As a few centre-forwards found over the years, it takes a lot to bring down Steve Bruce. At the Birmingham City training ground on Friday, ironically in a room filled with trophies from the club's good years, the manager was doing what he does well, thrusting out his jaw and talking defiance.
But later, out of the sight and hearing of the television people, Bruce revealed that over the last few days, the most horrible week of his career, nightmares had not been a worry for the simple reason that sleep has not been an option since last Tuesday's 7-0 home destruction by Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
So what had Bruce done afterwards? Throttled the budgie? Kicked the cat? Cleaned out the drinks cupboard? "I would love to tell you I had six pints of Stella, but I didn't," he said. "I went home, I just wanted to go to my bed. It is usually worse the next day, which it was. I haven't slept since. That's the way it gets you.
"I am getting over it slightly now, because you have to be resilient. If I started taking the water in, how are the players going to feel? You have to lead from the front and that's what I am trying to do, though it's hard when you've been humiliated like that."
Though dismissal after four- and-a-half years in the job would have been out of his hands, Birmingham have wisely decided to stick with Bruce, and he insists that walking out had never been on the cards. "I will know when the time is right, and it isn't now."
Although polls in the Birmingham papers have shown an even split about whether Bruce should go or stay, he maintains: "The majority of our supporters understand the problems we have had with injuries, and I appreciate that. They are telling me: roll your sleeves up, get stuck into these players, and that's what I am determined to do. I don't want to be walking out now, taking the easy option. The fans could have walked out the other night but they didn't. I think they want me to be strong enough to see it through."
Sod's Law has decreed that, as they gasp for air and grasp for points, Birmingham must face Manchester United at Old Trafford this afternoon and Chelsea at home next Saturday. After that, there will be seven more matches for Birmingham to be the one club to escape from what Bruce acknowledges is a relegation mini-league also involving Portsmouth and West Bromwich. "Can we finish top of that league? With a better goal difference and a game in hand, it is still in our hands. We just need something to change for us, like it did for Portsmouth."
What made last Tuesday even more dismal was the fact that Birmingham had reached the last eight of the Cup for the first time in 22 years. Bruce confirmed that it was the worst he had ever felt, as player or manager. "The sad thing about football is that you always remember the really bad ones, the disappointment stays longer with you than winning something. When I was at Man-chester United we got beat 4-0 by Barcelona in the Nou Camp and I remember thinking it was the most horrible defeat ever, in front of 126,000 people waving their white hankies, shouting 'Olé! '. But the other night tops anything in my memory.
"What disappoints me is that the players' commitment has been questioned. The majority of them have been with me for four years and they can take pride in keeping us in this division, and I think I have done a decent job over those four years.
"I haven't become a bad manager overnight. Yes, the last six months have been awful, but questioning their commitment and whether they deserve their salaries [as Birmingham's co-owner David Sullivan did], to me that questions their honesty. He [Sullivan] is entitled to his opinion, he is the owner of the club, but I don't think it can be measured on players' salaries alone.
"We all know the situation is absolutely unbelievable. I read the other day that the average Premiership player earns £900,000 a year, twice as much as the Prime Minister. Money means nothing if you have any pride about you. But whether you are earning 50 grand a week or two bob a week, if you get beaten by seven at home there are no hiding places, everything comes into question."
Bruce added: "Until now you haven't seen a quote from me since that game because I just believe in battening down the hatches. I have told the players I don't want to see them on television, read them in the papers or hear them on the radio. The only way they can restore a bit of pride is by their actions on the pitch. And when we see that, their application and motivation won't be questioned.
"I know why we are in this situation. I don't want to make excuses about injuries, but this Sunday I will be fielding my 30th different back four of the season, would you believe. We have had five or six players missing repeatedly for six months now and at this level you get caught out. If we can get back people like Sutton, Dunn, Upson, Izzet, Jarosik and Heskey in the next couple of weeks we can stay in the Premiership.
"As a manager you have to accept that there is going to be a bad spell around the corner and you have to be mentally tough enough to try and take it. That's what I will try to do, rather than put up the white flag and say, 'I want out of here'."
As the Liverpool goals rained in past Maik Taylor on Tuesday night, the defiant Blues fans continued to bellow their anthem, "Keep Right On To The End Of The Road". Be assured that Steve Bruce will keep right on too, jaw jutting, head held high, just like it used to be at Old Trafford.Reuse content