That Steve Bruce has emerged as one of Mario Balotelli’s more passionate defenders should not come as a surprise. This is, after all, a man who shared a dressing room with Eric Cantona.
The comparison is an interesting one. Both Cantona and Balotelli were thought unmanageable when they signed. However, at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson turned the Frenchman – who had defeated such managerial talents as Michel Platini, Guy Roux and Franz Beckenbauer – into the catalyst for Manchester United’s transformation into English football’s dominant force. The reason, said Bruce, was that the Old Trafford dressing room accepted him and Ferguson did not try to change him.
“He came into a team that was ready to accept his maverick ways,” said Bruce after seeing his side keep Balotelli at bay in Saturday’s goalless draw at Anfield. The Hull manager thought the Italian was Liverpool’s best player.
When he brought the midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa, who had also been thought unmanageable at Newcastle, to Humberside, Bruce said he realised “the one thing he isn’t going to do is change. You have to find a way of managing them without changing them.
“Balotelli has been unfairly criticised, in my opinion, because he has this look that he doesn’t care. It is easy to pick on him because of his body language.
“When you sign a maverick, you always know there is something you have to protect them [against]. Cantona was a maverick. He was also dedicated, he carried a bag with vitamins well before anyone else did. He did it to make sure he was physically right.
“He came into the team and we all liked him. So, when he turns up in flip-flops and baggy jeans to a civic reception there is only him that can get away with it. I questioned Fergie about it and he said: ‘Tell the rest of the team if they all play like Cantona they can all wear baggy jeans and flip-flops.’ ”
Cantona was both liked and respected at Old Trafford. It is hard to know how true that is of Balotelli at Anfield. Ferguson indulged Cantona. Manchester City’s English contingent thought their former manager, Roberto Mancini, overindulged Balotelli.
At Liverpool, the complaint has been that he has simply not produced. “He is getting everything,” said his manager, Brendan Rodgers. “The fans, the players and the staff will back every new player.”
If former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, now a television pundit, can be said to speak for his close friend, Steven Gerrard, then the view of the home dressing room at Anfield could be summed up in his comment that Balotelli is a “passenger”.
That Balotelli played better against Hull than he has done since arriving on Merseyside is a consolation but, once Daniel Sturridge returns to full fitness, Rodgers will have the opportunity to do to Balotelli something Ferguson never dared do to Cantona – drop him.Reuse content