Daily Mail - - The Verdict - CRAIG HOPE

IT is a word not read­ily used by foot­ball man­agers. So when Steve Bruce de­scribes the dress­ing room he in­her­ited at As­ton Villa as ‘toxic’, you won­der how frac­tured it had be­come.

He reme­died that poi­son last sum­mer by sign­ing the likes of John Terry, Ahmed El­mo­hamady and Glenn Whe­lan. Their house is now in or­der and they could be about to ex­tend into the top flight.

There is still work to be done as they take just a one-goal lead into to­mor­row’s semi-fi­nal sec­ond leg against Mid­dles­brough but, with Bruce bid­ding for a record fifth pro­mo­tion to the Premier League, they are jus­ti­fi­ably favourites.

He has done what was needed to bring in a new era, even if that meant lean­ing on old heads. He used eight play­ers in their thir­ties on Satur­day, led by 33year- old match- win­ner Mile Je­d­i­nak and skip­per Terry, 37.

‘You’ve seen how good he is out there,’ said Bruce of his cap­tain. ‘It wasn’t just on the pitch that I needed him, it was to deal with a dress­ing room which had been toxic at As­ton Villa for years.

‘It was im­por­tant that play­ers like Jack Gre­al­ish see some­one and think, “This is how you do it”. It is fine a man­ager bleat­ing at them, but when you hear it from a top pro… Whe­lan, El­mo­hamady, and Je­d­i­nak have all been at the top level. They have been cru­cial to the young play­ers, and we have some good ones.’

None bet­ter than Gre­al­ish, the boy won­der who once left you won­der­ing if he was cut out for pro­fes­sional foot­ball after a string of neg­a­tive head­lines, in­vari­ably al­co­hol-re­lated.

He is 22 now but only un­der Bruce has he set­tled off the pitch and shone — con­sis­tently — on it. ‘It has been a cul­tural change,’ said Bruce of his 19 months in charge. ‘ Take Jack, by the time he was 21 he had had seven man­agers telling him dif­fer­ent things. It is im­por­tant he has sta­bil­ity and fo­cus.

‘Gone are the days when you can go night­club­bing. You have to fo­cus on what you do and the dress­ing room I have brought in helps that. He was the out­stand­ing player (on Satur­day).’

Bruce has achieved all of that re­cently with the back­drop of his own per­sonal tor­ment. His mother, Sheenagh, died this month just 88 days after his fa­ther, Joe, had passed away. But he takes strength from what they would have told him.

‘In my per­sonal life I have had a hor­ri­ble three months,’ he said. ‘But what I have to do is con­cen­trate on the game. That’s what my mum and dad would have wanted. I can hear them now: “Roll your sleeves up, son, and get on with it.” ’

In turn, his play­ers have rolled up their sleeves for Bruce.

‘We want to do it for our gaffer be­cause he’s been through a very hard time,’ said Al­bert Adomah, the winger who has scored 15 times this sea­son.

‘I know this vic­tory can’t bring any­one back, but at least we’ve put some joy on his face and hope­fully it can be the same on Tues­day.’

It will be the task of Tony Pulis and Boro to wipe away that smile at a sold-out Villa Park.

They, how­ever, have be­come over-re­liant on winger Adama Traore and a team who have been to­gether for the best part of four sea­sons ap­pear to have lost some en­ergy and hunger.

Ben Gib­son, nephew of owner Steve, protests oth­er­wise. ‘I told my fam­ily when I left the house be­fore the game, “We play foot­ball for th­ese oc­ca­sions — since I was a lit­tle boy you dream of be­ing part of this, so there’s no point fear­ing them”.

‘When I re­tire, I’ll look back on th­ese days and I’ll miss that feel­ing in your belly, that fire and the eyes of the fans.

‘It will be fiery and fan­tas­tic (to­mor­row), two good teams fight­ing it out to get to Wem­b­ley. But we have got that be­lief and the qual­ity — we’ll be qui­etly con­fi­dent.’


Mile high: Je­d­i­nak scores past Traore and keeper Dar­ren Ran­dolph

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