I tried for Becks. It was Milan and Prada or Sunderland and Primark

Steve Bruce tells Tim Rich about his bid for Beckham and why his young guns can come of age today
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The Independent Football

Milan has the Via Montenapoleone with its temples to Armani and Gucci; Sunderland has the Bridges shopping centre featuring stottie cakes by Greggs and Peacock Ladieswear. For David and Victoria it might have been tempting.

"I tried to get David Beckham," said Steve Bruce with a shrug and a smile. "I tried 18 months ago when he went to Milan. Did I get any encouragement at all? No, he just said: 'Thanks, Brucey, but I'm going to Milan.' I understand that. Milan and Prada or Sunderland and Primark?"

It was his loss. On Wearside, Beckham might have been a catalyst rather than the walk-on cameo he became at San Siro. He could have joined training by the heaving black mass of the North Sea, where Bruce's squad prepared for this afternoon's journey to Old Trafford by coming across a seal on the beach.

But 18 months on, Bruce would probably not want him – the focus is on developing youth and concentrating spending on one significant signing a year, the formula that turned Manchester United into English football's most irresistible force.

"It is maybe one of the things I have learned from Sir Alex Ferguson; buying younger players at the right time. Even though you might pay a little too much, you look at Manchester United and what they have done over the years. They have always bought the up and coming. Cristiano Ronaldo, who cost £12m when nobody had ever heard of him. Wayne Rooney was £24m and has played there six years. Rio Ferdinand has been there 10 years. So that is the way forward; that is what I have tried to put in place.

"I arguably had my best team on paper when I got relegated at Birmingham and I vowed never to make that mistake again. I had highly paid players who were always on the treatment table. On paper they were terrific but on the pitch they weren't. I was never going down that route again, employing old players who have done it, seen it, worn the T-shirt – and I had to drag something out of them. I thought if I got another chance, I'd go young and that is what I've done at Wigan and here."

Big signings such as Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan and young footballers such as Jordan Henderson and Nedum Onuoha have forged what is perhaps Sunderland's best side since the heavy spending of the "Bank of England Club" disintegrated into relegation in 1958 – an event Ferguson usually mentions when the subject crops up of where Manchester City might be headed.

As a Glaswegian brought up on heavy industry and deep football passions, Ferguson has always had a liking for the North-east. This season, he said, there had been a few teams to have taken points off Manchester United but Sunderland were the only ones to have deserved to. This week he went further. "In my years at Manchester United I have only experienced half a dozen of what I would describe as 'perfect performances'. But I watched Sunderland beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and that was a perfect performance. They were absolutely brilliant."

Sunderland's last visit to Old Trafford was near-perfect. They had not won there since May 1968 when Paris was in flames and the two Manchester clubs were going toe-to-toe for the championship. In October 2009, they were 30 seconds away before Anton Ferdinand scored an own goal.

Only two of Ferguson's former players have ever beaten him at Old Trafford; Bryan Robson in 1998 and Mark Hughes with Blackburn five years ago. Robson's win with Middlesbrough was so unlikely that one of Boro's former players, Bernie Slaven, now a radio commentator, said he would bare his backside in the town's department store, Binns, if it happened. He turned up in the shop window in a kilt. Bruce, who has never beaten Ferguson anywhere, had come achingly close.

"It is no secret we had a stand-up row," he said when discussing Rio's younger brother, although Bruce does not want him labelled like this. "I thought last week against Bolton he was arguably our best player – against Kevin Davies and Johan Elmander he dominated. There is no question about Anton's ability; it is the concentration thing. There was a time when he was off to Italy – or so I kept reading – but thankfully he is here now. Rio is the problem. There are too many comparisons with him and all his life he has had to deal with them. There is nothing wrong with looking up to your brother. I look up to my younger brother but we are totally different."

Two months after suffering his most excruciating moment in management – losing 5-1 at Newcastle – Bruce is in charge of a Sunderland side that might secure European football for the first time since Bob Stokoe's unlikely lads celebrated their FA Cup victory over Leeds with jaunts to Budapest and Lisbon. They have beaten Manchester City and Chelsea and taken points from Liverpool and Arsenal.

And yet on the day we spoke, as the snow cascaded around the training ground, Bruce's chairman Niall Quinn was staring from the back page of the Sunderland Echo demanding that fans back results with higher attendances. There were at least 10,000 empty seats at the last home game.

"Genuinely, we are disappointed that crowds have fallen away a bit but I do think it is the economic climate that people face around here," said Bruce, who still returns to the workingmen's clubs of Wallsend where he grew up. "I am from here, I have family and friends here and they are all finding it tough.

"I don't think it is any detriment to the team, I just think people haven't got the money in their pockets, especially at this time of year. To be fair, we had 35,000 last week. It was live on the telly, it was 12.45pm, Bolton came in a taxi and it was the week before Christmas. But I do believe that if you had 60 quid and two kids with you, you would spend it to make their Christmas Day better."

Master and apprentice

Played 16 Ferguson 12, Bruce 0, Drawn 4.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Bruce share a birthday on New Year's Eve, Ferguson turning 69 and Bruce 50. Their head-to-head record is bizarrely one-sided. In 16 meetings, Bruce has never defeated his old manager.

Oct 2010 Sunderland 0, Man Utd 0

May 2010 Sunderland 0, Man Utd 1

Oct 2009 Man Utd 2, Sunderland 2

May 2009 Wigan 1, Man Utd 2

Jan 2009 Man Utd 1, Wigan 0

May 2008 Man Utd 2, Wigan 0

Sep 2007 Birmingham 0, Man Utd 1

Mar 2006 Man Utd 3, Birmingham 0

Dec 2005 Birmingham 2, Man Utd 2

Dec 2005 Birmingham 1, Man Utd 3

Feb 2005 Man Utd 2, Birmingham 0

Oct 2004 Birmingham 0, Man Utd 0

Apr 2004 Birmingham 1, Man Utd 2

Oct 2003 Man Utd 3, Birmingham 0

Feb 2003 Birmingham 0, Man Utd 1

Dec 2002 Man Utd 2, Birmingham 0

Bruce's managerial record:

Sunderland (June 2009 to present): Played 63, Won 21, Drew 21, Lost 21. Win percentage 33.33

Wigan (Nov 2007 to June 2009): Played 68, Won 23, Drew 28, Lost 17. Win percentage: 33.82

Birmingham (Dec 2001 to Nov 2007): Played 270, Won 100, Drew 100, Lost 70. Win percentage: 37.04

Crystal Palace (May 2001 to Nov 2001): Played 18, Won 11, Drew 5, Lost 2. Win percentage: 61.11

Wigan (April 2001 to May 2001): Played 8, Won 3, Drew 3, Lost 2. Win percentage: 37.50

Huddersfield (May 1999 to Oct 2000): Played 66, Won 25, Drew 25, Lost 16. Win percentage: 37.88

Sheffield Utd (July 1998 to May 1999): Played 55, Won 22, Drew 18, Lost 15. Win percentage: 40.0

Bruce the Old Trafford hero

Signed for United from Norwich City for £800,000 in 1987 and stayed until 1996 before joining Birmingham City.

Honours (12 trophies)

3 Premier League 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96

3 FA Cup 1989-90, 1993-94, 1995-96

1 League Cup 1991-92

3 Charity Shield 1990, 1993, 1994

1 Cup-Winner's Cup 1990-91

1 Uefa Super Cup 1991

Bruce's playing record

Overall 414 appearances, 42 goals

League 309 appearances, 36 goals

FA Cup 41 appearances, 3 goals

League Cup 34 appearances, 6 goals

Other 34 appearances, 7 goals