Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce sends his promotion favourites out to play Cardiff City in front of 25,000 spectators today. It’s 40 years since dai-sport journalist Terry Phillips first met Bruce in Kent. The Villa boss won’t remember that first meeting, but Phillips recalls the day he bumped into teenagers Bruce and Peter Beardsley.
Geordies Steve Bruce and Peter Beardsley strolled out of Gillingham railway station in Kent just as I was walking past on my way to Priestfield Stadium.
The two 16-year-olds had made the long journey from the North East of England to the South East.
Bruce asked me the way to Gillingham FC’s ground, I pointed the way and walked along close behind them. They were clearly nervous, excited, and I quickly realised they were young footballers signing on with my local club, Gills.
At the time I was a football journalist working for the Kent Evening Post, travelling home and away with Gillingham at a time when, before the advent of the internet and mobile phones, newspapers were media kings.
I was going to Priestfield Stadium for an interview with manager Gerry Summers. First, though, he had to welcome Bruce and Beardsley for their trials.
Summers was impressed by Bruce over the week and offered him an apprenticeship, but Beardsley, who would go on to earn 59 England caps, was turned down.
“The two of us came to Gillingham,” says Bruce. “Unfortunately, they turned Peter away and he went on to Cambridge who were in the Fourth Division then, and didn’t make it at Cambridge either. The pair of us were small – undernourished might be the best word for it!”
Bruce had been on the verge of turning his back on his dream of playing professional football and was about to start work as an apprentice plumber when he received a telephone call from Summers, who offered him a weeks trial at Priestfield.
That call changed his whole life. Together with Beardsley (who also had been offered the same weeks trial) Bruce made his way south from the North East to Gillingham in Kent.
Bruce came under the watchful eye of a wonderful mentor by the name of Bill ‘Buster’ Collins, who was in charge of Gillingham’s youth scheme and a man I knew well.
Collins was of an old school coach and helped shape Steve’s life both on and off the pitch. Born in Belfast in 1920, he’d come up through the ranks of professional football albeit at the lower end of the scale playing for Irish league clubs Distillery and Belfast Celtic, before moving across the Irish Sea to join Luton Town, and then finally Gillingham, where he finished playing in 1956.
“He was one of the biggest influences on my life,” said Bruce. “Without him and his family, I could quite easily have gone home. In the end, I became part of his family really.
“He was an influence not just on my football career, but also the way I wanted to be as an adult. He taught me so many things.”
In the early years Bruce played in midfield, but he wasn’t making progress. At the age of 18, Collins moved him to centre-half.
He said to Bruce: “You should go play at the back and have things in front of you. You’re decent in the air, and like to tackle people. Why don’t you try it?”
That decision made Bruce’s career. That was his position and, of course, he made well over 400 appearances for Manchester United at the back – and 900-plus during his career.
Bruce admitted later that his early first team appearances for Gillingham in midfield showed he didn’t have quick enough feet nor speed of thought to make it in that position to the top level.
As a young youth player, he had played against all the top London teams – Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, West Ham and more. Being Gillingham, they were always up against it, but it developed a pride, a hunger, a passion to do well.
In his first match in Gillingham’s first team, he learned a lesson he would never forget. His debut game was against Blackpool at the start of 1979-80.
The late Alan Ball was then the Blackpool player-manager and Bruce was playing in midfield for the Gills.
Bruce said: “I was a young whippersnapper of a boy and thinking ‘here’s my chance, I’m going to nail him and put him into the stands if I can.’
“I never got near him, didn’t got a kick. That was my introduction to league football. He was absolutely fantastic. Great days and a huge learning experience.”
Once Bruce moved back to centre-back, his career blossomed and he carves out a magnificent club career before moving into management.
He was a winner as a player – and remains a winner in management. Bruce has led teams to promotion from the Championship four times – twice each with Birmingham and Hull – and is keen to make it five.
This afternoon, his Villa team will test the play-off credentials of Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds.