Football / FA Cup Countdown: Bruce hangs loose for pressure game: Caps apart, not much eludes Manchester United's indomitable captain. Guy Hodgson reports

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STEVE BRUCE could write a book about being underrated. England managers have overlooked the Manchester United central defender for the last decade and Alex Ferguson brought him to Old Trafford primarily because he did not get injured too often. In sight, out of mind ought to be his motto.

Even United's supporters seem to neglect their captain. They have T- shirts with 'Dieu' (in honour of you know who) printed on them and posters of Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes on their walls. But Bruce? You suspect Stretford Enders would rather leave the rip in the wallpaper exposed to public scrutiny.

Yet Bruce is the rock around which United's team is built. When things go wrong it is to their team captain that more talented individuals look. His face, creased in concentration, will contort further with determination and he will move upfield like a creaking Second World War battleship. A bit awkward he may be but he still carries the artillery to be a threat.

'He's the best goalscoring defender I've ever worked with,' Ferguson said. 'Some players have a knack of scoring important goals and Steve is one of them. He has a cool head in pressure situations.'

The pressure does not come much more onerous than it is at the moment. Bruce is writing a book, to be published later this year, but whether it will have a happy ending is in some doubt. Already the Coca- Cola Cup has been lost to Aston Villa and Blackburn are becoming an increasing menace in the Premiership. Oldham, after extending United in the League on Monday, will not be pushovers either in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.

'I don't think we're cracking,' Bruce said. 'Of course it's tense, we're playing for titles and Cups. But we've been in these situations before and we've come through. You're on edge. It's an important time. I think we'll handle it.'

There were those who thought Ferguson might be cracking when he paid pounds 800,000 to Norwich for Bruce in December 1987. He was an enthusiastic, honest, die-for-the- cause defender but hardly seemed an appropriate substitute for the supremely gifted but troubled Paul McGrath. Players with twice Bruce's ability have shrivelled in the Old Trafford spotlight. Surely he was just a panic buy, a stand-in until someone better was available?.

Few players have half his will, however. Bruce, whose 300 appearances have more than filled his manager's main criterion of not being injury prone, has been about as good a buy as Ferguson has made. Good teams need determination as well as skill and the battle-scarred old warhorse provides the former in tanker loads.

'He's been unbelievable,' said Ferguson, who has awarded Bruce a contract that will keep him at United until he is 37. 'His consistency is exemplary. He plays carrying injuries without complaint and always with absolute enthusiasm.'

At Old Trafford they believe Bruce should have received England recognition but the man they nickname 'Roy of the Rovers' because of his match-saving goals has fallen short of the comic-book hero. In international weeks United's first-team squad disperses to seven different national squads leaving Bruce to kick his heels with the reserves, the injured and the substitute goalkeeper Les Sealey.

'The gaffer's always very good to me,' Bruce said. 'He gives me four days off and tells me to put my feet up. There's nobody to train with anyway and I think he feels a bit sorry for me. Basically, Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor didn't think I was good enough and there is nothing I can do about it now.

'I wouldn't say I get jealous, I've got used it over the years. I would love to be called up but I'm realistic enough to know it's probably passed me by now. I'm 33 so it's a little bit late for my first England cap but strange things happen. Let's hope there's a flu epidemic that strikes centre-halves.'

Gary Pallister, who currently holds a back-four place for England that Bruce covets, would be one of those afflicted but the impression is he would grudgingly be laid low if it meant his team-mate could get a cap.

'Other players come into fashion and get picked,' Pallister said. 'Then they disappear from view. Meanwhile Steve turns in reliable performances week after week. He's typecast as a typical stopper centre- back but he has a lot more skill than he's given credit for.

'All the lads rib him that he is the only player in our first team who hasn't got caps at top level but ask them to be serious and they will tell you he should have had a stack. They all respect him.'

Earlier this year it seemed that Bruce might fulfil his ambition of any cap against any opposition when Jack Charlton was eager to include him in his Republic of Ireland World Cup squad. Inquiries were made, however, and an appearance in a Uefa tournament for Young England made him ineligible.

'It's great to be wanted,' Bruce said. 'It's like any individual, you want to be wanted no matter what line you're in. When Jack Charlton approached me it was a nice feeling but it wasn't to be. It was nice to be thought of and I thank him for it.'

Just as United will thank Bruce if he can soothe the nerves of those around him and guide the team to a second successive championship and possibly the Double. Despite suggestions to the contrary, he believes United have the requisite composure.

'The one thing that changed us was losing the League to Leeds two years ago,' he said. 'It gave everyone a sense of disappointment that I haven't grasped before in football. You could see the immense hurt in people's faces. It was like everyone was in mourning.

' I don't think any of us want to be involved in anything like that again. We all grew up with that. The squad has got bigger since but the nucleus is still there and we don't want a repeat. We've got this desire.'

At Wembley Oldham know no one will personify that desire more than Bruce.

----------------------------------------------------------------- MANCHESTER UNITED ----------------------------------------------------------------- INTERNATIONAL XI Schmeichel (Denmark) Parker Pallister Bruce Irwin (England) (England) (Rep of Irl) Kanchelskis Ince Keane Giggs (Russia) (England) (Rep of Irl) (Wales) Hughes Cantona (Wales) (France) Substitutes: Sharpe (England); Robson (England), McClair (Scotland). -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)