Much has happened in between and there may yet be one last flirtation with the top six for his new employers Sheffield Wednesday, but that was the inescapable feeling leaving Hillsborough on Saturday evening.
Bruce began the 2018-19 campaign fighting fires at Villa Park; impending financial turmoil and scepticism from the Holte End escalated into a disappointing start and he was sacked in October.
Wednesday have revived him, and he they, but an 11-match unbeaten run that had turned nervous glances over shoulders at the bottom three into an optimisitc surge towards the top six came to a shuddering halt at the hands of his former club.
Saturday was always likely to be a defining result for Wednesday’s ambitions given the Bruce narrative hanging over the fixture and the fact Villa occupied the coveted final play-off spot four points above the Owls.
The crushing disappointment felt after Albert Adomah and Tammy Abraham struck in the ‘92nd’ and ‘94th’ minutes to turn a game that had been well-contested and delightfully poised into a 3-1 scoreline was etched on the faces of Bruce and his men.
“Football can be cruel sometimes,” lamented Bruce, who in 898 games as a manager and 737 as a player has taken pretty much everything his sport can throw at him.
Cruel to Bruce on Saturday night because he felt his side had laid seige to Villa’s goal in the second half before those two late punches to the gut.
Was it harder to take because it was Villa? he was asked.
“That episode and saga is gone as far as I’m concerned,” he said, brushing it off politely before admitting a few minutes later that this was a game with a little extra ‘spice’, which perhaps betrayed the depth of the hurt.
There was further irony in the fact his most dependable player since he arrived at Hillsborough on February 1 was the one to miss the chance that would have given Wednesday a 2-1 lead.
Steven Fletcher won a penalty because Tyrone Mings was slow to react to Barry Bannan’s incisive ball over the top. But then Fletcher, scorer of five goals since Bruce took charge, fired his penalty meekly at Villa goalkeeper Jed Steer.
“Arguably the best player we’ve had since I came in the door has missed the penalty. In the big games and the big moments you need to take those chances,” rued Bruce.
Sympathy for Fletcher also came from Adam Reach, the Wednesday winger who had gone close with a curling effort following a sumptuous backheel from Bannan that created space for the opportunity.
“Steven is the one out of anyone whose hands you would want to have the ball in, but these things happen,” said Reach.
“Fletch is just as disappointed as everyone else.
“It’s a disappointed dressing room, but we’ve got to forget about that now, we can’t change it.”
There were positives for Wednesday. Seeing Gary Hooper starting a game and scoring will have given great heart to the large majority of the near-30,000 crowd inside Hillsborough.
The 31-year-old was starting a home game for the first time since December, 2017, and just his second game in a row following a groin surgery in November that was the last of a catalogue of injuries.
Hooper required just seven minutes to find the net, tapping home after Michael Hector’s raking ball from right-back had exposed Ahmed Elmohamady and freed George Boyd, who raced forward and teed up Hooper.
Villa’s reply on 19 minutes came out of nothing, Mings’s long ball appeared to have eluded Andre Green, but the nippy right-winger stretched out a leg in the nick of time to steer the ball back to the edge of the area where John McGinn – no stranger to excellent goals against the Owls after his thunderbolt in September – met it with a controlled volley that arced past Kieren Westwood.
Wednesday had the better of the second half although they were not as dominant as players and manager felt.
Fletcher’s penalty miss was crucial, as Villa manager Dean Smith acknowledged – “it would have been difficult to come back against Wednesday with their tails up” – before the late drama.
First Adomah scrambled home a rebound from an acute angle and then Abraham charged into the area and fired under Westwood.
To compound matters Wednesday had lost the influential Bannan a few minutes earlier to what Bruce revealed was a “hamstring niggle”.
“Barry’s been playing with a lot of pain and a lot of niggles,” said Reach. “The manager has asked us all to play through certain issues to give us one last push.
“If we get to the play-offs it’ll all be worth it. It’s going to be very difficult to make it now, and probably unlikely, but we’ll not stop trying to win games.
“From Tuesday onwards we have to win all of our games. Just one last push.”
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood, Palmer, Hector, Lees, Iorfa (Fox 40); Boyd, Bannan (Matias 73), Hutchinson, Reach; Fletcher, Hooper (Forestieri 84). Unused substitutes: Dawson, Pelupessy, Winnall, Nuhiu.
Aston Villa: Steer; Elmohamady, Hause (Tuanzebe 52), Mings, Taylor; Whelan, McGinn, Grealish; El Ghazi )(Kodija 83), Green (Adomah 70); Abraham. Unused substitutes: Sarkic, Lansbury, Hourihane, Jedinak.
Referee: O Langford (West Midlands).