By Paul Gardner
I always had a problem trying to decide whether I admired Steve Bruce as a player or not. On the minus side was the fact that he was almost a caricature of the typical English central defender (OK, a center half, then). Strong, tall, not all that mobile, a hard tackler (to excess, at times) and -- of course, of course -- good in the air.
I’d watched dozens and dozens of players like that over the years before Bruce came along and started to make a name for himself with Manchester United in the late 1980s. And of all those players, only two stick in my memory as being outstanding.
There was Stoke City’s Neil Franklin, an England player with 27 caps, who fell foul of the English soccer authorities in 1950 when he accepted an offer to play for a pirate league in Colombia, where he could earn a great deal more than the measly maximum of £12 a week permitted in England. But the promised El Dorado did not work out -- Franklin returned to England to be shabbily treated -- he was never selected for England again, and no top club would have anything to do with him.
Franklin was an atypical English defender in almost every way -- he was not big or tall, but he possessed immaculate ball control and quickness, and specialized in passing his way out of trouble. At least, that is how I recall him.
And there was Bobby Moore, captain of England’s 1966 World Cup winners. Moore had all the English virtues to the highest degree. Commanding in the air, almost unbeatable in the tackle -- but he too, like Franklin, was not one to simply kick the ball away -- his distribution was always measured. Moore rarely fouled because he was too good, and sportsmanship was part of his nature. Franklin rarely fouled because he didn’t have to, thanks to his positional play and his sharp sense of anticipation.
Steve Bruce never, in my estimation, came up to those levels. I always found his play a little too rustic for my liking. But he certainly tried for a more cultured approach. For every time he simply powered the ball away with a thumping header, there was a time when he brought it down with his chest, and for every ball that was whacked into the stands there was an accurate pass to a teammate. And there was no denying that Bruce liked to score goals -- frequently from set pieces, of course, but from run-of-play situations too. At ManU he finished the 1990-91 season with 19 goals -- an extraordinary number for a central defender.
Bruce had one thing in common with Franklin -- in almost every other way his polar opposite: Where the England selectors had slammed the door on Franklin, they never opened it at all for Bruce, who never played for England.
Despite all the positives, Bruce remained for me not much more than the typical English defender, and his subsequent career as a coach seems to confirm that. For his teams -- Birmingham, Wigan and now Sunderland -- could also be described as rustic in their playing style.
Of course, a different way of looking at things, is to say that Bruce stands for the sturdy traditional qualities of English soccer. A look at his current Sunderland roster finds it well stocked with formidably powerful defenders and midfielders.
The English game and its traditions are dear to Bruce -- and among those qualities he rates fair play. Only last week he was to be heard delivering a scathing attack on Spaniard Rafa Benitez, Liverpool’s former coach, for tampering with former Sunderland player Kenwyne Jones. That was “an absolute disgrace” said Bruce as he talked of Benitez’s “antics” and “his ways and carry-ons,” and compared him unfavorably with the new Liverpool coach, the almost overly English Roy Hodgson.
In fact, Bruce almost swamped Hodgson with compliments: “He’s one of the game’s good guys ... He's a fantastic coach ... he'll definitely conduct himself better than the previous Liverpool manager ... Roy's old school, old-school managers have something about them, a certain respect for others.”
Then referring to Saturday’s upcoming game with Liverpool, Bruce added, “I'll certainly be having a drink, probably a glass of nice red, with Roy Hodgson after the game.”
Then again maybe not. For the game contained an incident that must have put quite a strain on Bruce’s view of Hodgson as Mr. Nice Guy. Liverpool’s first goal came when Sunderland’s Michael Turner made the mistake of trying to tap the ball (which was not in play at the time) back so that his goalkeeper could take a free kick. Liverpool’s Fernando Torres pounced on the ball as it dribbled back, and passed off to Dirk Kuyt, who scored easily.
While Bruce blamed the referee for allowing it, he clearly felt that the Liverpool players (both non-English, as it happened) had acted unsportingly, and -- with what was presumably another reference to the strengths of English soccer -- bemoaned that that sort of thing was “not what we’re known for.”
Maybe, but he could hardly escape the fact that Hodgson, in his post-game interview, refused to condemn the goal -- or to criticize his players.
A glass of nice red, anyone?