x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sunderland coach visits Manchester with real conflict of interests

Steve Bruce may have his affection but five former charges will be keen to deny Ferguson today, writes Richard Jolly.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United coach, left, and Steve Bruce, his opposite number at Sunderland, right, still enjoy a good friendship, despite them being in opposite dugouts today. Dave Thompson / PA
Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United coach, left, and Steve Bruce, his opposite number at Sunderland, right, still enjoy a good friendship, despite them being in opposite dugouts today. Dave Thompson / PA

Reunions are a regular feature of life at Manchester United, but they are rarely as numerous or as pertinent. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of his appointment at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson welcomes back the first United captain to get his hands on the league title for 26 years.

Steve Bruce, who lifted the 1993 trophy, along with Bryan Robson, was not merely one of Ferguson's first signings: he still ranks among the finest.

Now the Sunderland manager, whose squad features five of Ferguson's former charges, returns to Old Trafford. If nostalgia is unconfined, this is not merely an exercise in revisiting the past.

At a time when United's defending is under examination, the exiles in the North East are witnesses with extensive experience.

Ferguson has topped 1,400 games since trading Aberdeen for United, but Sunderland's contingent of Red Devils have more than 1,200 United matches between them. Bruce accounts for 414 of them, one bringing the breakthrough moment.

His two goals against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, including a winner deep into injury time - although, Ferguson being Ferguson, the United manager insists that 13 minutes should have been played rather than the allocated eight - had the Scot and his assistant Brian Kidd bounding on to the pitch in celebration. The long-awaited title duly followed.

Such deeds ensure a continuing affection for Bruce at Old Trafford. It can work against the genial Geordie. When Birmingham were struggling, their fans were scarcely impressed when their manager absent-mindedly responded to the mischievous United supporters' chorus of "Brucey, give us a wave". But his contacts serve a purpose.

His summer spending included the recruitment of Wes Brown (362 United games) and John O'Shea (393). "They were instrumental in a lot of our successes over the years," Ferguson said. "They are fantastic professionals. I love both of them in terms of their attitude and loyalty to the club."

O'Shea, who has a hamstring problem, will not be available, though that could permit places for another Old Trafford old boy, Phil Bardsley, along with the United alumnus Kieran Richardson.

When all are fit, Sunderland can field a back four comprised solely of recruits from Ferguson.

The spotlight will be firmly on Brown, once described as "the best natural defender in the country" by Ferguson.

That he was limited to seven league games in his last season at United is an indication of how the 2008 Champions League winner fell out of favour.

If time caught up with Brown, 32, and O'Shea, 30, as Ferguson's focus switched to the generation of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, their contemporary Rio Ferdinand may be similarly endangered.

He was dropped after the 6-1 derby defeat to Manchester City, suggesting he bore the brunt of Ferguson's anger.

United have responded with three successive clean sheets, although only one, in last Saturday's win at Everton, is particularly significant. Shutouts against Aldershot and Otelul Galati were to be expected. The resistance at Goodison Park was orchestrated by Bruce's spiritual successor as the fearless leader at the back.

It is no coincidence that Nemanja Vidic missed the demolition derby and excelled against Everton, shepherding the uncertain Jonny Evans to three points.

One-nil wins, as Ferguson remarked then, can be decisive in the title race.

Not that this particular triumph surprised a man who spent 13 years in their first-team squad. "United always bounce back from adversity," Brown said. "That's one quality they have always had."

But in responding, they have ensured a change of emphasis.

At the start of the season, it was all about the "goals for" column. Now, as some of the distinguished defenders of their past return, it is about the "goals against".




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