In the week that Sir Bobby Robson's life and work were celebrated so fittingly in Durham Cathedral, the North-east was an appropriate place in which to be considering roots and their effect on a man.
Steve Bruce, once a Newcastle fan like Sir Bobby and now across the great divide as manager of Sunderland, had been there last Monday paying his respects. Four days later, ahead of this afternoon's home game against Wolves, he was to be found musing on how his upbringing in the area shaped his values; particularly a desire to secure value for money, even when it belongs to as generous a benefactor as Sunderland's owner, Ellis Short.
"That's something I learnt from Wallsend down the road," he said before Friday's training session with a squad eager to build on three wins in their first six games. "Everybody associates me with Man United. But before that my career was a huge struggle. I played in the lower divisions for eight years. And in managerial terms it was tough, the first two or three jobs I had. You learn from that."
Knowing the value of a pound was one lesson that did not need to be assimilated. When he moved on, sometimes in controversially quick succession, from Huddersfield to Crystal Palace, then Birmingham and Wigan under Dave Whelan, he remembered where he came from.
"If you haven't experienced scrimping and scraping and begging and borrowing... I did it for four years with Birmingham. Every year I used to scratch my head and think, 'Jesus, how are we going to survive here?' You're hoping you can find a young 'un, get a loan signing like [Christophe] Dugarry one year, then [Mikael] Forssell the next. I know how difficult it is on a restricted budget. It tests you but it does make you a better manager."
Better and better, at Birmingham, then Wigan, which earned him the chance to return to the North-east after all those years away. At last the opportunity has come to spend some real money, albeit with higher expectations of the outcome. "Sometimes it can be a little bit easier on limited resources, because the expectation is not there," he said.
"For instance, when I went to Wigan I inherited five or six good players, brought four or five in, like Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and Amr Zaki, without spending a lot. There's huge pressure here. The owner does not want to be anywhere near that bottom three again. That's my only remit from him: 'I don't want to be involved ever again in relegation'."
It was a closer-run thing last season than some may recall. In the end, with Ricky Sbragia in charge after Roy Keane walked out five months earlier, Sunderland finished just two points above relegated Newcastle, with a worse goal difference. Having hired Bruce, Short has backed him in spending some £30 million on players such as Darren Bent (five goals in as many games), Lee Cattermole, whom Bruce had previously taken to Wigan, and Michael Turner, plus lesser-known names secured by a widespread scouting network, such as the Albanian Lorik Cana, immediately made captain, and the Ghanaian defender John Mensah, whose physicality even Bruce – never a shrinking violet of a centre-half – finds awesome.
"Daryl Murphy ran into him in training the other day and just bounced off him because of his physical power. He's a physical beast of a man, strong and powerful. And whoever plays Ghana in the World Cup, there's 11 of them, all like him, all strong, powerful, quick. I've seen them a few times, a good team they are. I hope England stay clear of them."
There will be the warmest of handshakes before and after today's game with another centre-half of the old school, the Wolves manager, Mick McCarthy, who returns to a ground where he oversaw highs and lows while shopping much further downmarket than Sunderland do today.
"He's a very decent manager who's done well wherever he's gone," Bruce said. "To bring a club back when they've been relegated like he did here is very, very difficult, let me tell you. People who've probably been at the club for years are losing their jobs because suddenly the finances aren't there. So when anybody does it I've got huge respect for them. He's done that [here] and found it difficult, but people know the resources of the club then weren't what they are now."
More Harrods than Tesco, it was suggested? "It's all right going out with a few quid, but I like to think I'd treat it as if it was mine and wouldn't want to just blow it. Whether you're Harrods or Tesco the one thing we all want is value for money."
You can take the boy out of the North-east, and all that. Football did for 32 years. Now he is back and loving it, great expectations or not.Reuse content