STEVE BRUCE may have called time on his spell at the helm of Sheffield United a little under 15 years ago. But he has never forgotten those first steps in management.
Nor is he ever likely to, either. Not with that solitary season at Bramall Lane including all manner of bizarre incidents, ranging from Bruce being threatened with arrest during one game after ordering his players off the field through to the constant boardroom upheaval that saw so many chief executives pass through the club that he eventually lost count.
How fitting, therefore, that Bruce’s first trip to Wembley as a manager should come against the club where it all began in the summer of 1998.
“I will always be grateful for getting my chance at Sheffield United,” said the 53-year-old about his stint as player-manager in south Yorkshire. “Even though it was a difficult time.
“That job was my break and I also learned a hell of a lot very quickly. I had to. One of those lessons was not to have six chief executives in your first year as a manager. Or at least that’s how many I think I had. I wasn’t sure, in the end.
“Whatever the number actually was, I am sure you can imagine the turmoil that caused. From that time on, I knew that if there was turmoil above you at boardroom level then that will filter its way through to the manager and down.
“It undermines the manager and if that happens it gives the players an excuse. I learned that lesson about management very quickly. I would say it also made me grow up very, very quickly.
“It didn’t matter a jot if I was Steve Bruce, the ex-captain of Manchester United, or Billy Bloggs from Alfreton Town. It was a total eye-opener for me in management.
“I could have picked an easier club because I had options. But Sheffield United is a good club with a big tradition and history.
“Unfortunately, I was there at a chaotic time and I was right in the middle of it. You can imagine what it was like as a new manager. But I still have an affinity for Sheffield United today.”
Bruce’s one season in charge at the Lane saw the Blades finish eighth in Division One, a decent enough performance considering the turmoil the club was in at the time.
Crippling financial problems had led to Brian Deane and Jan Aage Fjortoft being sold the previous season, prompting then manager Nigel Spackman to walk out. The instability continued throughout Bruce’s reign, which will surely be best remembered for that remarkable day at Highbury when the Blades and Arsenal created an unwanted slice of FA Cup history.
With the fifth round tie in the balance at 1-1, United’s Lee Morris was left requiring treatment by a crunching tackle from Patrick Vieira.
After a short delay, the game restarted with Ray Parlour directing a throw-in towards Blades goalkeeper Alan Kelly. Unfortunately, Nwankwo Kanu, making his Gunners debut, failed to realise Parlour’s sporting gesture and tore after the ball before squaring a pass for Marc Overmars to tap into an empty net.
All hell broke less straight away, with an incandescent Bruce leading the furious response to one of football’s unwritten rules being so flagrantly ignored.
“That Arsenal game was something else,” chuckled the Hull City manager at the memory of the chaos that followed Overmars’s tap-in. “I was young and a bit hot-headed then so I ordered our lads off the pitch.
“I didn’t want the game to continue. That was when one of the top men in London police said I was going to get arrested. We had thousands of fans at the game and he said if the game didn’t restart then I would be locked up. So, I took them back out.
“The game finished 2-1 and it was a total injustice. To be fair to Arsenal, though, they were brilliant. David Dein, in particular. He said more or less straight away that we’d replay the game as long as it was at Highbury.
“The Sheffield United board were delighted until they found out all the proceeds would go to charity. That didn’t go down too well!
“I wasn’t too happy come the re-arranged game, either, as we were 2-0 down after six minutes. I should have told the lads not to play on in that first game.”
Bruce left the Blades the following summer to escape the boardroom wrangling. A short spell at Huddersfield Town followed but it was not until taking charge of Birmingham City in 2001 that the one-time Manchester United defender really hit his stride as a manager.
The Blues were promoted to the Premier League a year later and Bruce has only spent two full seasons out of the top-flight since then. To his immense pride, both resulted in promotion – with Birmingham in 2007 and Hull two years ago.
Now, a first major Cup final is beckoning along with a possible first tilt at European competition. First, though, Bruce must deal with the threat of his former club. “Getting to the semi-final is great, especially as this club has only got this far once before,” said the Hull chief.
“But you only enjoy a semi-final if you win it. My first semi-final in the FA Cup was played at Maine Road in 1990 against Oldham Athletic. We needed a replay to get through that.
“That got us to Wembley for the final. What a great place. That said, the first final against Crystal Palace finished 3-3 and the occasion got to us.
“All week, we had spent time defending free-kicks but then Palace scored after just seven minutes. Thankfully, we got a draw and then won the replay – which, as a club, really started us off on what was an incredible run.
“When you win at Wembley, it stays with you for a long, long time. It was the same when we won there again in 1994. I was captain that day against Chelsea and we were 4-0 up with 20 minutes to go.
“I was able to enjoy that. I found myself thinking as the game went on, ‘Is my face all right? and ‘Are my hands clean?’
“I had to go up and get the Cup so I wanted to make sure everything was right. When the moment came to walk up the steps and get the Cup, well that is what you dream of as a kid, isn’t it?
“When it happens to you, it is terrific. As a footballer, it is not just you who enjoys it, either. There is the whole family. I know Alex loved those trips.
“We used to travel back from Wembley by train with the family. No-one wanted the journey to end because it was such great fun.
“Everyone was part of it and the train would rock. We’d ask for the train to drive round the country so the trip never had to end!”