Bruce plays the rock in a hard place

The fans are worried, the owners are unpredictable and the manager is in the middle
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The Independent Football

Such a group is the little band of Englishmen who have succeeded in taking their clubs into the Premiership and keeping them there, in particular Sam Allardyce at Bolton, Charlton's Alan Curbishley, Steve Bruce at Birmingham City and, most recently, Bryan Robson at West Bromwich; all watched over by the paternal figure of Sir Alex Ferguson, who naturally takes a particular interest in his two former Manchester United captains.

"You know who me mates are," Bruce smiled while preparing for tomorrow's visit from Allardyce and his high-fliers. He recently played golf with Ferguson - wisely letting him win - and while the Godfather's words were not for public consumption, his encouragement at a difficult time can be taken for granted.

Just how difficult is evident from the briefest of glances at the bottom of the Premiership table this morning. Checking the figures makes it worse: one win from 12 League games (in a derby against Robson's West Brom) and a mere seven goals, the last of which came six matches and two months ago.

Then there is the fact that, like Allardyce and Curbishley, by lifting his club to their highest position for decades when they finished 10th two seasons ago, Bruce has made a rod for his own back, raising expectations all round. "Looking back now, I think we all got carried away with it," he says. "You finish 10th, then sign a lot of players [he names Emile Heskey, Jesper Gronkjaer, Mario Melchiot, Muzzy Izzet and Julian Gray] and think, 'Now we can go higher'. We are even being touted for Europe. But it doesn't work like that, does it? You forget what other clubs do; big clubs with huge traditions go and strengthen and add to their squads as well."

The upshot was a tough season last time, ending in a healthy enough 12th position, but with an ominously low total of only 40 goals, the third worst in the League.

Neither Heskey, Mikael Forssell nor the Uruguayan Walter Pandiani have been able to offer any improvement, scoring three times between them so far in 19 starts. Jermaine Pennant, unquestionably talented, had to be dropped and fined after his most recent disciplinary misdemeanour, and a crop of injuries to players like Izzet, David Dunn, Stephen Clemence and Mehdi Nafti has reduced the scoring potential from midfield as well.

Now, for almost the first time this season, Bruce has something like a full squad to select from, and he hopes the passionately one-eyed St Andrews crowd will begin to see a difference from tomorrow: "Our home form has been pretty dismal. Two or three haven't played as well as they'd have liked and let's be honest about the situation, we've got ourselves in a hole. It's now the most vital six weeks of my time here, with three of the next four games at home and Sunderland in between, which will determine our season. We all know what's at stake."

Anyone who needed a reminder had one recently from Birmingham's co-owner, David Sullivan, in an apocalyptic outburst about how much money the club now spend on wages, and what the consequences would be if they gambled heavily during the next transfer window and were still relegated - "we would go bankrupt".

Sullivan, who did not get where he is today (an £18m Essex mansion) by throwing good money after bad, is relying on a different form of gambling. He wants to construct a Birmingham Sports Village, incorporating a 55,000-capacity stadium for his club, which is wholly dependent on obtaining the casino licence for the region.

Should he fail, supporters might reflect a little anxiously on his words earlier this year: "I will end up buying a London club because the travelling is doing my head in."

Bruce retains the board's confidence and has even been assured that he would survive relegation (assuming the club did). That is not a promise he would wish to put to the test after finally finding something like a permanent home following truncated stays at Sheffield United, Huddersfield and Crystal Palace.

Those varied experiences have, however, taught him a lot, not least where the buck stops: "You learn how to remain positive, because if you're not the negatives wear you down. Like everything in life, when things are against you, you find out what you're made of. You keep yourself to yourself and try to work that extra bit harder. Fellow managers understand, you take it on the chin, you're responsible. It's a difficult job, but one that we enjoy in a daft way."

Not as enjoyable as playing, of course, which he did with some distinction for Gillingham, Norwich and United, appreciating the later years all the more for remembering the early ones. "I used to be in at eight o'clock, one of two apprentices [at Gillingham] with 24 pairs of boots to clean between us. Get the kit out, sweep the terraces, go home at seven o'clock at night. That gave me the best grounding of the lot. But there's nothing better than playing, the best job in the world bar none. I wanted to carry on in the game, so I tried the management route. I've been doing it eight years and I want to succeed.

"What have I achieved? Not a lot, I suppose, but in relative terms just keeping Birmingham in this division those first two years was a success. It's not deemed success any more, but that's what I was saying about expectation. I think we have to be realistic. It's very difficult to get to that next level. But I don't want to be associated with failure. That's what drives me on."

Bruce Truths: Talking a good game

"IT'S NOT always been a bed of roses. I had 235 games for Gillingham in the old Third Division. Until I was 30, 31, I hadn't really won anything."

"I'D CRAWL from Norwich to Manchester for the chance to play for United."

"I REMEMBER going 14 games at Man United without winning. We were fourth bottom. So I've been used to toughing things out."

"I'VE HAD three or four job offers over the last six months but nothing has excited me like this one."

(on joining Crystal Palace)

"SIMON JORDAN threw me out of Palace. So it wasn't me who wanted to abdicate. But when I tuned into the radio I heard people questioning my dignity, my integrity. People will always doubt my integrity now. That hurts, because anyone who really knows me knows I'm not that sort of character."

"I PUT my neck on the line to come to Birmingham. I could have accepted the peaceful life and become a pundit but something makes me want to do this. If I fail, fine. But at least I'll fail trying."