"Not got much of a media room, have I?" Steve Bruce joked yesterday, perched in a corner of a changing room at his club's training ground to reflect on tonight's return to his alma mater, Old Trafford.
His current surroundings at Wigan might remain as unprepossessing as they have been for much of his 11 years in management, but it has turned Bruce into a practitioner master of the alchemist's art. The Premier League table reveals the wizard effects: Wigan, the form side, have six wins from seven and are currently seventh.
It's not just getting the best out of players operating beneath the elite which has delivered them to this position – Bruce has never taken a higher placed team to Old Trafford than he will tonight – but his ability to discover them in the first place. He has become a latter-day Indiana Jones, scouring Central America for Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa, then risking death on Cairo's manic streets before securing Amr Zaki on loan.
Bruce insisted there had been no approach from Tottenham for Palacios, and that goes for Spurs chairman Daniel Levy approaching his own boss, Dave Whelan, too. But he accepted that having him want to leave is inevitable, considering the spiel Bruce gives to attract these players, latest being the £4.5m 23-year-old Colombian striker Hugo Rodallega.
"We are Wigan and we do say to these players that they've got to use us as a stepping stone," Bruce reflected. "We say: 'Come and play in the Premier League; come and show what you've got.' I sold the club like that to Wilson, Antonio [Valencia], Zaki and all these people but obviously when you're doing so well the last thing you want to do is dismantle it – especially when you don't have to. I'm a realist, though. I was one of those ambitious players and when the big clubs come you know what to expect."
The worry is that if one goes it will be an exodus. With the exceptions of Zaki and Emile Heskey, all Bruce's men are under contract for several years. "We hold the reins," Bruce insisted. "It'll have to be [a] huge [offer]. I'm hoping I can keep them in January and the summer might be a different matter because then I can have a chance to get in what I can get in.
"In the summer there's more to go around because the big boys ship out theirs and that has ripple effects."
Bruce's buying trips have made him better acquainted with the visa process than any other manager. "You can even apply for your working visa online. Is there anything you can't do online?" he jokes. This means Rodallega, an insurance policy against the probability of Heskey and Zaki leaving this summer, will probably be in Lancashire by 19 January. But overcoming United is a different matter.
"I left in '96 so it's been a long time. I go back there and get beat," he reflected, with a grin. Immediately after the joy of Sunday's late win over Tottenham, Bruce was sitting in his office, watching the champions' demolition of Chelsea and putting things into perspective. "You've just played Tottenham and you think ouch!" Bruce is wise enough to know that taking on his old mentor – like Rafael Benitez has – carries risks. "How do you take [Sir Alex Ferguson] on? You don't," he said. The performance he saw from Ryan Giggs was sublime and he believes his old team-mate belongs among the greats.
"Prima donna footballers who think they are good players... should have a little look at Ryan Giggs and be a bit more humble." So, what about adding Giggs to Wigan's eclectic band? "I'll set the ball rolling now," Bruce joked. "If he wants to come in the summer he can come but I can't see him playing for anybody else."Reuse content