Steve Bruce does not need telling how a manager’s history can be used as a stick to beat him with. After all, he once stood on the touchline as Sunderland manager and heard his own club’s supporters berate him with the chant “You fat Geordie bastard, get out of our club”.
On his official unveiling as the new manager of Aston Villa yesterday, though, Bruce – the man they used to call “Potato Head” on the Holte End – said he was confident his past as Birmingham City manager would not work against him.
“It was 15 years ago now that I marched into Birmingham,” said Bruce, who managed Blues for six years between 2001 and ’07. “We managed to turn that round and got them up and marching again. That is what I have to try and repeat. At the end of the day I’m an unemployed football manager. I had wonderful times there so much so that I stayed in the area but when the opportunity arose, there was no decision. I never gave it a thought.
“This is a huge football club and is a privilege to manage it,” added Bruce, looking notably slimmer after his three-month break from football following his departure from Hull City. “It’s arguably the biggest club I’ve ever managed and the biggest challenge of all because of the expectation. This club is steeped in history of winning things. I hope I can live up to it.”
Bruce, who confirmed he had signed a rolling contract, chuckled as he recalled that less than endearing name the Villa fans once chanted at him. “I’ve been used to being called Potato Head by them,” he said, “I always took it as a compliment if you are getting a bit of stick as deep down [it means] they really respect you.”
It is fair to say his appointment as Roberto Di Matteo’s successor has drawn none of the ire witnessed when Alex McLeish was appointed as Villa manager in June 2011, just five days after he had quit his post at St Andrew’s and a month after overseeing Birmingham’s relegation. There were protests outside Villa Park then and McLeish lasted eleven months.
Looking further back, just ten days separated Ron Saunders’ resignation at Villa Park over a lack of funds and his appointment as Birmingham boss. That did not work out too well for Saunders; Villa won the European Cup three months later while Birmingham were relegated within two years.
It is not just in the Second City that managers have crossed the divide with mixed results. In north London George Graham only ever earned grudging acceptance from Tottenham fans for his Arsenal past; the same can be said of Manchester United playing legend Mark Hughes’s time as Manchester City manager.
Bruce was accompanied at his unveiling by Stephen Clemence, his new first-team coach, and Steve Round, the club’s technical director. It was an impressive show of unity and what he really has in his favour is a history of winning promotion. He achieved the feat twice with Birmingham and twice with Hull City, most recently via the play-offs in May, prior to his resignation at the KC Stadium in July.
For a club currently 19th in the Championship, with four wins from their last 51 league fixtures, that is enough. As the Villa fans’ website My Old Man Said put it this week: “Beggars can’t be choosers”.
Keith Wyness, Villa’s chief executive, noted the response on social media had been “overwhelmingly positive for Steve”. He cited Bruce’s man-management skills as the key factor in his appointment – “He has the ability to blow away the relegation cobwebs” – and stressed promotion remained the goal, despite Villa sitting 19th in the Championship table. “It is absolutely the priority,” he said.
Villa have on paper one of the division’s most potent set of attackers yet they have scored only ten goals this season, winning just one of 11 Championship games. “We have to play with more intensity. We have really good strikers here and have to try to get the ball to them as quickly as we can,” said Bruce.
The 55-year-old added that the “slate is wiped clean” for every player in his squad ahead of Saturday’s home derby against Wolves – including Gabriel Agbonlahor, who had been training with the Under-23s since rejecting a loan move to Reading on deadline day.
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Bruce, who still has his family home in Warwickshire, continued: “We have some very good players here who are suffering from the aftermath of last year. The first thing is to win back the supporters’ trust and me earn their trust, I have lived in the Midlands now for 15 years and I know what they want and what they want to see – they want to see their team play with a spirit and a passion that befits them. That is what I tried to do at Birmingham 15 years ago and I’ll try to do the same here.”