Bruce: Leading a team out at the Cup final beats United trophies
Ahead of the trip to Spurs, the Aston Villa manager tells Luke Edwards why he is a huge fan of the FA Cup
It has been a strange year for Steve Bruce. Having taken months to make the heartwrenching decision to quit Hull City, he admits he needed a few hours to get over the disappointment of losing out on the England job, but only a few seconds to decide he wanted to rebuild Aston Villa after relegation.
The joy of promotion at Hull was short-lived. The exhilaration of beating Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship play-off final at Wembley last May was almost immediately overtaken by conflict with the club’s owners, the Allams, over a lack of transfers funds and the sad realisation he could no longer work for them.
In the middle of it all, came a call from the Football Association, an interview for the biggest job in the country, followed by the news he had lost out to his close friend Sam Allardyce in the race to become England manager.
For the first time in 40 years, Bruce started the season out of work, watching from his holiday home in Portugal. He embarked on a strict fitness regime, drinking and eating less, exercising more. He shed several stone, but then Villa approached him.
Today, he takes his rejuvenated team to face Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup. It is the type of clash he is confident he can make regular again.
“I would have taken the Aston Villa job even if they were in League One. They are that sort of club,” said Bruce.
“I would have taken their call no matter what division they were in. It is steeped in tradition, history, it’s a special club for anyone who understands English football.
“There is a lot of work to do. We have a big challenge ahead, but it didn’t take any thinking about. When the job came up, I wanted it. It has a huge fan base and that is the true measure of a big club for me, because with that sort of following comes the expectation. That is what I wanted.
“The diet has stopped. I had a few pints and fish and chips for my tea last night, that’s what the job does to you, but I wanted that pressure again.
“It is a club that has had some tough times. It’s been a difficult few years, but it’s got a new owner [Tony Xia] and he wants to take Aston Villa a long way. He’s incredibly ambitious and it’s about drawing a line and forgetting about what has happened in the past.
“The immediate challenge is to get out of the Championship. I’m under no illusions, it’s going to be difficult. I know better than most how tough this the Premier League, a lot of hard work and sweat. There was something nagging at me. It felt like the time to leave the party. The club was up for sale, there was instability from the top and it filters down. If the relationship with the owner or the chief executive isn’t right, it harms the club. The job is hard enough without that. I’m worried about them. I still look out for them – 90 per cent of the players there, I brought them to Hull, so I still care what happens. But they have an uphill battle.
“The hardest thing was spending the first day of the season out of work. It was the first time in 40 years I had done that, I found that ridiculously difficult, much harder than losing weight.”
The newly slimline Bruce left Hull with his reputation more than just intact. He did not get the England job, but at the age of 56, his time might come again. After all, Allardyce did not get it the first time he was interviewed either.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Bruce said. “OK, I didn’t get it, but I can always say I was interviewed. I wish I wasn’t so close in some ways, because you have that disappointment when you don’t get it, but it was nice to do be thought of. It was nice for it to be recognised that I could have done the job.
“It’s the pinnacle. I’m English and that’s the biggest job out there. Nobody would have been prouder if I had got it. Could it still happen? Who knows what happens in the future? I wish Gareth Southgate all the best, we have to get behind him. Look, we might not all get on, but every manager knows how tough and lonely this job can be, and no job is tougher than the England one.”
For now, Bruce is concentrating totally on Villa, and although promotion is the priority, he will never take the FA Cup lightly.
“Of all the things I did at Hull, taking them to the FA Cup final [in 2014, when they lost 3-2 to Arsenal] was the most incredible experience,” he said. “It beat all the promotions, even winning trophies with Manchester United, leading the team out at Wembley as a manager, nothing compares to that.
“For me, the FA Cup remains one of the great sporting occasions. Along with Wimbledon, the Grand National, the British Open, the Derby, the Grand Prix, the FA Cup final, when you get there, you realise how great it is.
“We couldn’t have asked for a tougher draw. It’s a great Cup tie. Tottenham are my favourite second side at the moment.
“I’m a huge admirer of [Mauricio] Pochettino. They are competing at the top of the table with five or six English lads in the team and they play some fantastic football with a young side, full of life.
“They’ll go close to winning the title this season again, but I hope it’s one of those FA Cup days where we pull off a shock.”
‘I would have taken the Aston Villa job even if they were in League One. They are that sort of club’