x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Bruce hails his mentor

The 'old warhorse' is ready to forget his friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of Sunderland's Old Trafford clash.

As a racehorse owner and aficionado of the Sport of Kings, Sir Alex Ferguson knows a thoroughbred when he sees one. In the world of football, however, he will always remember Steve Bruce as his "old warhorse". It is a measure of the impression Bruce made in his glory, glory days at Manchester United that Ferguson recounted the "sadness" and "real sorrow" which consumed him when his captain and defensive stalwart chose to end his nine-year association with the club.

United had just won their second Double by beating Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup final as the Red Devils' dominance of the English game gathered momentum. A niggling injury deprived Bruce of what would have been a fitting Wembley farewell and in his autobiography, Managing My Life, Ferguson confessed: "A truly memorable season was ultimately blemished by only one sadness and that was the departure of the old warhorse, Steve Bruce, to Birmingham ... real sorrow overtook me."

Such sentiment will be in short supply today when Ferguson's side play hosts to Bruce's Sunderland, but mutual warmth and respect will still be shared by the managerial combatants. Ferguson and Tyneside-raised Bruce also share the same birthday, New Year's Eve. This Hogmanay, Fergie will be 68, Brucie a mere 49. Doubtless they will raise a glass after today's hostilities. Ferguson famously offers fine red wine, and Bruce revealed his old mentor is "generous'' in other ways.

"I speak to Sir Alex, of course I do. I wouldn't say I speak to him every other week, but if I need to ... "That's where he's unbelievable. You might not get hold of him straight away, but he will always come back to you. He's very good and generous in that respect. "He said I was the old warhorse. I was there nearly 10 years and played more than 400 games, so I didn't miss much. But I was lucky because I was never really injured. The only thing I used to get was a broken nose, but that never used to keep me out."

Their professional relationship was forged one year and one month into Ferguson's Old Trafford reign, which began in November 1986, when he signed Bruce from Norwich City in a protracted £825,000 deal that almost collapsed due to the Canaries' demands. "I was frightened when I first walked into the dressing room," recalled Bruce. "I thought: 'Oh my God, I've seen all these players on the telly.' The biggest thing for anyone going there is to handle playing for possibly the biggest club in the world."

Bruce did that all right. The first of eight honours in his United career came in the 1990 FA Cup final replay victory over Crystal Palace. Success in Europe followed a year later against Barcelona in the Cup- Winners' Cup and that season, a certain Ryan Giggs broke into the senior ranks. Now almost 36, he is currently United's most consistent performer. Bruce said: "The word 'great' gets used too often, but Ryan Giggs is one of those great, great players. My first memory of him was when Fergie was nicking him from Manchester City and he said, 'We have this kid with us, so just be careful with him'. I couldn't have got near him to kick him. I've never seen anyone so natural. He seems to be as good now as he was then."

Giggs was firmly established when United won the inaugural Premier League title in 1993 - their first top-flight crown for 26 years - and Bruce's immortality at the Theatre of Dreams was guaranteed. Memorably, it was there against Sheffield Wednesday that he scored the two late goals - among an impressive 51 in 414 appearances for United - that put his side on course for the title. Bruce confided: "I think I could make a living from that if I wanted to. It was the abiding memory of my time there."

Bruce became Ferguson's captain in succession to another north-east native, Bryan Robson, and admits: "I will be eternally grateful to Sir Alex for making me captain. That was obviously the big highlight of my career and it's always nice to go back, even though results don't go for me there. It would be nice to change that trend. Maybe this time." Man Utd v Sunderland, 8.30pm, Showsports 1 & 2