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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Steve Bruce during his time in charge of Sheffield United.
# Back to the beginning
Battles with Dean Saunders and making Alan Kelly 'The Godfather' - Steve Bruce's first job in management
Newcastle are without a win in the Premier League this month and as their boss comes under increasing pressure one of his former players explains why he we will never panic.

THERE WAS NO chance to find himself or consider taking time away to examine what he wanted from his future.

Steve Bruce went from veteran 37-year-old defender to rookie 37-year-old boss in no time.

A brief period as Sheffield United’s player-manager came to an end in September 1998 and for the next 22 years Bruce has been almost permanently perched on the touchline.

Barking orders, offering comfort, celebrating fleeting moments of joy and often battered by the despair brought by defeat.

This is the fourth decade in which Bruce has been a manager. He is one of the great survivors and today, as his Newcastle United side host Burnley at St James’ Park, the vultures are circling once more.

Newcastle have won just once in seven Premier League games so far this year. An extra-time win over League One Oxford United meant they narrowly avoided an early FA Cup exit, although Tuesday’s trip to Championship leaders West Bromwich Albion in the fifth round could lead to further agony.

Bruce knows he has to get through today first.

soccer-nationwide-league-division-one-steve-bruce-photocall EMPICS Sport Steve Bruce in his Sheffield United office. EMPICS Sport

He only turned 59 on New Year’s Eve but is now the third oldest manager in England’s top flight. Roy Hodgson, the Crystal Palace boss, is out in front having been born just two years after World War II ended in 1945, while Everton’s Carlo Ancelotti will turn 61 on 10 June.

Jose Mourinho is fourth on the Golden Oldies list – celebrating his 57th birthday last month – with David Moyes and Nigel Pearson (both 56) tied in fifth place.

Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp is next up but he doesn’t turn 53 until June, so he has plenty of time to build on the Anfield dominance. 

There was a time when this was all new to Bruce and, 22 years on on from his formative years in the Bramall Lane dugout, one of those fledgling professionals under his guidance credits Bruce with helping instil the values required to forge a long career.

Shaun Derry wasn’t signed by Bruce, Nigel Spackman was the one who brought then 20-year-old midfielder to the club from Notts County. He journeyed to Portsmouth, Crystal Palace (twice), Leeds United and Queens Park Rangers during a career that saw him earn two promotions to the Premier League.

soccer-premier-league-manchester-united-v-aston-villa-old-trafford EMPICS Sport Bruce and Dean Saunders face off for Manchester United and Aston Villa respectively. EMPICS Sport

Witnessing Bruce up close was an eye-opener, not least the intense training ground one-on-ones he would still take part in with distinguished striker Dean Saunders.

“They both would have had some battles against each other from their days playing for United and Liverpool. It never spilled over into something really physical like a fight, they never got into it like that, but they would have proper battles in training,” Derry tells The42.

They would go up against each other and neither wanted to be on the losing side. It was incredible to see their attitude and that will to win.”

In Ireland goalkeeper Alan Kelly – now part of Mick McCarthy’s international coaching staff as well as at club level with Everton under Ancelotti – Bruce had a trusted lieutenant and someone who could run the dressing room.

“Everyone looked up to Alan,” Derry explains. “He was such a big character, everyone respected him and he was a father figure, to be honest. He was like The Godfather to us in that dressing room, he was held in unbelievable esteem.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-queens-park-rangers-v-aston-villa-loftus-road Nigel French Former Sheffield United midfielder Shaun Derry takes instructions from Harry Redknapp during his time at Queens Park Rangers. Nigel French

“Saunders was a character in his own way too but everyone looked up to Alan. There would be times when Bruce would bounce things off him, I’m sure. Their relationship was very strong and it worked well because it was a dressing room that was all in it together.”

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That was the feeling fostered by Bruce who, despite a glittering career at Manchester United, never used that as a stick to beat his players with as they tried, and failed, to secure promotion to the Premier League.

“When you remember how good he was as a player, you don’t really know what they will be like when they finish. Steve was always top class. There was no ego there at all and he never made you feel any worse because you were playing at a level that was below what he was used to as a player at United with Alex Ferguson.

soccersheffield-celebrations PA Alan Kelly celebrates after saving two penalties in a shootout with Newcastle to send Sheffield United into the 1998 FA Cup semi-final. PA

“He never made you feel as if he was doing you a favour because he won everything with United. He could cut you down with a one-liner and put you in your place if he wanted to but it was never nasty. He never did that to hurt you or kill you in front of other players.

“He would sit and chat to you, he would sit me down and talk about what standards he expected around the club. That was a big thing for him. They were my sponge years as a player because I was young and didn’t know a thing, really,” Derry continues.

“You would listen to him and take it all in because you could only learn by listening to him. It helped me to have a career, having that understanding of what was required to be professional and be like that every day.

“As a manager, he was a serial winner. He instilled those beliefs in us and gave us that feeling as a players. We weren’t always going to win but we never felt as if we weren’t good enough.

“He was great at building you up.”

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The moment that stands out from his one full season in charge is the FA Cup controversy with Arsenal, when Nwankwo Kanu latched on to Ray Parlour’s throw in after Kelly had put the ball out for a throw so a teammate could receive treatment for an injury.

Kanu, on his Gunners debut, didn’t realise Parlour’s intention was to return the ball so he latched on to it and gave Marc Overmars an easy tap in.

Chaos ensued, a replay was ordered and the moment has gone down in FA Cup history. Derry was on the pitch for both games – with Arsenal eventually progressing – while Chris Wilder, now Sheffield United manager, was one of the experienced professionals at the club during that time.

He, too, has recently praised the impact Bruce continues to have of

“I have talked long and hard about the importance of the LMA (League Managers Association) and Steve has been there for a lot of us young managers,” Wilder said just before Christmas.

Steve will pick up the phone to you. I spoke to him in the summer quite a number of times. He is an experienced manager and to have worked in the Premier League for the amount of time that he has is testament to what he is about, not just from a tactical point of view but a man-management point of view.

“You don’t just get given jobs in the Premier League if you are bang average and Steve certainly isn’t bang average, either as a manager or a person.”

They are sentiments echoed by Derry, whose own fledgling managerial career began with Notts County in 2013 and continued with Cambridge United, where he left by mutual consent in 2018.

“It’s funny, when I finished playing the first person I thought of was Steve Bruce because he was the same as me going straight into management. He would always be very helpful to me. If I needed a chat he would be there, even if it was just about players.

“He is always there for advice, you know he will always pick up the phone when you call because that’s just the kind of person he is. He is a really, really good guy who cares about people.”

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