Football: You can't take the Man U out of the man

Bruce on course to be manager for the millennium as Huddersfield gain reward for thinking big
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ON A DANK Friday in low cloud at Huddersfield Town's training ground adjacent to Pennine slopes Steve Bruce still carries the shoulders- back confidence of a winner. Being one of the best and, especially, putting in all the effort required to achieve that status is something he knows all about as a footballer of the highest distinction. Now, close to his 40th birthday, which will come on Millennium Eve, this softly spoken Geordie with the rearranged nose of a pugilist is striding along the perilous highway which points in the direction of managerial success.

A playing career which started at Gillingham and progressed at Norwich flowered gloriously in a 10-year spell with Manchester United. Bruce became the most successful captain in the club's history, eight trophies in six years, and he receives, in his manager Alex Ferguson's new autobiography, this merited accolade: "An admirable man and wonderful servant [who] commanded respect and affection in equal measure."

The luxury of Old Trafford, with its fine food and fluffy shower towels, was a distant memory as Huddersfield's manager changed for training in front of a non-functioning heater in the temporary cabin which serves as his club's dressing-room. Huddersfield, under the ownership of the businessman Barry Rubery, are moving into a new training centre on the campus of the local university, but this is only day five of the shift and the dream does not yet extend beyond cabins and puddles.

Which suits Steve Bruce just fine. "It's certainly a change from Man United, but I've been away from there three years now so I'm used to it," he smiled, dispatching a trainee to fetch him a warming cup of tea. "Everybody still wants to bring up my association with Old Trafford, so sometimes I have to stop people and say: `Hey, don't keep talking about that'. There is still something in there [he taps his chest] after 10 years, of course there is. But I can't keep talking about Manchester United, because it has gone."

What replaced it was a free-transfer spell at Birmingham, then a deeply unhappy 10 months in his first managerial job with Sheffield United before he moved into Huddersfield's magnificent McAlpine Stadium for the start of this season on a profile-lifting mission. So well has Bruce done, despite a recent disruptive sequence of injuries to his squad, that Huddersfield are firmly on course for promotion from the First Division, in third place and looking for a further boost from today's visit to Nottingham Forest.

Huddersfield remain the only team to have won the League championship in three consecutive seasons (1923-26). They also lifted the FA Cup, but that was in 1922. "For too long this club has been sitting in the dark, thinking about the Twenties," said Bruce. "All the pictures here are of the Twenties and Thirties. It would be lovely to get a new one up there. We've got a brand new stadium, a very ambitious owner, certainly an ambitious manager and a team who are playing well and getting some terrific results."

Those results, including that recent Worthington Cup win at Chelsea, have helped soften, but not obliterate, the pain of his Sheffield United nightmare. "I was wary about going into management," he admitted. "If you don't do well in your first job, that's it. That was one of the reasons I stuck it out there until last summer, though I was in a no-win situation.

"Promises were broken. I was just basically let down. I tried my utmost to give the club a bit of stability but in the end I knew it couldn't go on.

"The one thing I have always done in my career is to be totally honest. I was never blessed with the greatest ability but I worked hard and achieved quite a bit by being that way. I am exactly the same as a manager, honesty and 100 per cent effort, and if you don't get it back from other people you are struggling."

For someone who played almost 950 games for five clubs, won medals galore, broke his leg once and his nose more times than he can remember, the chance to unfurl his ambitions and his enthusiasm with Huddersfield has been the perfect antidote to the miseries of Bramall Lane.

One stark contrast was the availability of funds to strengthen the Huddersfield squad. With a three-year contract, Bruce intended assembling a promotion- worthy team to put a new picture on the club walls. He spent pounds 2m on four newcomers, a piffling amount even in non-Premiership terms, and more were subsequently recruited - rather more quickly than intended - to cope with injuries.

The man who was rescued from a life of obscurity as a shipyard trainee plumber on Tyneside when Gillingham signed him at 16 ("the manager had to tell me where Gillingham was," he grins) has adjusted effortlessly to the changed demands on his life. "As a player you go home on a Saturday night concerned only about how well you have done. You have only yourself to look after. Now I've got 50-odd people out there, all needing to be kept happy.

"When you are managing you kick every ball and you are looking at every player's faults and strengths. I get more butterflies than I ever did as a player, though you try not to let that show because it's part of your job to help them relax. But inside you are kicking and fighting the whole way.

"All managers know they will get the sack. The best ones did, so I'm not going to be any different. My aim is to take the club back to the top. I worked my way up as a player from Gillingham via Norwich to Man United. Now I'm learning a new trade. If I'm decent at it and can take this club to the Premier League, great. But if I don't do that, what I want is to manage a Premier side. Every manager who isn't already there wants that."

Bruce has learnt from his most recent mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, and sought his advice too, as well as picking up pointers from the other people who managed him, Gerry Summers at Gillingham, Ken Brown and Mel Machin at Norwich. "You take a little bit of everything," he said. "But in management you have to do it your way, the way you see fit. If you try to copy somebody you can come unstuck, because it's not you."

The time has come to set aside the mug of tea, to get outside into the drizzle and the training session. On the way out of his office, Bruce points to the notice board, on which is pinned the Independent on Sunday's double-page spread of results and tables. It is there, he says simply, "because it is the best".

As we said, one of the best, Steve Bruce.