Greatest Transfers: Steve Bruce- he was “Dolly”… or was it “Daisy”?

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: Norwich City, December 1987 for £825,000 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Centre-Back
Appearances (Goals): 414 (51) between December 1987 & May 1996.

Honours:

F.A. Premier League Winner (3): 1993, 1994, 1996.
F.A. Cup Winner (3): 1990 (1-0 (replay after 3-3 draw) vs. Crystal Palace);
1994 (4-0 vs. Chelsea);
1996 (1-0 vs. Liverpool);
League Cup Winner: 1992 (1-0 vs. Nottingham Forest)
U.E.F.A. European Cup Winners’ Cup Winner: 1991 (2-1 vs. Barcelona).

Along with centre-back partner Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce formed one half of the defensive bedrock on which Alex Ferguson’s early success at Manchester United was based, the infamous “Dolly and Daisy” partnership, trusted absolutely by both Ferguson himself and United fans in general. What is still absolutely incredulous to this day is the fact that Bruce, despite innumerable fearless warrior-like displays in the red shirt of his club, remained uncapped by his country throughout his career, perhaps one of the great injustices in the modern era of the game.

Steve Bruce was born in Corbridge, Northumberland on the last day of 1960, and unsurprisingly as a Geordie, seemed to have ‘black & white’ blood in his veins, a diehard Newcastle United fan from an early age. He claims to have often sneaked into St. James’ Park to watch his team as a kid, crawling under the turnstiles to avoid paying the entrance fee! Like many future professional players, he played for the famous Wallsend Boys Club (for whom the likes of Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Michael Carrick also featured), and was a ball-boy at the 1974 League Cup Final between Wolves and Manchester City.

By 1978 Bruce looked destined for a life as a plumber on the Newcastle docks, having been rejected by several clubs, including Newcastle, Sunderland and Derby County. However, along with Beardsley, Bruce was offered a trial by Gillingham, of all clubs, whose manager had seen him playing for Wallsend. He was signed as an apprentice thereafter, though Beardsley was turned down, no doubt a decision that Gillingham regret to this day! Bruce had been playing as a central-midfielder until then, but was switched to centre-half duties by Gillingham coach Bill Collins, whom Bruce still regards as one of the biggest influences in his career.

Bruce’s time at Gillingham started in the reserve team, whom he top-scored for with 18 goals as a centre-back during 1978-79 season; he played for England U-18’s team in the 1980 European Championships, and eventually came into Gillingham’s 1st team for a League Cup tie against Luton Town on 11th August 1979. There he remained, playing so well that he won the club’s ‘Player of the Year’ award after his debut season in the old Third Division, going on to make 205 appearances for the Gills.

However Bruce had his sights set on playing at a much higher level than Division Three football, and realising that Gillingham were never going to be able to give that to him, he decided he would not sign a new deal with the club when his current one expired at the end of the 1983-84 campaign. Luckily for Bruce, having already attracted scouts from bigger clubs, he played a prominent role in Gillingham’s lengthy F.A. Cup run that season, which ended in defeat after several replayed ties with eventual winners Everton. Newcastle United expressed interest in him, but it was Norwich City, under manager Ken Brown, who put their money on the table, and Bruce moved to East Anglia for £135,000 in August 1984.

Though his time at Norwich City was a huge success for Bruce personally, it started off in the worst possible manner when he scored an own-goal in the FIRST MINUTE of his debut against Liverpool! The league campaign that followed was a true heartbreaker for the Canaries and Bruce as they became the only club in history to suffer relegation despite earning 49 points in the season, a late rally from Coventry City sending them down on the final day. Despite that, Bruce had played his part in helping the club to win the League Cup at Wembley earlier in the season with a 1-0 win over Sunderland. He had also endeared himself to Canaries fans everywhere with the winning goal against bitter rivals Ipswich Town in the Semi-Final, and was named ‘Man of the Match’ after the Final itself.

The following season Norwich were far too good for the other sides in the Second Division, storming to the title with striker Kevin Drinkell grabbing 22 league goals; Bruce was ever-present, and ended a successful season by getting named club captain, replacing Dave Watson, who transferred to Everton.

On their return to the top division for 1986-87, Bruce helped Norwich City to their highest league positional finish in their history at that time, fifth, and began to attract attention from the biggest clubs in the country as the Canaries lost only 8 games all season. After another good start to the 1987-88 campaign, Bruce was targeted by Alex Ferguson as the perfect man to bring stability to the United defence, with stalwart Kevin Moran approaching the end of his days as a top flight player and Terry Butcher (whom Ferguson also fancied) opting to stay at Rangers instead of moving to Manchester. Other clubs such as Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur were rumoured to be interested in Steve’s signature too, but Ferguson got his man for £825,000- it would be money very well spent.

Bruce’s impact was immediate, helping United to finish the league campaign in runners-up position with only 5 defeats and 81 points, which would have been enough to win the league title in many other seasons. As it was, a formidable Liverpool side claimed the title with only two losses all season. Bruce made his debut in a 2-1 win at Portsmouth on 19th December and missed only one of United’s remaining fixtures that season, scoring his first goal in the 2-1 win at Chelsea on 13th February 1988.

The following season could be summed up by one word: inconsistent. Bruce was ever-present, making a total of 48 appearances in all competitions and scoring 4 goals from his centre-back position, but the team, despite new goalkeeper Jim Leighton keeping 15 clean sheets in league action, limped to an 11th place finish; it was hugely disappointing. Mark Hughes had returned to the club from stints in Barcelona and Bayern Munich and finished joint top-scorer with Brian McClair on 16 goals apiece, but trophies eluded United, including a deflating 6th Round F.A. Cup 1-0 defeat at home to Nottingham Forest. Bruce had no regular partner at centre-half, a situation that Ferguson would quickly seek to resolve, though not before showing the door to club legend Paul McGrath the following summer.

1989-90 started with a ‘bang’ for the big Geordie, opening the scoring after only 2 minutes of the new season had elapsed as United crushed Arsenal 4-1 in the Manchester sunshine, but the optimism that stemmed from that victory soon gave way to pessimism as three successive defeats dumped United down to 16th position. On the bright side for Bruce personally, a new partner in the shape of big Gary Pallister from Middlesbrough had arrived at the end of August, but it would take time for the partnership to gel, by which stage United had been condemned to a fight against relegation, not a title challenge. Indeed, so poor was the Red Devils’ league form that they went almost 3 months without a league victory- from 18th November (a 3-1 win at Luton Town) until 10th February (a 2-1 win at Millwall)- something that younger United fans of today probably couldn’t even imagine in their worst nightmares!

The only saving grace for both the season, and probably for Alex Ferguson’s managerial career at United, was the F.A. Cup run that the side put together, against all the odds. Bruce was once again ever-present in the knock-out competition as United battled all the way to a Wembley show-down with Crystal Palace, then managed by former Reds great Steve Coppell. In the first game, Bruce was unable to prevent Palace scoring 3 times, a young Ian Wright emerging from the bench to score twice, and only a late Mark Hughes equaliser took the Final to a replay. In the replay, the United defence looked far more assured, and Bruce collected his first winners’ medal at United when left-back Lee Martin scored the only goal of the game; it was a good end to a poor season.

The following season, Bruce again opened the club’s league scoring account for the season in the opening day 2-0 win over Coventry City, but though they were much better than the previous season, United still struggled to find the consistency to keep pace with leaders Arsenal and Liverpool. Bruce himself, as was fast becoming the ‘norm’, played in the vast majority of United’s games and added a new feature to his game by taking over as the 1st team penalty-taker; he ended the campaign with a total of 19 goals in all competitions (11 of those from the penalty spot), a truly remarkable statistic, which included two conversions in a 3-1 win over Wimbledon. Your humble author used to refer to Steve’s penalty conversions as United’s ‘Brucie Bonuses’, in deference to the recently deceased Sir Bruce Forsyth’s quips on his popular “Play Your Cards Right” gameshow!

As it was, United would still win less than half of their league fixtures, which left them in 6th position by May, and only a superb string of results in the European Cup Winners’ Cup saved the season from utter mediocrity, as they also somehow conspired to lose the League Cup Final 1-0 to former manager Ron Atkinson’s Second Division Sheffield Wednesday side on 21st April. In Europe, however, Bruce more than contributed to the excellent run to the Final in Rotterdam with goals against Wrexham (two, one in each leg in a 5-0 aggregate win), Montpellier (a crucial penalty conversion in France as United won 3-1 on aggregate) and the third goal in a 3-1 win over Legia in Warsaw which set United up to see out the Semi-Final tie with a 1-1 draw back in Manchester.

In the Final they met a strong Barcelona side, but after a frantic goal-less 1st half, two well-taken goals from Mark Hughes against his former club put United in control, and despite a late Ronald Koeman consolation for the Catalans, Bruce and his colleagues held on to lift United’s second European trophy.

By now at the peak of his powers, Bruce and his team-mates were expected to challenge strongly for a much-anticipated first league title at Old Trafford in 25 years the following season; the defence was a consistent, powerful unit with Bruce a virtual ever-present alongside Gary Pallister in the centre-back positions, their combination labelled ‘Dolly and Daisy’ by their playful colleagues. Behind them, giant Dane Peter Schmeichel had arrived from Brondby over the summer, and Denis Irwin performed his usual “8 out of 10” every week, whether at right-back or left-back.

To his great delight, Bruce had also been nominated as Club vice-captain by now, but spent a lot of time as the actual captain on the park, since skipper Bryan Robson was suffering long-term injury problems at this time.

As predicted, United did indeed ‘fly out of the blocks’, dropping only 8 points before their first defeat, a 3-2 reverse at Sheffield Wednesday in late October….but crucially they had not ‘shaken off’ the pursuing pack, particularly Wednesday and Leeds United, and as Christmas turned into New Year, the victories more often than not turned into draws, and it became increasingly clear that the Yorkshire sides would fight United all the way to the finishing line in this last ever Division One title race.

Bruce had been suffering from a long-standing hernia problem, and when it became too painful for him to continue, the resulting operation kept him out of action for over 5 weeks. He returned in time to skipper the team at Wembley as they sought to avenge the previous season’s League Cup Final defeat by inflicting loss on Brian Clough’s young Nottingham Forest side. On the day, an early opportunist strike from Brian McClair was enough to win the game for the Red Devils, and Bruce proudly lifted the strange looking three-handled trophy, hoping it would be a warm-up for the league title victory in May.

However, the fates were against Bruce and United. Less than a fortnight later, Forest avenged United by shocking them with a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford, a result which allowed Leeds United to leap into pole position in the title race. Two further losses in successive weeks to West Ham United and bitter rivals Liverpool were enough to condemn United to runners-up spot, and they had to watch on in despair as the Elland Road outfit celebrated winning the last ever Division One title.

The following season saw the introduction of the Premier League, and once again United were hotly tipped to feature in the title race, but two opening defeats (including a hugely embarrassing 0-3 hiding at home from Everton) left them looking up the table at everyone else. By now, the defensive unit pretty much picked itself, Schmeichel filling the goal with Paul Parker (right-back), Denis Irwin (left-back), Pallister and Bruce in front of him. What was also occurring with regularity were fierce slanging-matches between Steve and the giant Danish keeper behind him! Both were perfectionists, and could accept no fault from the other, so that any perceived slacking or mistake was met with a furious volley of expletives from the other; it made for great entertainment for the United faithful!

Despite putting five straight victories together from late August into mid-September, United were struggling to convert chances, and consequently sat outside the top 3 places. Bruce remained club penalty-taker, and had two successful conversions to his name before the catalyst for change arrived in mid-November in the form of Eric Cantona from Leeds United. By then, United had slipped down to 10th position and the season threatened to peter out altogether.

Cantona’s impact on the side was almost immediate, and as well as inspiring those around him to greater effort, the big Frenchman relieved Bruce of his penalty-taking duties too. United went on a storming run of results that had them back at the league summit before the New Year arrived, and with Cantona bringing the best out of the likes of Hughes, McClair and a young kid called Ryan Giggs, the Red Devils went toe-to-toe with a strong Aston Villa and Bruce’s former side, Norwich City, for the inaugural Premier League title.

Going into March, little separated these three (somewhat unlikely) title warriors, and when United dropped points over four successive weekends and slipped back to 3rd position, the nightmare of another failed title challenge started to rear its ugly head around Old Trafford, much to the delight of many of the ‘Anybody But United’ nation. A crucial Cantona-inspired 3-1 victory over Norwich City at Carrow Road calmed nerves and lifted United back into 2nd place as April arrived.

Bruce, along with his defensive colleagues, had been playing very well indeed. No opponent had scored more than a single goal against United since a shock 2-1 defeat to Ipswich Town at the end of January, and as they prepared to face a difficult Sheffield Wednesday side at Old Trafford on 10th April, many pundits thought the title race would go all the way to the final day, with Villa posing the greatest threat to United’s hopes of a first title in 26 years.

On that day, Wednesday proved as obstinate as many predicted, and when they won a penalty for a Paul Ince trip on Chris Waddle, which was converted by self-confessed United fan John Sheridan after 65 minutes at the Scoreboard End, the gloom and despondency that settled upon Old Trafford was almost tangible….. Step forward Steve Bruce!!

With four minutes of normal time remaining, United won a corner down the right side at the Stretford End; Bruce met the out-swinging ball and guided it over the head of the stranded Chris Woods into the far corner to give United a lifeline….. Minutes later, Bryan Robson’s free-kick was almost headed in by Bruce.

Time was running out, and when another Giggs corner was headed out to the opposite touchline deep into injury time, with Pallister of all people scampering to retrieve it, all hope of victory seemed lost. The big man swung the ball back in, it got a flick from the first Wednesday defender, and as it dropped out of the sky into the crowded penalty area, Steve Bruce ran and met it perfectly with his forehead to send it past Woods’ near post…. Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd led the pandemonium that followed, running out to kneel in joyous celebration on the pitch! That late double salvo from the Geordie warrior was possibly the key turning-point in United’s history at that time, along with the arrival of Cantona, and it is probably what the majority of United fans remember him best for.

The team never looked back, storming undefeated to a first league title in 26 long, painful years; Bruce joined club captain Robson in jointly lifting aloft the Premier League trophy after the 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers on 3rd May, his place in United folklore secured.

The following season was even better, both for Steve and his club. Roy Keane had arrived from Nottingham Forest over the summer, and the young Irishman added another layer of protection in front of a very solid, consistent defence marshalled by Bruce. Frankly, United were virtually unstoppable in the league, remarkably dropping only 4 points by 24th November, when Ipswich Town escaped from Old Trafford with a 0-0 draw. Despite a hugely dramatic and disappointing exit from the European Cup at the hands of Galatasaray, Bruce and his colleagues were a ‘machine’ domestically, with Cantona, Giggs and Hughes in irrepressible form in front of goal.

No-one scored more than twice against United in a single game all season, except for a remarkable game at Anfield, in which Bruce opened the scoring with a trademark brave headed goal, before further strikes from Giggs and a brilliant Denis Irwin free-kick gave United what seemed an unassailable 3-0 lead. However, Liverpool staged a courageous 2nd half comeback to snatch a point- it would prove one of few irritations to United fans in an otherwise almost perfect season.

United were also seemingly unbeatable in the domestic knock-out competitions, battling through to Wembley finals in both the League Cup and F.A. Cup, Bruce scoring twice in a 5-1 battering of Leicester City in Round 3 of the former competition. However, despite comfortably heading the league table as they met former United boss Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa side in the League Cup Final on 27th March, a very under-par performance from just about the entire team on the day saw Villa deservedly win 3-1; it would be a disappointment that jolted the Reds to greater effort in the closing weeks of the league campaign.

A mid-week 1-0 win over Liverpool three days later steadied nerves, and United went on to regain their league crown with a whopping 12 point cushion over runners-up Blackburn Rovers, despite having been level on points with Kenny Dalglish’s team with seven games remaining after going down 0-2 at Ewood Park in early April. Once again, the defence was magnificent, conceding only 4 goals in the final seven games.

A trip to Wembley to meet Chelsea in the Cup Final followed, and after Eric Cantona had inspired the Reds to a 4-0 win, Steve Bruce became the first Englishman to captain a team to the ‘Double’ in the 20th century as he hoisted aloft the old trophy, a superb finish to a superb season for United. Club captain Bryan Robson had been left out of the Cup Final squad altogether and would leave United that summer.

News of Alex Ferguson’s capture of David May, a centre-back from Blackburn Rovers, in the summer of 1994 came as quite a surprise to many, but as usual the wily Scotsman had foreseen a potential problem, and that came with news that Bruce was struggling with a back injury, for which he had been having treatment for some time. That Steve still managed a total of 48 appearances in all competitions the following season was testament to his determination to make himself available for selection, but the season itself would end in frustration and bitter disappointment for everyone at Old Trafford.

Again, United started the domestic season brightly, with Bruce notching the winner in a 1-0 victory at Tottenham Hotspur on the second Saturday of the league season, but three successive away defeats at Leeds, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday in early autumn heralded the shape of things to come, as United struggled to keep pace with the likes of Blackburn and Nottingham Forest. However, with Cantona leading the charge, a solid late autumn run of 8 wins and a 0-0 draw at Arsenal left the Reds locked in a tussle with an Alan Shearer-inspired Blackburn for the league summit position.

Europe had turned out to be a huge disappointment, as an injury to Schmeichel prior to the penultimate Group game at Gothenburg helped contribute to a 3-1 defeat which left United eliminated, finishing below the Swedes and Barcelona.

The mid-January arrival of free-scoring Andy Cole for a record £7 million from Newcastle United seemed just the boost the team needed as they prepared for a long run-in battle with Rovers for the title, but within weeks the season was turned on its head following Eric Cantona’s lengthy ban for violently confronting a racial abuser at Crystal Palace.

United won 10 and drew 4 of the remaining 16 Premier League games after that fateful evening, with Bruce grabbing the only goal at Wimbledon during that run and helping the defence keep 11 clean sheets…but, remarkably, it wasn’t enough. Blackburn stumbled across the finish line, a point ahead, as United failed to beat West Ham at Upton Park on the final day, Cole guilty of two glaring misses.

The misery was compounded for Bruce and his team-mates a week later when a tired, uninspired performance from the men in red shirts allowed a mediocre Everton side to steal the F.A. Cup with a 1-0 victory, Paul Rideout heading in a rebounded Graham Stuart shot after half an hour.

The summer witnessed the departure of three big names, with Ince, Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis all leaving United, Ferguson instead placing his faith in some of the brilliant kids emerging from the Club’s academy…all this served to leave Steve Bruce as very much the ‘elder statesman’ in the dressing-room, and talk crept around of his being offered chances to leave United for player-manager roles elsewhere; Ferguson was having none of it.

Bruce retained his position and captaincy of the side as they sought to avenge themselves for the disappointments of the previous campaign, and by the time Eric Cantona returned from his ban for dealing justice on the Palace thug the previous January, they had suffered only a single defeat at Villa and sat in 3rd position.

With the exception of a poor run of form over the Christmas period, by which time United had fallen well behind runaway league leaders Newcastle United, the team were in good form, with Cole and, in particular, Cantona scoring goals on a very frequent basis. For Bruce, however, frequent niggly injuries were hampering both he and the by now equally injury-prone Gary Pallister from appearing together often, with David May and Phil Neville pressed into action on many occasions.

Despite this, the team remained very solid, with Peter Schmeichel nigh on unbeatable in goal, and they went on a fabulous run of victories, reeling in Newcastle week by week, Cantona scoring in nearly every game. Bruce was able to return to help the side also battle their way through to an F.A. Cup Final showdown with arch-rivals Liverpool, and scored his only goal of the season in a 6-0 trouncing of Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium in February; less than three months later he lifted the Premier League trophy at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium as United confirmed their return to the summit of English football with a 3-0 victory, leaving them 4 points clear of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side.

So, off to Wembley United went, to meet a Liverpool side dubbed ‘the Spice Boys’ by the press after turning up for the game decked out in all-white suits! The game itself failed to live up to the occasion, instead becoming a fraught, nervous affair which was decided by a moment of genius four minutes from time by United’s talismanic French general, Cantona, swivelling to hammer a half-volley past David James through a crowded Liverpool penalty area.

For Steve Bruce, it was all bittersweet. He had failed to shake off a niggly injury in time to even be included in the match-day squad at Wembley, and had to sit and watch David May play in his stead. Afterwards, Cantona, who was the ‘stand-in’ captain for the day, tried to persuade Bruce to lead the victorious Red Devils team up the famous old Wembley steps to collect the trophy, but the old warhorse refused, rightly allowing the Frenchman to have his moment ‘in the sun’. He did receive a winners’ medal and it would be his last reward as a United player.

Just 11 days after that wonderful Wembley occasion, and knowing that his days as an automatic starter in United’s defence were coming to a close, Bruce accepted an offer from Trevor Francis to move to Birmingham City, who were attempting to push for promotion to the Premier League the following season.

Bruce’s time at Birmingham was interrupted by injuries and friction with Francis, whom he eventually fell out with. He spent a short time as player-manager at Sheffield United, before hanging up his boots and embarking on a managerial career which has seen him spend time as boss at Huddersfield Town, Wigan Athletic (twice), Crystal Palace, Birmingham City, Sunderland, Hull City and currently Aston Villa, whom he hopes to guide back to their rightful place in the Premier League.

Steve and wife Janet have two grown-up children; his son Alex is a professional footballer who currently plays for Bury, having had spells at Ipswich Town, Leeds United and Hull City.

In total, Bruce had made over 400 appearances at United, and scored an incredible 51 goals; he formed one half of possibly the best centre-half pairing in the Club’s history alongside Gary Pallister… and all that for £825,000! What a transfer!

About the Author

Rodney McCain
A passionate supporter of Manchester United since I was 6 years old. In life I'm a consulting civil engineer, but that's only to pay the bills. Originally from Northern Ireland, I was a regular at Old Trafford for many years, but now reside in the United States, which makes getting to games a tad difficult.... I love to write about football, which hopefully comes across to readers on these sites.