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Brains, Brawn, Bruce: the unfashionable managerial brilliance of Stevie B

Andrew Boulton salutes one of the Premier League's unsung, unfashionable but nonetheless effective managerial heroes

by Andrew Boulton | October 23, 2014

Slender, smugly handsome and kitted out in a suit so expensive it might as be made from unicorn gums, the modern football manager isn’t easy to relate to. Shuffle forward Stephen Roger Bruce a man who, and I say this with great affection, looks like a melted canoe.

In this world of ideas and ideologies as fancy as the tailoring, Bruce is defiantly rumpled in his appearance, though absolutely not his approach. Clothes, it seems, are not the measure of a man, a fact evidenced each time we witness Bruce conducting a post match interview with objectivity, humour and grace while several of his more sartorially minded contemporaries splutter about like panicked water fowl.

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We can’t particularly say that Steve Bruce is an underrated manager – you can only be widely labeled as underrated for so many years before you’re officially classed as rated (see also Claude Makelele). Nor is it fair to label him with football’s most underwhelming compliment, ‘our best English manager’. That’s not to say Bruce, in character at least, doesn’t stand apart from the Premier League’s other established Englishmen. Where in Allardyce, Pardew and Redknapp you find a chippy self-regard, in Bruce you most definitely do not.

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But we can talk of him in terms of the unfashionable manager holding his own in amongst the increasingly hipster fuelled wine bar that is Premier League football. While the aficionados slather praise on Roberto Martinez as if he were a massive Spanish crumpet, he never managed to take Wigan as high as Bruce did (11th). Compare their managerial win records and Bruce stands at around 37% versus Martinez’s 39%.

We should also take the time to applaud Bruce’s self evolution as a manager. In his early days in management he gathered a reputation for being, professionally, a little like the kind of girls Ryan Giggs would probably give his Travelodge room key to. Sheffield United, Huddersfield, Wigan and Crystal Palace all came and went rather swiftly before he found stability with the Birmingham City team he took up, and kept up, for four seasons.

Bruce, by his own admission a hot head in his early management career, also left a few of those positions in less than chummy fashion. Now at Hull, not only does he carry an air of stability and consistency about his management, he has also recognised, in his own words, that ‘you have to manage the relationships above you as well.’ Consider that current relationship is with name-changing, fan-upsetting (albeit generous-investing) Egyptian Dr Assem Allam and Bruce’s management looks all the more intelligent and diplomatic.

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Bruce, for much of his managerial career, seems forever on the cusp of being dismissed as a dinosaur. At one press conference a joke he made about being unable to send text messages was disingenuously received. Had Malky Makay been blessed with Bruce’s inept texting thumbs he might now be more kindly thought of by women, homosexuals, the People’s Republic of China and potential employers.

Bruce is also, we should remember, the only graduate from the Sir Alex Ferguson apprenticeship with any real achievement or longevity to speak of.  And though Harry Redknapp’s typically slanted and self-interested claim that Bruce deserved to be interview for the Manchester United job is probably off the mark, the fact remains that poorer managers than him have found themselves in, or at least competed for, top jobs in England.

Sadly Bruce’s face, for its all it’s joyous, mish-mashed likeability, does not fit. It may bother him, it may not. But like the homeless man I once saw deliberately vomit into some wanker’s convertible Mercedes, we should at least acknowledge that he’s making his mark.

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