Bruce puts promotion before poignancy

First Division Play-off final: Parallels galore for Brum and Norwich as new managers square up for same prize
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Should this afternoon in Cardiff turn out to be a time for singing the Blues and signalling promotion for his club, the Birmingham City manager Steve Bruce intends to launch a two-fingered salute in the direction of his former, brief employers at Crystal Palace. For Nigel Worthington, the reaction to achieving Premiership status for Norwich City could well be the raising of eyes heavenwards, since somebody up there seems to have been beaming on manager and players of late.

It is a massive occasion at the Millennium Stadium, as these First Division play-off finals invariably are, because of what is at stake in terms of prestige and money. Bruce, who today clocks up exactly five months since taking over at St Andrews, calls it "the biggest game in Birmingham's history".

Worthington, who has needed a little longer, 17 months, to work his East Anglian miracle, seeks refuge behind this more anodyne comment: "I am looking at it as another game, but a terrific game to be involved in."

However, Norwich's chief executive, Neil Doncaster, is Bruce-like in his summation that victory will put his tightly-run outfit into financial heaven, with defeat consigning them to the cash version of hell which many think will be the First Division's fate next season. That much Worthington acknowledges, too: "If we stay in the First Division I could be looking at Bosman players in the summer, but if we get promoted I may have a few million to spend."

Both managers, redoubtable and high-class defenders in their time, have promised to give it an attacking go this afternoon. Having engineered the season-end misery of Wolves in impressive fashion at the first stage of the play-offs, Worthington says: "We started the season passing the ball and we are going to try to finish it the same way. We are attack-minded, this is a one-off game and we are going to have a crack at it."

After the trench warfare of two games against Millwall, Bruce also plans to take the brakes off. He simply feels victory would put Birmingham where fanatical support and financial clout should have seen them some time ago. "You can feel the delight and the apprehension in the city," he said. "All of football scratches its head, wondering how big Birmingham could be. We have been too long at this level. It reminds me of teams like Manchester City, Newcastle and Sunderland, with huge support and nothing much to shout about. For a club of this stature to be without top football for 16 or 17 years has been too long. We have got close in the past, but never as close as this, so hopefully it's our turn."

Motoring along on a 12-match unbeaten run, Birmingham are favourites, having won both League games against Norwich. There is a strong Norwich element at St Andrews, with former Canaries players like Bruce, Keith Bertschin, John Benson and Dave Bowen running the Blues. "Norwich was the club which gave me my chance," said Bruce. "My two kids were born in Norwich and I still have a lot of friends there. But that will go out of the window on Sunday, that's for sure."

But Bowen's is the strongest connection. The former Welsh international, who played 399 games for Norwich and is now Birmingham's first-team coach, discounts the Norwich League results. "There is nothing between the sides," he insisted. "The 4-0 home win came in December, just before Steve took over. I went to watch it and told him I honestly didn't think there was anything in it. Birmingham just had four chances and scored four. It was the same in the game at Norwich; they missed a penalty and we managed to nick it with a goal from Stern John.

"What it will come down to in Cardiff is how each side reacts to the situation and the atmosphere, who has the bigger nerves and butterflies. And if both teams are evenly matched it will come down to how each individual performs.

"I am 100 per cent Blues, I know how much getting into the Premiership means to the club and the fans. But if someone had said to me we would get to the play-off final only to lose, then the one team in this division I would be happy to lose to is Norwich. I was in the Norwich team that got relegated seven years ago. Now here they are, 90 minutes from getting back and I am one of the people out to stop them. It's incredible."

No more incredible than the fashion in which Worthington has rebuilt Norwich in less than half the three years he had given himself. "We had a lot of sorting out to do, personnel-wise, to get stability back into the club, and that takes time. It has clicked a lot earlier than I and the staff expected, but a lot of hard work has been put in all round. Looking at what we've achieved together over the last five or six weeks I wonder, even in these early days of my managerial career, if I will ever manage another group of professionals as honest and as willing as the bunch I've got now. It has been a marvellous season."

After his arrival at, and explosive departure from, Crystal Palace and the court proceedings because of which, Bruce says, his reputation took a battering, his turn-around since finally being permitted to join Birmingham on 12 December is just as remarkable. "The players are the ones who deserve the pat on the back," he said. "As for me, for the first time in my managerial career I am at ease, so that obviously helps." What would help even more is taking Birmingham up this afternoon.

Worthington spent most of last week avoiding any mention of Norwich's opponents. "I am not a manager who likes to clog the players' minds up about the opposition," he said. "I just want them to stay focused and make sure the old petrol tanks are full at 3.30 on Sunday." And if he is the sensible fellow we all take him for, Worthington will not have talked, either, about the possibility of the game going to penalties, since Norwich have missed their last three, including that one against Birmingham.