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The Ballad of Steve Bruce: Premier League Punching Bag

Another season of the Hull City manager will soon have passed: a comfortingly familiar sack of puffed-out cheeks, rueful sighs and inevitable negative goal difference.
April 13, 2015, 5:00am

Bruce in his significantly more glorious playing days in 1992 (Photo by Oyvind Vik)

Thanks to their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Southampton this weekend, Hull City now have just six games to retain their top-flight status. For a club that sits just above the relegation zone and which has only managed to score in ten of their last 24 fixtures, it's a run-in that looks absolutely fucking horrible. Fans of the Tigers will have to hope they can unleash some in-no-way-cringeworthy "maulings", upon opponents that will include Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs. And yet regardless of whether Hull stay up by the skin of their teeth or go down like a leaky trawler with wing-backs, one thing is guaranteed: another season will have passed in which Steve Bruce seems to have served the role of Premier League punching bag, a comfortingly familiar sack of puffed-out cheeks and rueful sighs and inevitable negative goal difference.

Steve Bruce. You know Steve Bruce. He gets photoshopped into wedding ceremonies. He looks like a dinner lady who has enjoyed a decent MMA career. He speaks with the soft, insistent monotone of a Geordie hypnotist and yet, in over 700 managerial appearances, he has never persuaded a team to finish higher than tenth in the Premier League. He's part of English football's furniture, from freakishly prolific centre back – witness his 19 goals for Man U during the 1990/91 season – to jobbing manager for some of the country's least romantic clubs. So we're talking Birmingham. Wigan. Sunderland. Hull. Clubs that trip you up in quizzes and get relegated without you noticing. Clubs prepared to give a man a chance on the promise that his players will "put themselves about" and that he will never fail to instinctively mime a header from the technical area every time his team swing in a ball into the box. To hire Steve Bruce is to admit that football is tough and life isn't perfect. And that's about it.

Or is it? Because while the case against Bruce as suet-brained tactical dinosaur and over-promoted Peter Principle exponent is a familiar one, it's also a case I suspect is mostly peddled by tiki-taka fanboys who show-off about attending non-league football and wear T-shirts with that Albert Camus quote about being a goalie on the back. And I fucking hate those guys. Besides, I have a good mate who is a Hull City fan and he thinks Steve Bruce is the man. And not just as a manger – with a Premier League promotion and FA Cup final for the Yorkshire club under his belt – but also as a guy. And the more time I've spent talking to my mate, the more I've been thinking, shit… what if he's right?

The first thing that's worth acknowledging is that, yeah, there's no getting around it, Bruce is an old-fashioned English football manager. He is an old-fashioned guy with old-fashioned values, on and off the pitch. When earlier this season QPR's Joey Barton got sent off for striking Hull's Tom Huddlestone in the groin, Bruce cut through the surrounding hysteria with the wearily moral certainty of an Old Testament prophet. "You can't be punching people in the knackers, can you?" It could have been carved in a stone tablet. There was literally nothing left to say.

Until very recently, he admits, he didn't know how to send an email. "I've been accused of being a dinosaur because I don't like the computer," he has said, and there's something about the way he says "the computer" that makes you think he's talking about the invention rather than the 16-year-old desktop gathering dust in his spare room. He wears outdated cliches like a comfy, XXL fleece. So he's keen on his players showing "bottle". He doesn't want them to be taken for "mugs". When it comes to transfer dealings, he will coyly admit to having "irons in the fire". The more urbane football fan might roll their eyes, but let me float this by you: so fucking what? He may sound dated, but he gets results. Maybe not amazing results. Maybe not even quite good results. But still, he knows what he's about and sticks to it, and more often than not the results are sort of OK.

And, for what it's worth, I much prefer that to the current wave of British mangers who have taken to engaging in a creepy sort of intellectual grandstanding. Managers who would probably tell you that they "could've gone to uni" but were just "too good at footy" to bother. An oddball squad of hubris-baiting alphas who seem at once both chippy and vain. So Alan Pardew, who is every inch the older man on a PowerLeague team: whippet fit, heavy knee strapping, cock immediately out in the changing room afterwards. Or Nigel Pearson, the policeman who married your mum and then made your bedroom his Tae Bo workout zone. Nigel Adkins, with his hair gel and glasses, looking like a schoolteacher who would smugly wait until a pupil's 16th birthday before embarking on an affair. Brendan Rodgers with his self-portrait. Tim Sherwood with his gillet that he says isn't a gillet but is clearly a fucking gillet. Garry Monk with his Twitter account. Actually, Garry Monk seems totally fine. He's basically just your cousin who keeps trying to get you to play golf.

But do you take my point? Bruce might be a bit fusty but he's alright. He's definitely not vain. It was only after photographs emerged of him shirtless on holiday and looking like something created by Pixar that he grudgingly promised to shape up. "I don't think too many 55-year-olds look that good on a beach do they?" he said. "But I have promised my good lady I will go on a diet." Of course he calls his wife "My good lady". And of course they are childhood sweethearts from the same Northumberland village. No possibility of Bruce ever repeating, say, the truck stop sex tape antics of his Wigan predecessor Paul Jewell. Which I think we can all agree is good.

Speaking of family loyalty, you can't help but admire his completely balls-out approach to playing his own son – slightly short centre-back Alex Bruce – who he signed for Hull within weeks of taking the job. It wasn't even the first time he signed him, having done exactly the same thing at Birmingham City. In this weekend's game, Alex Bruce gave away a penalty and got punched in the face. But people talk about good managers making bold selection decisions, and they don't come much more fucking bold than being in a relegation dogfight and opting to let your own kid be part of your back line. Alex Bruce, incidentally, has only ever played in the Premier League under his dad. Draw from that what you will.

"You call it nepotism, I… I call it love," is something a visibly emotional Steve Bruce has never actually said, but then, I don't think he needs to. When, during a recent touchline spat, he looked ready to go totally E Honda on Gus Poyet after the then-Sunderland manager made a still undisclosed comment to him, you just know it was something to do with his son. Which is fair enough from Bruce. And while we're at it, I also rate the way he took a few solid slaps chasing off robbers who were trying to break into his daughter's car. I suspect both his kids have "Thanks Dad [wink emjoi]" as a preset text on their phones. Not that he would know how to reply.

Does any of this make him a brilliant manager? Maybe not. But just as in his playing days, while his abilities may be limited, he gets the most out of what he's got thanks to a massive appetite for the game. It sounds stupid, but after being involved in almost 1,650 fixtures as a player and manager, Bruce is still – somehow – head over heels in love with football. Just look at how excited he gets when he sees a Wayne Rooney wondergoal during the middle of a press conference he was supposed to be giving.

And on the theme of his touching love for the game, one little known fact about him is that – incredibly – he wrote a series of football-themed mystery novellas about 15 years ago. Sweeper!, Defender! and Striker! are now collectors' items, mainly because nobody bought them. Reading up about them online, they seem completely surreal, like something you'd have delirious dreams about when you were ill and then never be quite sure if they were real or not afterwards.

"The spelling mistakes are alright, after a bit you don't notice them," reports one Amazon user of Striker! in a four-star online review titled "Too beautiful for this world". Another customer offers a critique of Defender! "This book was good but not as good as Sweeper!. This is because the plot isn't as well thought out and the characters, I thought, were less believable."

Whether Bruce even wrote these himself isn't even really the point. The point is that it's hard not to root for a guy who, when asked "Would you like to put your name to a series of semi-autobiographical football-themed crime paperbacks?", just shrugs and says "Aye, go on then." If Alan Pardew had written three books the whole fucking world would know about it.

But perhaps the greatest testament to Bruce is that he's still here. Season after season he is the Premier League's punching bag but he keeps coming back for more. The reason we're even talking about him is that he's refused to go away. How many of his once feted peers have flickered only to ultimately fade? Where, today, is David O'Leary? Where is Bryan Robson? Iain Dowie? Alan Curbishley? Glenn Hoddle? John Gregory? The list goes on. And whether Hull stay up or go down, you know that Bruce is not too squeamish – not too vain – to puff-out his cheeks, sigh ruefully, and just keep going.

"I would love a crack maybe one day at managing a big club, to try and win trophies," he said recently, speaking with an almost embarrassed smile. "But at the moment? I'm quite happy to plod along."

And I think that's fair enough. I think that's fair play.

@ben_machell