Bruce's record gives United 'lightweights' reason to fret

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The Independent Football

Avram Grant may wish to avert his gaze from Steve Bruce's attempt to define why the manager in the opposition dugout at Wigan tomorrow stands on the threshold of a 10th title. "They will never, ever be able to bottle it up or explain it," said Bruce, whose best stab at doing so dated from one of his first games in a United shirt in 1987, when he asked one of his own full-backs to give him some cover.

"Alex pulled me over," Bruce recalled, "and asked me: 'What are you doing that for, son?' We are Manchester United and that is your man – you don't have any cover if you are good enough to play here." But rich though Bruce's affection for Ferguson might be, and the protective shroud he always threw around his players in public, the Wigan manager's motives for denying United a title stretch beyond what he describes as "an integrity and honesty that sees that you do your job."

Bruce is also adamant that the current United side is not, for all Ferguson's pronouncements in January about having "the best squad ever", a patch on the 1993-94 group he was a part of and denying the title can only reinforce that.

"What the current side have is a lot of depth so that when they have got three or four injuries the rotation system comes in. The strength in depth is better than it has ever been," Bruce said. "But the team itself? The team in '94 could match anything skill-wise and fighting-wise.

"When you face bully-boy tactics – to have people like Ince, Keane and Robson and Cantona and Hughes – there were some really strong individuals. They were fierce. They were a great team to play in. Me and Pally [Gary Pallister] used to have conversations about the weather because we would not see the ball for half an hour."

Though Bruce did not seem to intend it, some might read into his words a critique of the way United have recently failed to prosper in tough away trips to Middlesbrough and Blackburn. Cristiano Ronaldo certainly hasn't drawn comparison with the midfielders Bruce called to mind.

Asked later about Bruce's comments yesterday, Ferguson grinned. Firm statements from him on the issue are reserved until late tomorrow.

In Bruce's disclosures about how his side intend to tackle United, there was a hint that Ferguson will need all the '94-type attritional strength he can muster. "You have to try to do something a little bit different tactically [against the 'Big Four'] because if you just try to go and match them and play them at their game, they have got better players than you," said Bruce, whose side have shown in draws at Chelsea, Liverpool and at home to Arsenal in recent weeks that they can stunt creativity.

"We have found ourselves a way which we will obviously try again on Sunday, that is for sure."

But the man whose 31 points from 20 games at Wigan's helm have raised his managerial stock, to the point that he is again discussed in conjecture on Ferguson's successor, has also lived through the disappointments he knows his old mentor will be drawing on.

"We lost an FA Cup final [to Everton] in 1995 because of what happened at West Ham [in the last league match, which handed the title to Blackburn]. We missed chance after chance against West Ham and it was as though it was written in the stars that it just wasn't meant to be."

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