Steve Bruce could easily have been leading Newcastle out against their North-east rivals tomorrow, but he has revealed, for the first time, how Sir Bobby Robson played a significant role in him becoming the Sunderland manager.
Of Tyneside stock and a product of Wallsend Boys' club, had Bruce gone on to earn his living as a plumber, a route he seriously considered after knockbacks from several clubs, rather than eventually forging a successful career from professional football, no doubt the 49-year-old would be among 50,000 Newcastle supporters intent on seeing their side stretch the visitors' near decade-long wait for a victory at St James' Park.
As it is, after twice turning down the offer to manage the club his family still follow religiously, it will be from the away dugout where he takes his station, braced for a passion play on the field, and plenty of – good-natured he hopes – stick off it from his "'own" people.
That he will plot Newcastle's downfall is down in part to the intervention of Sir Bobby, whom Bruce had an opportunity to succeed in 2004, but declined. "It just wasn't right," the Sunderland manager said. "There were too many issues and it didn't feel right."
Since then, his managerial career has taken him from Birmingham City to Wigan Athletic and, 16 months ago, to Sunderland, with a little help from football's favourite knight, who lost his battle with cancer last summer, aged 76, shortly after Bruce's appointment.
"I'd often ring Bobby for advice and I spoke to him at length about coming to Sunderland," Bruce, who is expected to name an unchanged line-up, said. "I know he wrote a fantastic letter to Niall Quinn, which I thank him for, saying I was the man for the job – it was something I wasn't aware of until Niall told me. I've not seen the letter." Sir Bobby's words must have been persuasive. The Sunderland chairman still retains the letter in his office at the Stadium of Light.
Bruce added: "Of course, he was ill, and the sad thing was that when I came up here he'd passed away. I miss him, I'm sure everyone else does, and on occasions like this with a great local derby to look forward to, it would have been lovely had he been here. His wife, Lady Elsie, still regularly comes round, and is always welcome." The ever-modest Bruce added: "Why did he write the letter? I don't know, that's just the type of man he was. And it's probably because I lent him my house in Portugal every year!"
Bruce politely declined Newcastle ex-chairman Freddy Shepherd's invitation to follow Sir Bobby in the days when Newcastle were still a force to be reckoned with. Graeme Souness became the first of seven subsequent managers to never look remotely like emulating the three consecutive top-five finishes the club achieved under the former England coach from 2002.
His time at the Stadium of Light all but rules Bruce out of the running to take charge at St James' Park in the future, and he added: "I don't regret not taking the job, I'm a big believer in what will be, and it wasn't right at the time. It was a tough decision."