Bizarre behaviour increases the pressure on Bruce

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As soon as he raised his hand in acknowledgement to the Manchester United fans who sang his name at St Andrew's on Tuesday night, Steve Bruce admitted yesterday that he realised he had made a mistake. The Birmingham City manager offered his apologies to the home fans who broke into booing at his gesture, but for a man who has come under increasing pressure, it was only the latest erratic decision in a difficult month.

In the aftermath of the Carling Cup quarter-final defeat, Bruce had initially refused to accept that there had been any problem with the St Andrew's fans but, in a gesture of reconciliation he conceded yesterday that he had instantly regretted his decision to respond to the United supporters' chants to their former captain to "give us a wave". "If our supporters were offended, then I apologise. It was not a slight on them or our club," Bruce said. "It was an instinctive thing and as soon as I put my hand up I thought, 'I shouldn't really have done that'.

"If people want to hang me for this, that's up to them. But I think my commitment to Birmingham cannot be called into question. If anyone doubts my commitment and feeling for this club, they shouldn't. I think we all know what I put myself through in leaving Crystal Palace to come here as manager."

With his team 19th in the Premiership, Bruce had begun the day with the news that Austria international Paul Scharner had chosen to join Wigan Athletic for £2.3m rather than risk relegation with Birmingham, and had to endure the club's owner David Sullivan describing the start of the season as a "shambles".

However, the 44-year-old did not made life easy for himself with a bizarre preparation for the game against Manchester City on Saturday which ended in a 4-1 defeat and the worst performance of the season.

Despite being told that there was very little chance of striker Emile Heskey, who was attending the birth of his child, being able to make the game in time, Bruce insisted on the striker being named as one of the five substitutes. As it became clear that Heskey was not going to make it in time, he did not change his mind and eventually submitted a team sheet to match officials with the England striker's name on it, even though he had still not arrived. The decision is understood to have caused surprise and dismay among Bruce's players, who thought by then it was obvious that Heskey would not be available. Bruce had taken a full squad of 20 to Manchester and yet he named only four available substitutes - one of them goalkeeper Maik Taylor.

The Birmingham manager then made two substitutions within the first 35 minutes, his second move being the replacement of midfielder David Dunn, whose fitness had been in doubt all week. Dunn had not trained on the Friday before the game and was not thought to be fit enough to play. Bruce selected the midfielder on Saturday morning and then, after 35 minutes, brought Jermaine Pennant on instead of him after Manchester City had gone two goals up. There was confusion on the Birmingham bench as to whether Dunn was injured or Bruce had simply been panicked into changing his team by the two City goals.

The episode has not inspired confidence among Bruce's players and doubt remains over the future of Matthew Upson, who is refusing to sign a new £25,000-a-week contract - a good deal for a player at his level. The club have invested heavily in players such as Heskey, Mikael Forssell and Walter Pandiani, all on £30,000 a week, and Bruce has been told he will have to sell in order to buy reinforcements.

Terrible luck with injuries has plagued Bruce's season and during the home defeat by West Ham on 5 December he had to make three substitutions by the time the second half began, which meant that Dunn had to play on despite being unfit. Muzzy Izzet has made only 18 Premiership appearances since arriving in the summer of last year and Forssell, who failed a medical at Everton before Bruce signed him, has not started a game since 29 October.

Bruce has been told by Scharner's Norwegian club Brann, who have accepted Wigan's £2.3m offer, to bid again for the defender, and he may yet try to acquire Bobo Baldé from Celtic .

With matches against Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea looming over Christmas, the start of January will be a relief to Bruce for more than one reason.

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