Football: Fergie's desire burns in Bruce

The new player-managers: Blades bank on a spirited campaigner while Barnsley turn to a hero inside; Jonathan Foster discovers a breath of fresh air sweeping through Bramall Lane
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SUPPLIES of Sheffield United's own-brand air freshener arrived last week in the club shop, a new line in merchandise which might prudently target customers in the boardroom, rather than the Kop.

A whiff of renewed conflict first seeped into Bramall Lane in June, when Kevin McCabe, a non-executive director, bought 500,000 more shares, virtually doubling his holding in the publicly listed company. United's shares are so cheap that McCabe's outlay would scarcely fill wage packets for Premiership interpreters. But observers say there is no ambiguity in McCabe's strategy to challenge Mike McDonald, the chairman, for control of the company and club.

The Bramall Lane boardroom is one of English football's most exotic sites. One leading director in the 1990s boardroom was sought under warrant by the Indian police, another fled the country in financial disgrace and a third came under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. McDonald brought more than respectability when he took over in 1995, the ground becoming fit last season for the Premiership place missed narrowly in play-off defeat at Sunderland.

This season will be the first step in management for Steve Bruce. The indomitable soul of Manchester United's first three Premiership titles under Alex Ferguson was brought from Birmingham City's playing staff four weeks ago, on a boardroom split decision - Bruce Rioch was the other candidate. Any sceptics will have been comforted by Bruce's impact on the training field, as palpable at close quarters as a blast from an aerosol. "I've wanted a crack at management for the past few years," Bruce said, and he will not fail for want of determination. Ferguson's references for his former captain rely heavily on metaphors of human spirit. "If any footballer has made himself into a top- class performer on a heart the size of a dustbin lid, it's this man," Ferguson said.

Bruce is flattered, but does not protest. "I was never naturally gifted, but I wanted to play in the top division and I did it by hard work and effort." Of all Ferguson's management virtues, Bruce most wants to emulate a driven, insatiable need to win, whatever the contest. To communicate that to Sheffield United players, he will start among them, his awkward, shuffling runs patrolling in defence when Swindon arrive to open the First Division season. "I believe I've got something to offer - I must have something to have been Birmingham's Player of the Year last season. I'll be honest with everyone here and, if there's someone better than me, I'll not play," Bruce said.

"I'm not going to make rash or silly statements. But this club have been in the play-offs for the last three years. Obviously they need a bit of stability and time to get into the Premiership. I hope I've learned from Fergie. He is very, very clever. His attention to detail is fantastic. He's learned from other countries. [His assistant] Brian Kidd was all over Europe five or six years ago watching different coaching methods and introducing detailed diets. But the one thing I hope I've learned most from is his unbelievable desire to win, and I think the way you get that across to players is in the way you handle situations, the way people look at you."

There should be at least 20,000 observing Bruce on Saturday in the most evocative sports ground in Yorkshire. For all Bruce's legitimate excitement about a big city club's big potential, success seemed so unthinkable last season that Frank Field would have made the ideal mascot. No sooner had Nigel Spackman's uneasy hold on managerial office established United in the promotion vanguard than McDonald's board embarked with an auctioneer's enthusiasm on a sale of players. The midfielder Don Hutchison, and forwards Brian Deane and Jan Aage Fjortoft were chief among the bargains. Spackman resigned. McDonald took umbrage at popular criticism and retreated from the football club boardroom to the safety of the company chairmanship.

He had claimed that "overspending" on players risked "financial suicide", a plausible comment but one which sent the share price into equally understandable freefall. Charles Green, the group chief executive, needed a police escort out of Bramall Lane, and promptly handed in his resignation. With the three leading management figures in various states of exile, United stumbled fortunately, but heroically, into the play-offs and an FA Cup semi-final.

The episode may be a parable of football management in the 1990s. Can First Division clubs compete for promotion without incurring harmful debt? By the time the Blades had lost their semi-final to Alan Shearer's late winner, more than two-thirds of their value as a company had been lost since flotation in January 1997. Bruce has been told there is no longer a need to sell. By contrast, he has tried, without success, to get Derby to part with Darryl Powell for pounds 1m.

McCabe, a Scarborough-based property man born close enough to Bramall Lane to smell the liniment, is understood to be unimpressed. Sources say he wants "management changes" - a euphemism for alleged inefficiency. There are good young players like Wayne Quinn and Curtis Woodhouse for Bruce to indoctrinate; and construction is scheduled to start on a hotel and retail development which should increase company revenue.

It is only 30 years since Bramall Lane filled to witness a world-class Sheffield United player achieve historic success. But that was Fred Trueman, of Sheffield United Cricket Club, and he was captaining Yorkshire to victory over the Australians. Long after cricket left the Lane, perhaps the most enduring odour Steve Bruce has to eradicate is pungently musty.