Martin Hardy: Steve Bruce is bouncing back to big time at Hull City – with Alan Green's help
Life Beyond the Premier League
On a table in the canteen at Hull City's training ground lie the battered remnants of two sets of darts. A bit further along, beside a sales brochure for wrought iron gates to protect a (clearly) decent-sized house, are a set of computer print-outs detailing the physical statistics for the team's youth side. In it is a fairly exhaustive breakdown of each player's input into the previous game with Bradford City, high -intensity runs, that sort of thing.
In a corner of Steve Bruce's office, just past the canteen, is a state of the art Apple Mac. "And before you start, I do know how to use it!" he says. This is important, and not just because Bruce is laughing as he speaks. Darts and data. It is why Hull City are on the brink of a return to the Premier League. It is why Bruce is back, or at least within touching distance.
Bruce is a man of superstition. He continually touches wood, normally his desk, if anything with the potential to go wrong pops up. Like a promotion bid. Victory for second-placed Hull tonight at home to Bristol City would leave them nine points clear of third-placed Watford with three games to go. The touching distance then would be the Premier League, not the base for his computer. It would also give him a platform from which to rebut an accusation that rankles from his time at Sunderland.
"It was said that said I was not internet friendly and how could I be a Premier League manager," says Bruce. "That is an insult. I don't trawl the internet, but I can send an email and we have six of our backroom staff into sports science; it's vital.
"However, man-management far outweighs sports science. Is Sir Alex Ferguson old-school? Arsène Wenger, David Moyes? They are three outstanding managers. I think you can get tarred with a tag. I know how to use a computer but I don't want to do Twitter. It doesn't interest me."
It was during the Champions League final, between Chelsea and Bayern Munich, nine months after his exit from Sunderland, that the desire to return stirred. He had been offered the Hull job by the family in charge at the KC Stadium and was working for Radio Five for the final. As Alan Green shouted in his ear, Bruce wanted to become a football manager again. Four Premier League jobs had come and gone in the summer. Earlier, Wolves, after sacking Mick McCarthy, had overlooked him, a decision they possibly still regret. There was hurt in the snubs, and still in the way he left the North-east, but the possibility of promotion is healing wounds.
"When you get sacked everybody thinks, 'He's a football manager, he'll get lots of money', but you still get sacked, which for me is a slur, it degrades you," Bruce says. "You feel as if you're not capable of doing your job. So it hurt in that respect. It's just a case of getting back.
"I thought it can't get any worse than the last four weeks at Sunderland! Now they've got the mad Italian. That's on the record [he adds, laughing].
"I was off for nine months. I was at the Champions League final. The Hull people had not been off the phone. I was watching the game and I was thinking: 'Do I really want to be sitting beside Alan Green?' And you can write that. I thought, 'I'm going to give it a crack.'"
Bruce and Hull have almost cracked it. He signed six new players last summer. Another three arrived in the transfer window. His side have been around the top end of the Championship all season, playing attractive football. He credits Assem Allam and son Ehab, who own Hull City, for much of the turnaround. The family are said to have put £66 million into clearing debts. Crucially, they have also left him alone.
"The target was, can we do better than last season?' They'd finished eighth last year. A couple of seasons before they'd been in the Premier League, they'd been in serious financial problems. We've seen the despair of Portsmouth and that could have been us. Hull could have gone into oblivion.
"The new owner asked if we could make a tilt at the play-offs. If I didn't think we were capable then I wouldn't have come. I didn't want to come into the Championship to balance the books and stay in there.
"We played Hartlepool in pre-season and I was driving away thinking 'Jesus'. We drew 1-1. I was thinking: 'There's work to be done.' But we brought in a few players, got off to a decent start and we've played some great stuff. I don't think people have noticed us until the last month. We have built a side around one of the best players in the league in Robert Koren. We've played good football.
"I have said to the players they have a wonderful opportunity to succeed. Some of them have never been in this situation before. Some of them have never played in the Premier League. It would be a fantastic reward for what we have done here.
"Nobody gave us a chance. You see some of the big clubs in this division: Leicester, Derby, Wolves and Blackburn, to have Hull go up from there would be terrific. Where will it sit among what I've achieved in the game if we go up? I think it would rank right up there. If we do it." Then he touches his desk. Some of it is still unscientific, but not as much as some would have you believe.
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