Steve Bruce

01 Apr 2011

STEVE BRUCE: THE GREAT UNKNOWN

Although he’s been in the public eye for more than three decades, there’s still a great deal we don’t know about Steve Bruce and his football philosophy. The Manager heads north to learn more about the Sunderland boss.

For a man who’s been a major face in English football for more than 30 years, Steve Bruce still retains a certain air of mystery. This can be attributed largely to Bruce’s humble approach when reflecting on his professional achievements. Such humility, combined with a work ethic garnered from his north-east upbringing has seen Steve Bruce impress in his 13 years as a manager.

Bruce was born in Corbridge, Northumberland on New Year’s Eve 1960. Although he showed exceptional promise as a schoolboy footballer, he managed to elude the major clubs’ scouts and was about to start as an apprentice with the Swan Hunter shipyard when he was signed by Gillingham, then operating in the old third division. (Bruce travelled to Kent for trials with another lad from his local team, Wallsend Boys Club, but was the only one of the pair who was selected. His travelling companion? The future England forward Peter Beardsley.)

Having moved steadily up the football ladder (his 205 senior appearances for Gillingham had been rewarded by a move to Norwich City in 1984) Bruce made the move that defined his playing career, by joining Manchester United during the 1987/88 season. Although Bruce’s move to United didn’t bring immediate success, his signing marked the beginning of a new era for the club and the rest, of course, is history.

During his nine seasons at Old Trafford, Bruce played his part in winning three Barclays Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup and the club’s first European trophy in more than two decades, the European Cup Winners Cup. He was the first Englishman to captain a doublewinning team... but surprisingly he was never selected to play for England.

Having led his team to another title win in the 1995/96 season, Bruce (by now 35 years old) decided to move on, rather than become a ‘bit part’ player in the club’s ongoing success story.

The leadership skills that defined Bruce’s playing career highlighted him as a natural candidate for management.

Despite being approached about a number of managerial vacancies, he decided that he still had a few seasons left as a player and signed for Birmingham City. After almost two seasons with the Midlands club, Bruce was invited to take the reins at Sheffield United and this time, feeling the time was right, he took his first step into management.

Bruce’s early career in management saw a succession of quick-fire moves, from Sheffield United to Huddersfield to Wigan to Crystal Palace, all within the space of three years. However, it was on his return to Birmingham City in 2001 that Bruce settled into the role, taking the club into the top flight for the first time in 16 years at the end of his first season in charge. In almost six years in charge at St Andrews, Bruce experienced both highs and lows, including one relegation and two promotions to the Barclays Premier League.

Then, in late 2007, Bruce was approached by the Wigan Athletic chairman, Dave Whelan, about the possibility of his returning to the club where he’d had a brief spell in 2001. Having enjoyed the working dynamic of his previous partnership with Whelan, Bruce accepted the offer and returned to take control of team affairs at the DW Stadium, where he spent the next two seasons.

Finally, in the summer of 2009, Bruce returned ‘home’ to the northeast... not to take charge of the club he’d supported all his life, but to lead their rivals, Sunderland.

Under Bruce’s leadership, the ‘Black Cats’ finished the 2010/11 season in tenth place in the Barclays Premier League... only the third time the club had enjoyed a top ten finish in half a century.

When did you first decide that you wanted to go into management?

My playing career was coming to an end and, like most players do at that stage, I started to think about the next step. The idea of taking charge of a youth team appealed to me, but then I got the opportunity to join Sheffield United as player manager. Player management is possibly the most difficult thing that you can do, though, and to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend it. I learned my trade, but it was a harsh learning curve, not least because it was a difficult time for Sheffield United, financially. I learned that football management’s not just about picking teams and winning matches; it’s also about balancing the books and working on a tight budget, which is a far more difficult thing to do. It was a real eyeopener for me, as I went straight from playing at a high level to managing at a totally different level; certainly in terms of funding and finance.

Did you find many of your strengths were transferable from playing to management?

I can’t say that I had too many natural strengths as a player, but I always had a hunger to succeed. I always, always tried to give as good as I could, whether it was in training or in matches. I think it’s because I come from the north-east of England, which is a tough, working-class area where people have to work hard and that’s stood me in good stead. That has shaped my approach to management. What I require from my players and coaching staff is to work hard and give as much as they can; if they do that they will never hear a complaint from me.

Has the fact that you played for so long under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United impacted on your management style?

Yes, definitely. He has got to the top by being very, very gifted at what he does, but at the same time I have never known anybody work as hard as he does; I leave home for training at seven in the morning and he is already at his training ground by then. When I first rang him about management he said: “Don’t look for confrontation, because it will find you.” He was absolutely right.

How has your management style developed over the 13 years you’ve been in the role?

You learn and mature as you get older. Experience is vital because nothing prepares you for the moment when you become the boss and all of your club’s problems fall on you. I was a bit hasty and headstrong when I was first learning my trade, particularly when I worked with [then chairman] Simon Jordan at Crystal Palace. I’ve spoken to Simon since and I think we’ve both mellowed a bit in the intervening years; we were probably both a bit too young when we worked together. I needed the stability that I got from spending six years at Birmingham, as prior to that I had been perceived as constantly ‘jumping ship’ which was never really the case. It was important for me to lose that tag.

It’s often said that ‘you should never go back’, but you did two spells with Wigan. Was your relationship with the chairman different during your second spell at the club?

When I first joined Wigan, I didn’t know if I was going to stick with football management or not. I’d had two cracks at it, at Sheffield United and Huddersfield, and I’d started to wonder if management really was for me. I took a break for four or five months and had a good, long think about it. Wigan were in the old second division when I was approached by Dave Whelan and we decided that we’d try working together for six weeks. During that short spell Dave proved to me what a really good  chairman could do for you and how vital it is that you have a good relationship with your boss. Dave Whelan is as straight as they come; he’s honest, he wants his club to do well and he’s prepared to fund it. I went on to enjoy working for him for six months before the opportunity arose to work in London with Crystal Palace. Something inside me told me that I should leave the north-west and the comfortable environment that I’d been in for about 18 years to have a crack at London. I had no hesitation in going back, by which time Wigan were struggling near the bottom of the Barclays Premier League. I went back because of the relationship I had with Dave. I knew he was good to work for and a terrific chairman, which is what every manager needs.

Would you say that your management methods are more ‘modern day’ or ‘old school’?

You’ve got to embrace the science of football and move with the times, but the pitch is still the same, the ball is the same shape and the goals haven’t changed in 100 years, so sometimes it makes sense to revert back to the old ‘boot room’ ways. I try to strike a balance between the two. The traditional management and coaching methods used in this country have produced great players in the past and there’s no real evidence that all of the science is improving the ability of the English player. It’s absolutely necessary to embrace the science side, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of exactly what the game is.

How would you define your managerial philosophy?

I never ask anyone on the staff – from the tea lady to the players – to do anything that I wouldn’t enjoy doing myself. Nowadays a football club is too big an organisation for a manager to look after everything, so I concentrate on the area where I have the most responsibility, the training ground. I want everybody to come into work and enjoy what they’re doing; if you create that environment then you get the best out of people.

Has the relationship between players and management changed since your time on the other side of the fence.

Trust is a vital part of it now. These young boys are paid handsome sums of money from an early age and, as a result, there are big demands placed on them. The crucial thing for me is that I want my players to behave and I try and put down some ground rules with them that will ultimately stand them in good stead. Boys will always be boys, but there are certain ground rules that we have here at Sunderland which I would hope they would obey.

What, in your opinion, are the most important skills the modern manager has to master?

Communication and planning are both absolutely crucial. There is so much that you need to get across in a team talk; you need to give the players a detailed analysis of the opposition, but you also need to motivate them. I concentrate on one or two points that I want to get over, because if you try to get too much across then it becomes too much for the players to consume. You have to keep the message clear and simple so that your point gets across. Obviously there is the planning that goes in to training during the week and we are very, very meticulous about that. Then, of course, all of your plans may have to change because of injuries or whatever, so sometimes it becomes very instinctive. The planning that goes on around the training ground is paramount; my staff and I are at work by 7:45 every morning to plan the session and the week ahead. It’s vital that when the players go out to train everything is meticulously organised.

And communication with the fans... is that equally important?

I try to be as honest as I can, because they don’t take too kindly to ‘flannel’ in the north-east. I always try to explain how things are. A good example is the sale of Jordan Henderson; we explained to the supporters that we didn’t really want to lose him, but that if we did we would use the money to strengthen the squad. If you explain things to the supporters and they can see that you’re truthful with them, then they may not agree with your decisions but at least they can see what you’re trying to do. It’s vitally important to myself and [Sunderland chairman] Niall Quinn that the supporters trust us; we were the fifth or sixth best supported team in the Barclays Premier League last year, which is terrific from a region that is struggling financially.

You spent money before this season which naturally raises expectations; how do you manage those expectations?

This area thrives on football because it has very little else at the moment; it’s been hit harder than most and has probably been in recession for about 20 years since the pits and shipbuilding went. The people around here might not have a lot of money, but the support that we get is magnificent and managing the fans’ expectations is the hardest thing. For instance, we finished tenth last season, which was the club’s third highest finish since 1955; now, we’re expected to aim for Europe. The club has been very supportive, which was one of the reasons why I joined. I have a great chairman and the club’s owner [American equity dealer Ellis Short] deserves a big pat on the back for how he has gone about supporting us... he really has been exemplary. His remit to me was: “Get me a team which can compete in the top half of the division, I don’t want to be involved in relegation battles, I just want my club to be an established Barclays Premier League club.” Our aim is to improve on last year’s position and we have to have an outstanding chance of achieving that.