x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Plenty of defence on Steve Bruce’s record

Were a shortlist to be compiled now for the manager of the year award, Steve Bruce of Hull City Tigers would belong on it.

Criticised as a 'dinosaur' during his tenure at Sunderland, Steve Bruce's success as Hull City's manager proves he may not have been the problem at the Stadium of Light. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images
Criticised as a 'dinosaur' during his tenure at Sunderland, Steve Bruce's success as Hull City's manager proves he may not have been the problem at the Stadium of Light. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

An oddly shaped nose tells a tale of a battering at the hands of a thousand strikers. A CV featuring eight jobs at seven clubs rather reinforces a reputation as one of football’s journeymen. His bluff good humour endears him to many but conveys the impression of a raconteur, rather than the obsessive, managerial masterminds who are in vogue.

And yet, were a shortlist to be compiled now for the manager of the year award, Steve Bruce would belong on it.

He has steered a Hull City side shorn of a scorer, newly promoted from the Championship and widely tipped for relegation from the Premier League, to 12th place. He has done so with a skill that is not often acknowledged. The genial everyman of top-flight management is half way along the road to a very special achievement.

At a time when English managers are out of favour – Newcastle’s Alan Pardew, West Ham United’s Sam Allardyce and Tottenham Hotspur’s new appointment Tim Sherwood are the only others in the division – Bruce had been deeply unfashionable, and not merely because on the touchline he eschews tailored suits for oversized club tracksuits.

He is neither glamorous nor exotic. A man who turns 53 on New Year’s Eve is not a managerial wunderkind, and few deem him a visionary.

He does not espouse passing as Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez do, or preach about pressing in the manner of Mauricio Pochettino and Andre Villas-Boas.

But few have proved more tactically flexible than Bruce. None, arguably, have organised a defence better.

It is not just that Hull have conceded as few goals as the two Manchester clubs. It is the fact that, at home, they have been by far the most frugal.

The club Bruce captained with such distinction, Manchester United, go to the KC Stadium on Thursday, a ground where so few visitors have scored that it is a simple task to name them.

Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham, Crystal Palace’s Barry Bannan and Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard have struck once each.

No one else has found the net.

It would be an impressive achievement for an expensively constructed defence.

Hull’s rearguard has featured Maynor Figueroa and Alex Bruce, both acquired on free transfer, James Chester, a £300,000 (Dh1.5 million) signing, and Curtis Davies, whose £2.25 million fee renders him one of the bargains of the season.

They have been configured cleverly. Bruce began the campaign with a back four.

He has since reverted to a system including three central defenders that was a factor in Hull’s elevation last season.

Within that there is the scope for right wing-back Ahmed Elmohamady to become a winger and his left-sided counterpart, Figueroa, to shuffle across and operate as a full-back. A trio at the back can become a quartet and vice versa.

They have been expertly drilled.

The sense is of a group of players making the most of an opportunity some did not expect.

The same may be said of Bruce.

His reputation was tarnished when he was sacked by Sunderland two years ago.

He was labelled a dinosaur by some and hounded out of his native north-east. Yet none of the other five men to manage Sunderland in their most recent spell in the Premier League have done demonstrably better. And his renaissance at Hull would suggest Bruce was not the problem at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland was the biggest club he has managed and, in all probability, the largest that will ever appoint him.

The days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s former captain being suggested to succeed him are long gone.

An affable wanderer has made it to the top half of the Premier League at times, but not to the top.

It long seemed a sign of his limitations, even if it benefited his old club, that Bruce has never beaten Manchester United.

Given Hull’s defensive record, he may never have a better chance of securing a victory that could alter perceptions of him.

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