout their demands as three Manchester United players pose, arms linked like the front row of a rugby scrum, at yesterday's media day.

The one in the middle, realising they might be there all day at this rate, tells his colleagues to look first towards the Stretford End, then straight ahead, and finally to their right. Even when there are no opposing strikers in sight, organising the defence comes naturally to Steve Bruce.

On Saturday, he hopes to lead an orderly procession up to the Royal Box to collect the FA Cup once more. After a season in which United's fortunes have turned on some grim-faced pronouncements from the steps of Lancaster Gate, the scene would have a certain ironic symmetry. Everton bar the holders' way but, win or lose at Wembley, Bruce is determined that the final will not be his last hurrah.

On New Year's Eve he reaches 35, and there are reports of interest among clubs seeking a player-manager, notably Derby and Norwich, from whom he joined United eight years ago. Why, even Manchester City are in the market again. Moreover, as young bucks such as Alan Stubbs, Craig Short and Dean Richards are reputedly being lined up to succeed him, the competition from within is intensifying.

The latter aspect was the sub-text to the United captain's claim that Gary Neville's best position is full-back rather than centre-half. Although the deadpan expression cracked into a laugh as he spoke, Bruce is not unaware of the march of time.

"Management does attract me in the longer term, which is natural when you've been in the game 20 years," he said. "But my immediate concern is playing. There's still nothing better.

"Fitness-wise, I feel really good. I try to look after myself, and the dieticians and doctors are doing wonders for me. I've got a couple of years left here and I've every intention of seeing them out.

"The challenge is there, of course, from the youngsters or someone the club buys. Your place is always under review at United - it has to be that way - but they've got to take the shirt off me first."

Only when you know how much he coveted it in the first place is it clear that these are not throwaway remarks. When Bruce was an 11-year-old in the north-east, his games teacher wrote to his mother thanking her for washing the school team's green strips and concluding: "I'm sure you won't have to do it when Stephen is playing for Manchester United."

Yet he was nearly 27, well into long trousers, and had played 350 times for Gillingham and Norwich before Alex Ferguson met the East Anglians' pounds 825,000 price. Even then many of the faithful would have preferred an international such as Terry Butcher, Richard Gough, Mark Wright, or his erstwhile Norwich partner, Dave Watson, who plays against United on Saturday.

Bruce was and still is uncapped, but unlike many who reach Old Trafford via the lower divisions he was also unfazed. Nor did he possess the grace of a Paul McGrath or a Martin Buchan, though as Colin Hendry has proved once more in Blackburn's title triumph, there is always a place in the British game for the big defender who is powerful in the air and on the ground.

He displayed both attributes and more, developing a formidable partnership with Gary Pallister at the same time as establishing his right to skipper a side including such natural leaders as Bryan Robson and Paul Ince. There was also his scoring knack, never better manifested than when he headed two desperately late goals against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993.

They turned defeat into a victory which convinced an entire club that their 26-year wait for the championship would soon be over. After doing the double a year later, United have now been relieved of the more prestigious prize, but then, as Bruce observed with masterly understatement, it has been "a difficult season."

Alluding to the Eric Cantona crisis, he said: "We realised the enormity of the situation but we still weren't prepared for how extreme things would get. At times the pressure was just absurd.

"It became like a circus, with one thing after another, but we're over it now. All the more credit to the lads for coming within a whisker of winning the League. We've got some temperamental individuals, but as a whole the resilience and character of the team is fantastic. And what better way to get over the disappointment than to play in an FA Cup final? It's great that it's come so quickly after what happened at West Ham."

He anticipates a "physical game." Given that he and Pallister are likely to be marking Duncan Ferguson ("a handful") and Paul Rideout, he is likely to get it. Did he expect to enjoy the final? Not on the day, he admitted, but maybe in a few years, "when I've got my pipe and slippers." In the meantime, there is a lot of football left in Steve Bruce.