Steve Bruce has this deceptive public image – he’s cultivated an on-screen interview demeanour which has convinced many that here is a nice, self-effacing guy. There’s a modest smile in there, or a resigned shrug, depending on how the match has gone for his team. There’s certainly none of the congested face with furious snarl surmounting a taut neck in which veins bulge with petulant fury – not these days. Perhaps the old boy’s blood pressure makes such displays inadvisable – he’s not as young as he used to be and, maybe, not in the best nick.
That Steve Bruce of old is well-remembered by Leeds fans who hold dear in their hearts the Whites’ Boxing Day 1995 beating of Man U at Elland Road. The breakthrough goal that day came from a rare penalty awarded against the Pride of Devon, duly converted with his usual classy panache by Gary MacAllister. But in the aftermath of the penalty award – a routine decision which would have been free of any controversy if it had been given against any other team – it was Steve the Bruce’s choleric reaction which grabbed the attention of onlookers from all sides. His face turned puce and seemed to swell until you feared the skin might split and pour blood and bile in equal measure onto the Elland Road pitch. He had to be restrained bodily from getting at the ref; the notion that he wanted to seize and throttle the official was hard to avoid. It took MacAllister himself to reduce Bruce’s temperature to below the critical meltdown mark – Scotland’s captain seemed to be reminding the England reject of the rules of the game where handling the ball in the area is concerned.
The guilty party, meanwhile, had slunk away without much protest at all. Nicky Butt had raised an arm and handled the ball – aside from his initial “hang on, you can’t give a pen against US” reaction, he seemed resigned that it was a fair cop. Only Bruce – and, after the match, Ferguson – had seriously seemed prepared to claim that what had in fact happened – hadn’t. But this was Steve Bruce the arrogant, bad loser – in the best traditions of the Theatre of Hollow Myths. Such behaviour was almost expected as part of the usual process of intimidation and aggression towards match officials.
Almost twenty years on, only the demeanour has mellowed – the determination and ruthlessness inculcated by Ferguson is a part of the Bruce DNA, as is a pathological unwillingness to accept that defeat, even from two goals ahead, was merited. The delivery is smoother, the visage less suffused with hate and resentment, but the message remains the same – we wuz robbed. He was singing that song at Elland Road that long-ago Christmas Eve, and he was singing it again at Wembley in the wake of Cup Final defeat. He can’t help it, it’s bred into him.
Bruce’s remarks in his post-match interview were described by cabbage-patch doll lookalike Adrian Chiles as “churlish”. That’s one word for the litany of grievances and excuses that preceded his laughable punchline “This isn’t the time to whinge”. Bruce had whinged long and hard, following the script that’s always been in his head, and his skewed reasoning and blinkered selectiveness were features hanging over from his Man U years. Arsenal’s first two goals were called into question – the first came from a free kick that Bruce felt shouldn’t have been given (wrong, Steve); the second resulted from a corner wrongly awarded (right – but you could see how ref Probert had been deceived). Bruce made no mention of the fact that Hull’s second goal came from a free kick taken 9 yards forward of the foul which led to it. Neither did he refer to the two clear penalties Arsenal could and should have been awarded. It was the one-eyed, wrong-headed Bruce of old; only the Man U shirt and the throbbing temple veins were missing.
Whatever the sulky reaction of Hull’s manager, Arsenal thoroughly deserved their victory, which owed much to resilience and bottle that many had thought the Gunners lacked. Many’s the time that the Arse have found it easy going against inferior opposition they have blown away with sumptuous football; this time, they faced a mountain no Cup Final side had ever before had to contemplate – two down in eight minutes and their game plan in tatters.
That they successfully climbed that mountain reflects immense credit on the Arsenal players and staff, together with their relatively long-suffering fans. Less credit is due to referee Probert – it was a great final despite, not because of, his slipshod efforts.
And – it has to be said, despite the gallant efforts of the underdogs and the fact that they fought to a particularly bitter end – least credit of all to the Hull City camp. That, though, is down to the ungracious reaction of their manager, a man who – despite that Ferguson upbringing – really should have known better.