Ronaldo dribbles, runs, and scores! Messi did it again! Neymar – the winning goal! We have all heard those cries on football pitches: the star striker saves the day yet once again. But in reality, there are still ten men on the field, and as the saying goes – attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.
To correct the injustice of the (football) world, we invite you to a ten-part series with Olybet.TV, where we talk about defenders. But to make things a little more appetizing, let’s talk about the most productive defensemen in football history.
The hero of our story today is Steve Bruce, whom modern football fans know mainly as a coach. Over the years, the 62-year-old Englishman has indeed managed Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town, Wigan Athletic, Crystal Palace, Birmingham City, Sunderland, Hull City, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion.
During his career, Bruce managed to be a member of an even more famous club: namely, he wore the Manchester United shirt for nine years. But it was a near miss, that the football career of the goal-hungry defender would not have taken off at all.
A close call with plumbing
Bruce was born in the small town of Corbridge, near the Scottish border. And when we say a small town, that’s what we mean: we’re talking roughly about 4,000 inhabitants. As a true Englishman, he too fell in love with football, and being located next to Newcastle upon Tyne, he naturally grew up as a fan of Newcastle United.
In his youth, however, Bruce did not manage to make a special breakthrough, and the most important moment of his teenage years comes from 1974, when he was one of the lucky ones who was chosen as the ball boy for the League Cup final. This is how he saw from the front row how Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Manchester City 2:1.
This experience only deepened Bruce’s love of football, but unfortunately, his skills left much to be desired. He went to Newcastle United, Sunderland, Derby County and Southport to prove himself, but got “no” as an answer everywhere.
Shattered by the setbacks, young Bruce was ready to become a plumber at home – the papers had already been submitted to a workshop in the harbour – when Gillingham, who was playing in the third division, invited him for a trial. So Bruce travelled hundreds of kilometres to the south on his own, to a port city in South-East England – and got lucky!
Retreating into defense, but scoring
While initially, the youngster worked in the midfield, he soon returned to central defense at the encouragement of the young coach there, Bill Collins. However, even in Gillingham, Bruce had to bide his time: he spent the 1978/79 season in the double team, where, despite his status as a full-back, he scored 18 (!) goals.
On top of that, he earned an invitation to the England youth team – for example, he took part in the 1980 U18 EC – and in the fall of 1979, he finally got his foot in the door for Gillingham’s representative team. Seeing the potential in the young man, the club signed a five-year contract with him, so Bruce had to play in the third league of England until the summer of 1984. But then…
… at last, Bruce got a chance in the Premier League. It was Norwich City who snapped him up, and in his first season, Bruce led the club to the English Football League Cup – scoring the winning goal in the semi-final and the man of the match award in the final – after which he was also voted player of the season by the fans.
He spent a total of three seasons in Norwich, until in 1987 he caught the eye of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, London Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers. Hearing of United’s interest, Bruce refused to play for Norwich in the future, leaving them with no choice but to sell the full-back for 800,000£.
At United he became Dolly
In the Red Devils, Bruce formed a powerful back line with Gary Pallister – nicknamed Dolly and Daisy – with whom they won three English championships and three FA Cups in the early 1990s.
Individually, Bruce’s best season at United was 1990/91, when he scored 13 goals in 31 league games, adding six more in other leagues. With this total (19), by the way, he was United’s top scorer that season.
After leaving United, Bruce spent two more seasons at Birmingham City before ending his career at Sheffield United in 1998/99. All series put together, he played in 929 matches during his career and scored 114 goals.
Fought tooth and nail
Seeing such numbers, one might ask, how come Bruce managed to accumulate them? The first thing to emphasize is that the Englishman was a very good penalty taker, which is why he was generally trusted to take 11-meter free kicks.
However, only a portion of the goals came that way. The 183-centimetre-tall defender took the rest with his head! One of the most famous of those comes from April 1993, when his 96th-minute winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday also gave rise to the term “Fergie Time”, i.e. the long extra minutes in which United still somehow saved their day.
But why was Bruce such a good header? According to former teammate Paul Parker, the key was in his comrade’s character: “Nothing could scare Brucie. Nothing was impossible. He was more determined than anyone I’ve ever known. He won more head-to-heads at his 183cm height than guys who were 193cm tall, but it didn’t always come easily – you can see that just by looking at his nose.”
However, despite his penchant for goals and nine years at Manchester United, Bruce never wore an England national football team shirt. In 1987, i.e. the same summer when he pulled on the red shirt, he earned an invitation to the England B team, which he captained in a friendly match against Malta, but he never got closer to the A team.
So there lies the reason why Bruce has been described as the best defender of all time who never represented England.
However, the legendary defender himself had the following to say, regarding his exclusion: “I met the head coach of the England national team at the time, Bobby Robson, once in Benfica. He came to me and said that he should’ve invited me to the team. That was nice to hear, of course, but the fact is that I don’t have any games to show… that’s something that always makes me a little sad.”