Steve Bruce interview: Man Utd were not very good when I joined – Ten Hag’s side are the same

Steve Bruce shakes hands with HRH Prince Charles in 1995 ahead of the FA Cup final
Steve Bruce (left) was at the vanguard of the first great team built by Sir Alex Ferguson - Getty Images/Bob Thomas

There is a framed piece of paper on the wall in the bar Steve Bruce had built in his house in Cheshire, alongside pictures of him with Nelson Mandela, Pele and a variety of images capturing the many golden memories from his glory days as a captain at Manchester United.

It was given to him as a leaving present by his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson and is an old United scouting report from when he was a player at Gillingham.

Written in 1982, it lists a series of his limitations and inadequacies: no pace, not good enough on the ball, despite a willing temperament, and concludes he is nowhere near the level required for a Manchester United player. Five years later, Ferguson signed Bruce, via a successful spell at Norwich for Manchester United.

After a decade at Old Trafford, where he won the club’s first league title in 26 years, lifting the trophy alongside the legendary Bryan Robson, as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup and two league and FA Cup doubles, Bruce was at the vanguard of the first great team built by Ferguson.

Steve Bruce celebrates winning the FA Cup with United in 1994
Bruce celebrates winning the FA Cup with United in 1994 - Getty Images/David Cannon

“I always get an amazing reaction when I go back,” says Bruce over lunch in nearby Hale, in a restaurant where fellow diners include Newcastle United winger Anthony Gordon and Liverpool’s Curtis Jones, while Norman Whiteside, a former teammate of Bruce, walks by the window.

“They are an amazing support, incredible and once you’ve done ok here, you are never forgotten. I was privileged to play for the club and win a few things. To be old and done, to go back and people still remember me, it’s obviously one of the highlights.

“But I would never call myself a club legend. I can’t get my head round that. People tell me that I am, but come on. In the [United] museum, there are displays for different people and it goes Best, Bruce, Charlton... f------ hell! I don’t believe I deserve to be there, absolutely not, but I’m very pleased that I am.”

The day before we meet at his house to talk about the parallels in history between the Manchester United he joined, “who had won f--- all” for years, and the modern-day mess under Erik ten Hag, Bruce had been at Old Trafford as a pundit.

He was mobbed by autograph hunters, young and old. For someone who has been attacked, derided and mocked as a manager at Aston Villa, Newcastle and West Brom in the latter years of his career, it was a reminder of the esteem with which he is still held at Old Trafford.

Indeed, after a passing Newcastle fan shouted some abuse, one Manchester United fan replied: “He’s won more than your entire club.”

Steve Bruce holds aloft the Premier League trophy in 1993
Bruce (left) holds aloft the Premier League trophy in 1993 - Getty Images

Yet, when Bruce arrived as a player at Manchester United the only thing they had won in the recent years was the FA Cup, in 1985. Ferguson was fighting to convince people he was the right manager and until another FA Cup win three years after Bruce’s signing, the centre-back was struggling to do so.

“When I arrived in Manchester we weren’t very good,” Bruce says with a chuckle. “And that’s probably a polite way of putting it.

“They gave Sir Alex Ferguson time. Fair play, because it wasn’t easy then. For Manchester United to finish 11th [1989] and 13th [1990], that wasn’t easy. Thankfully we won the FA Cup in 1990 and that relieved some of the pressure for sure.

Steve Bruce in action for United against Chelsea
For Bruce, the early days at United were a struggle - Brian Smith

“What the hierarchy saw at the time was enough to convince them that the things Sir Alex was putting in place, the youth system which bore unbelievable fruits, things were going to get better. They saw reasons to be optimistic... then you have to look at the situation now and Erik ten Hag.

“They’ve got a choice, are they going to back him and say right, this is our man. For me, there has been too much change at Manchester United since Fergie left.

“That is the big decision. Do they believe that Ten Hag is the man who is going to get it right? If they don’t, make the change and put something in place for some longevity.

“If you keep changing, look, only Chelsea have managed to be successful doing it that way and they have some bad seasons in between too.

“The problem is we don’t know. There is all this speculation all the time... talk about the manager’s future and the replacements being linked, it does have a negative effect.

“To be fair, I’ve been to Old Trafford recently and the backing for Ten Hag has been great. Forget social media, I always look at what is happening inside the stadium and certainly the rallying call he gave on the pitch after the Newcastle game, all around me it was positive. Look, you can tell at a game when it’s negative, f------ hell, I’ve experienced that as a manager.”

‘You will get a rude awakening’

Bruce chooses his words carefully, but there is an admittance that Manchester United were arrogant to believe their dominance of English football would inevitably continue.

“Before we knocked Liverpool off the perch, if you go back to the late 80s and early 90s, are you telling me people would have believed it if you told them they would win one title in 30 years?

Arsenal haven’t won the Premier League for 20 years. Man City are the flag bearers now but will they sustain it? I’ve got a sneaky suspicion, in two or three years, when Pep has gone, it will be their turn to suffer.

“If you’re that arrogant to think that it will just go on forever, you will get a rude awakening. Fergie won 13 league titles. United might be the richest club in the world but if you get big decisions wrong, recruitment wrong and you have a churn of managers, you’ve got an uphill battle.”

Bruce, by his own admission, was a journeyman footballer before he signed for United. He laughs about the scouting report from his Gillingham days, but does not dispute its verdict.

But he was superb for United, forming a brilliant partnership with Gary Pallister. When Ferguson won his initial league title and the club’s first for 26 years, it was Bruce’s two late headers in a pivotal game against Sheffield Wednesday that got them over the line. He scored 19 goals in one campaign and even played up front a few times when they were chasing a goal.

Steve Bruce scores the winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993
Bruce scores the winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 - Action Images

“I could have gone to Chelsea or I could have gone to Spurs, but there was never any question for me,” he explains. “It was always going to be Manchester United.

“It lived up to my expectations. Even though we had a struggle for two or three years. I joined in 1987 and we won the FA Cup in 1990.

“We needed a bit of luck, too. The mighty Liverpool lost to Crystal Palace in the semi-final, a massive shock. We played lower-league teams until the final. Hereford away, we were s--- on a s--- pitch.

“Our toughest game was Newcastle away, but we got through it. Even the semi-final, Oldham gave us a run for our money. That little bit of luck in the cup draws, that started it all off. We won in Europe, beat Barcelona in the Cup Winners Cup, the following year.

The Man Utd team that took on Barcelona in the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup final
The Man Utd team that took on Barcelona in the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup final - Shutterstock
Mark Hughes celebrates with the European Cup Winners Cup trophy after beating Barca
Mark Hughes celebrates with the European Cup Winners Cup trophy after beating Barca - Getty Images/David Cannon

“When I went there, the club was in a far worse position than it is now. They weren’t used to winning things, there was no dynasty. They had won the FA Cup in ‘85, that was it. They had not won the league for 20 odd years.

“I ended up lifting the Premier League trophy. What Fergie did, he recruited brilliantly. He wanted a team that mirrored him – big, big personalities.

“If you wanted to fight, we could fight. If you wanted to play football we could play football. The ‘94 team was a great, great team. It was gone by ‘95, it was dismantled very quickly, but it was as good a team as you are going to get.

“Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Giggs, Ince, Keane, Robson and Sharp in the background, Kanchelskis, Hughes and Cantona. That team was the start of it. We won the double in 1994, should have won it again in ‘95 and won the double again in ‘96 when I left. We should have won three doubles on the spin.”

Steve Bruce and Manchester United celebrate winning the Premier League in 1994
Bruce (left) played alongside the likes of Denis Irwin, Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs - Getty Images/John Peters

So what made Bruce successful, especially after he spent so long in the lower leagues?

“I got a little break and the chance to go to Norwich,” he offers as an explanation. “And within four or five years I was captain of the biggest and best club in the world.

“I captained every team I played for. I must have had leadership skills. God loves a trier. I was never blessed with the ability of a Robson, a Hughes or an Ince.

“However, what I had was a desire to win. I wanted a nice house, a nice car. I wanted a few quid and I was driven to be the best I could be because then it would come.

“I had no pace, I was always worried about that so my concentration levels needed to be so high. And I could bump people, I could knock them about a bit. You could get away with it more then.

‘I was an old mongrel dog from Wallsend’

“Suppose people might say I was clever. I could read the game, I could get into position to stop things and not leave myself exposed in a foot race with anybody. I never got injured either. I played every week, twice a week, that was a blessing.

“I wasn’t a pedigree type. I was tough, I was an old mongrel dog from Wallsend but that helped me.

“I got better, too. To start at Gillingham and get where I did. Look, people talk about coaches making you better and they do, but for me it was playing with top, top players. It demanded I become a better player. I had to learn quickly.”

The conversation returns to the modern day and what Bruce thinks the future holds for the club he still holds dear.

“I think Manchester United will get back to the top, the cycle will demand it,” he said. “Look at Arsenal, look at Liverpool. The big clubs always get back in the end.

“It could be another 10 years. I sincerely hope not, but it could be. They have to start all over. They are in a similar situation to where they were when I arrived. There are parallels in history for sure.

“And when you talk about those parallels, the FA Cup could be the stepping stone for Ten Hag. Can they beat Man City? Of course they can, they are capable of getting a result in a one-off game. That could just be the start of things, like it was for us in my day. You just need a bit of luck.”