Bruce draws on the Ferguson parallel

The old competition saved his mentor, now the pupil is looking for the fairytale
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The Independent Football

"It's been a bad week, a terrible week, a horrendous week," said Steve Bruce, surveying the nodding heads in front of him and realising that if he wanted an argument, he would have to change the subject. "What I would give for a nice weekend."

What half of Britain's second-largest city would give, more like. As if being six points adrift of Premiership safety is not bad enough - not to mention possessing an injury list that seems to lengthen every time they look at it - Birmingham City have had to suffer two forms of butt-kicking since Monday.

The first was when West Ham somehow found room on the Blues' badly bruised behind to inflict three more Premiership black marks; the second when Nicky Butt was all but chased out of town for a paddy that was textbook modern footballer.

"It has definitely been my toughest week in management," said Bruce, trying to recall a period that was even close. "But then it's been the toughest six months. No, I can honestly say I haven't enjoyed any of it, not one bit. So let's hope we can get past Stoke on Sunday and into that Cup quarter-final. At least we could get some enjoyment from that. Couldn't we?"

Yes, but it might be shortlived. There are bigger and far bloodier battles awaiting, as any manager worthy of his vote of confidence would find glaringly obvious. "After this we have Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Brom in as many weeks," he said, outlining what he endearingly calls "the tickly bit". "And we all know the season's there and then."

Nevertheless, the memories might not be as obsessed with this triple whammy, and this is where Bruce differs from your average gaffer knee-deep in the smelly stuff. Perhaps it is the recollection of his first final, and the lifeline it presented to some immortal called Sir Alex Ferguson, that makes Bruce so wistful, but he seems genuinely interested in that increasing irrelevance known as the FA Cup, as does St Andrew's as a whole.

"It's amazing," explains the 45-year-old. "We sold our full 4,000 allocation for Stoke and applied for an extra 1,800, which we didn't get. It just shows what our fans think of this tournament - we only took 1,000 to Liverpool - and I fully agree with them. This is the Cup, this is special.

"Believe me, there is nothing better than getting to the latter stages. Finals, semi-finals, they're the best days of your career, no doubt about it. Yes, we all know the Premier League is vitally important because of the finances, but this is still the best knock-out competition in the world.

"And as I said four years ago, when I walked through the door: we can only realistically win one of the cups. So of course we want our League position to be better, but just because it isn't, I'm not going to do anything but field as strong as team as possible against Stoke. It's the quarters next, and that's when you can start to think 'magical moments'. That's why you've always got to treat the Cup with respect and give the players the chance to go for those memories."

Bruce is not quite welling up as he makes his impassioned defence of an institution that he plainly believes is being neglected, but it palpably does mean more to him than just a day out in Cardiff (or even Wembley).

"Like anything in life, the first time's always the best, isn't it?" grins the Geordie as the 1990 final, and the silverware that undoubtedly spared Manchester United an epoch-altering sacking, comes back to mind. "We played Palace and it was a great, great game. It was a boiling hot day and although it's a bit of a blur, one thing stands out. We worked all week on defending set-pieces - morning, noon and night. What happened? We conceded after three minutes; free-kick into the box, Big Jim [Leighton] comes for it, Gary O'Reilly heads it in. I didn't look across at the boss. I daren't. Fortunately we won the replay."

And Fergie was thus saved, despite finishing a "disastrous" 13th in the League. Different times, different clubs, different ambitions, although Bruce is similarly headstrong. "I have no doubts, you know," he says, checking for any raised eyebrows to the contrary. "I'm certain I'll pull it around and I'm certain I'm still the man for this job."

Just as his board have always insisted he is, although Bruce is too wise to seek much comfort there. "As nice as it is to hear it, I'm not taking that for granted." he says. "Look how Gary [Megson] left Forest this week. Two weeks ago his chairman declared Gary would be there until the end of his contract. A few weeks ago it was [Steve] McClaren about to get it. And then Graeme [Souness] got it. It's horrific, but I'm under no illusions over the nature of this profession. You've just got to keep on fighting, keep on kicking your legs and make sure you don't go under. Because if you do, you're in trouble."

But if history is any guide, it should be Stoke holding their noses today. "The last time we were there we won 7-0," says Bruce, dipping into his vast reservoir of experience yet again. "They showed the goals on the telly the other night and it brought it all back. I was captain that day. Our win sparked a riot [when the police stopped hundreds of Stoke fans from storming the directors' box].

"Dear, oh dear. I'd take half of that seven on Sunday, I can tell you. Three-and-a-half-nil - that'd be all right." How Steve Bruce can still joke, only he knows. Oh for something out of the gallows to laugh about.

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