It would be safe to assume that Steve Bruce experiences mixed feelings about his reunions with Manchester United. Rightly awarded a warm ovation on his return to Old Trafford by a crowd still appreciative of his efforts in 414 appearances for the club, he was also acutely aware of his failure to overcome Sir Alex Ferguson in 12 previous attempts as a rival manager.
All those prior encounters against his former club have been with Birmingham and Wigan, both of whom have struggled to compete on or off the pitch with United, whose advantage in spending power has often been reflected in the scoreline. For the first time in his managerial career, however, Bruce returned to Old Trafford in a position of strength, after spending around £30 million in the summer to try to transform Sunderland from relegation candidates into an established Premier League force.
That influx of new talent helped Sunderland into eighth place in the Premier League going into this fixture, just one win from breaking into the top four, although admittedly at a fledgling stage of the season. It perhaps also persuaded Bruce that this was the time to be bold rather than to pack the midfield in an attempt to stifle the champions' attacking threat.
So, Bruce kept faith with Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent, a strike force which had already yielded 10 goals this season, and challenged United to worry as much about them as visitors to Old Trafford traditionally do about the champions. The trick, of course, was to provide enough supply to threaten a United side without Rio Ferdinand in defence, one of seven changes from the midweek win against Wolfsburg. Bent and Jones have struck up a good partnership and when they play well they are a threat.
"The big thing against United is getting the ball up the pitch to them and that's the key when you play here," said Bruce. His attacking gamble certainly paid off, with Bent continuing his prolific start to the season by scoring his seventh goal in nine Premier League matches to fire Sunderland into an early lead and Jones heading them back in front after Dimitar Berbatov's acrobatic equaliser.
Bruce's popularity on his return visits to Old Trafford may well stem from his lack of success against his former club, something that continued here with Anton Ferdinand's late own goal. Bruce has resisted the temptation to antagonise his former club, so no wonder Ferguson spent a large part of the build-up and a section of his programme notes praising his former captain.
"[Steve] was one of the players you could depend on, and now he has brought his sturdy character to bear on the more complicated responsibilities as manager," wrote the Scot. "I take pride in seeing former players doing well and especially when they come back as managers." Of course, that generosity did not extend to enjoying success against United and it was noticeable Ferguson became more animated following Bent's opener.
Yet having done more than any other modern manager to encourage his former players to remain in the game, it would be perhaps fitting that one of them should become Ferguson's eventual successor at Old Trafford. Despite modest beginnings against his mentor, do not rule out Bruce being included on the short list.Reuse content