Cristiano Ronaldo and Steve Bruce return to Old Trafford with very different aims

Both United legends but for Bruce this could be the beginning of something very different

A young fan wearing the shirt of Manchester United’s new signing Cristiano Ronaldo points to Old Trafford. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

A young fan wearing the shirt of Manchester United’s new signing Cristiano Ronaldo points to Old Trafford. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

 

The hero returns and Old Trafford will pay homage. The Theatre of Dreams will salute a figure who helped that name fulfil itself, a player who ushered the club to three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and to victory in Europe. He scored decisive goals, a couple of them unforgettable, club and career-changing headers. In hundreds of games in red, he did a lot more. He was the captain of Manchester United, one of Alex Ferguson’s keystone signings, a leader on the pitch and off. Yes, they will give Steve Bruce a grand ovation as he shuffles up the touchline today.

Bruce, 60 and grey, will answer with a polite wave. He knows what he means to these people, but he knows he is not the main attraction this afternoon. Bruce may have appeared over 100 times more for United than Cristiano Ronaldo, but as Paul Weller said, this is the modern world.

Ronaldo returns not just as a footballer who could ignite United a la Eric Cantona 30 years ago, Ronaldo is a commercial brand - CR7, a licence to print money.

Bruce was never that. He may have been a face of Ferguson’s first great team at Old Trafford, but it was not Ronaldo’s chiselled poster on display for the market, it was a broken nose sustained on his red debut at Fratton Park in late 1987.

Bruce put his head in when others did not, most notably in April 1993 when 1-0 down at home to Sheffield Wednesday and with United second in the league behind Aston Villa, he scored two headers of historic proportions, of Ronaldo proportions. Ferguson’s side went top and stayed there. Twenty-six years after Manchester United’s last title, they were again champions of England.

Steve Bruce celebrates the 96th minute winner for Manchester United against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. Photo: Dennis Hussey/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Steve Bruce celebrates the 96th minute winner for Manchester United against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. Photo: Dennis Hussey/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Bruce, like Peter Schmeichel and Gary Pallister, played in all 42 league games. The trio were foundation stones. Without them and that breakthrough first Premier League title, the 21st century global giant would not be what it is. It may never have signed Ronaldo.

Dominance

At that moment in April ‘93 Manchester United had won the league seven times in its history. They had not been champions since the 60s. Everton had won more league titles, never mind Liverpool and their record 18.

But with Bruce, United won the next title and in 1996 another. The English dominance Ferguson would surf through to 2012 was established.

Bruce was essential to this. Yet there had been doubts. When joining from Norwich City in 1987, X-rays of his knees were not re-assuring. Ferguson preferred to look at Bruce’s playing record and as he later put it: “The number of games Bruce had played for Norwich City was greater than the aggregate appearances of Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran at centre-back for United. Far from being a risk, the big Geordie was a banker.”

Ferguson hailed Bruce’s 42-game dependability - “His resolution was mingled with warmth and modesty, so that he commanded respect and affection in equal measure.”

In all, Bruce played 414 times for United - more than Denis Law - and for a defender, he scored a staggering 51 goals. In 1990-91 he was joint top league scorer with Brian McClair on 13. Bruce scored seven penalties. He was a dynamic, effective, under-rated footballer who now when asked about his career, downplays his abilities with a laugh. “I was no Ronaldo,” is the kind of thing Bruce says. They won the same number of league titles at United, though. (So far).

At 35, Bruce left Old Trafford for Birmingham City and a whopping salary. From there he went to Sheffield United and into management in 1998.

Eleven jobs and 23 years later, he is still doing it and the big Geordie, as Ferguson called him, returns with the big Geordie club, Newcastle United. This black and white ‘United’ had the name 10 years before their Mancunian opponents, as Newcastle fans quite reasonably point out. How united the club is in 2021, however, is another matter.

This United have started the season with two defeats and one draw and while there has been some bad luck, there has been some unconvincing football too. There has also been a League Cup exit on penalties to Burnley. Maybe Bruce should have taken one.

Add a transfer window that brought one first-team recruit - Joe Willock from Arsenal for £20m-plus - a takeover allegation, plus the general joyless malaise presided over by absentee owner Mike Ashley for 14 years, and dissatisfaction levels are as high as the Tyne Bridge.

And then there is Steve Bruce. Whereas he and Ronaldo will be welcomed as returning natives to Old Trafford, in his home city he is regarded more as yesterday’s man than yesteryear’s hero by a sizeable contingent of supporters, many of whom will be at Old Trafford. Bruce is seen as neither a new-school coach like Thomas Tuchel or Graham Potter or a visionary wizard like Marcelo Bielsa, who brings another United - Leeds - to St James’ Park next Friday night. Bruce is viewed as just plain old-school and there is an under-appreciated desire among Newcastle fans to not be that.

Unsigned statement

He was rattled, understandably, by the booing directed towards him during and after the 2-2 draw with Southampton and six days later Bruce may have been rattled again. The club released an unsigned statement declaring how difficult Covid has been economically and that “internally, all parties have long been aware of the budgetary parameters under which we are operating.”

It is implausible this was issued without Ashley’s knowledge and equally implausible is that the reference to “internally” was aimed at anyone other than Bruce. The Willock transfer was described as “a collaborative decision”.

If this represents a crack in the hitherto solid Bruce-Ashley relationship, it does not mean an immediate end for Bruce. He has a rolling three-year contract and it brings a large cash pay-out if dismissal comes - possibly £4m. Ashley will not like the sound of that, even though he agreed to it.

Bruce in turn could point to the ringing tills in the Old Trafford megastore since Ronaldo re-signed and say that investment on the pitch generates re-investment off it. Had Bruce overseen three or four new signings of Willock’s level, or even below, then he would not only be in a more powerful position as manager, the crowd would note it. Newcastle may even have got past Burnley to face a home tie against Rochdale and from there . . .

But none of this happened. And now in the beginning of a new Ronaldo era at Old Trafford, Bruce stares at the beginning of something else at Newcastle United.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.