I was struck by one of the photographs that captured Steve Bruce enjoying a break with the England cricket team who were playing a test in the West Indies, writes Vernon Grant.
He was pictured having a laugh with Jonny Bairstow, son of a very good friend of mine whose company I have missed for decades. Yorkshire and England cricketer David ‘Bluey’ Bairstow took his own life because he could not cope with life after retirement from the game. He tried. I know how hard he tried to forge a new career for himself outside of cricket. But he sorely missed the enjoyment, camaraderie and buzz that he had long experienced playing cricket for county and country.
England test cricketer Jonny Bairstow has done his late father proud and I’ve watched from afar as he has scored centuries at the crease. I just wish his father was alive to watch him swing the bat.
We as fans of sport can all be guilty of thinking those who work at the highest level of games such as football, cricket and tennis, for example, are not human. Do not have the same troubles that touch our lives. That somehow they are without problems, health issues or family dilemmas. Because these athletes or managers are often well paid, we can forget that they are every bit as susceptible to being exhausted, or worse, suffer from clinical depression. In his excellent, award winning book called ‘Coming Back To Me’ the England test cricketer Marcus Trescothick was candid about how his own depression played havoc with his job and took him to the edge of suicide.
Another award winning book did reveal how former Barcelona goalkeeper Robert Enke took his own life because of the pressures of playing football at the highest level. Of how he felt he was failing at his job but could not take a break from the career nor put his hands up and admit he had a problem. My interview with his friend and author of his biography, Ronald Reng, can be watched via this link.
When we demand a footballer or cricketer is dropped from the team, or a football manager be sacked, we forget these people have feelings. Just like you and me.
You can be in one job for too long a time without a holiday. I’ve done it. I went fifteen years without a holiday. Madness, and not good for body or mind. You can fall foul of living to work, rather than working to live. Of losing perspective. Who among us, on our deathbeds, will wish we’d spent more hours working? Not me, that’s for sure.
In 2018 Steve Bruce and his family had suffered catastrophic loss. Steve’s parents died within months of each other. At the same time he was trying to hold down his job as manager of Aston Villa. A role that comes with plenty of pressure and expectation.
Steve Bruce has taken the Sheffield Wednesday job at a time when others would not go near the club. For that alone he has earned brownie points among a group of supporters Bruce has long admired.
Prior to him managing Hull City to win the Championship play off against Sheffield Wednesday, he said he felt the odds were against Hull because the travelling Owls support at Wembley was so much bigger and more vocal than those who had made the journey from Hull. He was not alone in saying that had the Sheffield Wednesday side played with the passion shown by their supporters that day, he and Hull City would not have made it to the Premier League.
Bruce, whose early managerial career saw him flit between four clubs in three years (and fall out with various bosses in the process), has managed various clubs to play off semi-finals or finals. Among them Wigan (semi-final) and Birmingham City (who were promoted to the Premier League). In his first season at Hull he secured automatic promotion to the Premier League. They reached the FA Cup final and therefore qualified to play in the Europa League. Hull fans could hardly believe their good fortune.
Hull City were relegated the following season but Bruce put together a physically imposing side that swept Sheffield Wednesday aside in that play off final three years ago. Once again, while having to manage a tight budget and getting little support from a difficult club owner, Steve Bruce had guaranteed Premier League football for a club that had spent so many years in the doldrums.
His next stop was Aston Villa. He got them to the play off final last season but Fulham beat Villa with the only goal of the game. Never truly accepted by Aston Villa supporters, the former Birmingham City man was fired by the club last October. It was notable how the new owners of Aston Villa, who had taken over the club in July, had first tried to entice Thierry Henry – a man with zero managerial experience but the ego of a someone who had managed teams to win the Premier League and World Cup – to replace Bruce. Once Henry chose instead to go to Monaco (how did that work out, Thierry?), the new Villa owners kept Bruce on, albeit with no financial support and undermined.
While he managed Villa, his wife Janet had helped care for his sick and dying parents. Following their passing he promised her a family holiday and a break from the game as soon as possible. That opportunity came sooner than he thought when he was told to clear his desk.
I was dismayed at the level of social media abuse aimed at Steve Bruce by Aston Villa fans since, in late November of last year, I exclusively revealed via @VGTIPS1 that he would be the new manager at Hillsborough.
Villa supporters seem to have quickly forgotten how Bruce got an underfunded squad to a Wembley play off final, despite having a weaker first eleven than the likes of Fulham and the automatically promoted Wolves.
Not for the first time, it was Steve’s son Alex who took to Twitter to defend his father thus. He told Aston Villa fans: “End of the day, you’re a lot better now than you were when he took over and that’s a fact! Di Matteo spent approx £55 million. Dad had to do a lot of wheeling and dealing in his time at Villa. Lets hope he’s appreciated a bit more at his next job.”
I think he will be. I hope that he returns from his well deserved break from the stresses and strains of football management suitably refreshed and is able to enjoy being involved with the game once again. In any job, you can run out of enthusiasm for the work. You can lose the passion you once had for the daily grind.
I’ve frankly no idea why anyone wants to be a football manger in the present age. The respect once shown by fans towards the likes of Bill Shankly, Sir Matt Busy, Joe Mercer and Bill Nicholson is a thing of the past. That’s regrettable.
In football management it’s easy to understand how any long term manager can grow weary of the constant media attention. Become fed up with the negativity that so often fills the airwaves, newspapers and websites. Despair of turning on the telly to see and hear paid pundits criticise your every decision. People like Ruud Gullit and Danny Murphy who I write about here. Those ex players or occasional managers have taken the easy road. Not for them the responsibility of a high pressured role in the game. Just hop in the car paid for by the broadcaster (which in the past I as a television producer have provided), arrive at the studio, spout a few banalities and pick up the cheque. Easy money.
On February 1st Steve Bruce will take his new squad to play Ipswich Town, a club managed by another man who has experienced the pressures of the job. Both Bruce and Paul Lambert know what it is like to manage expectations at Aston Villa. Lambert, a former Norwich City manager, is now in charge of local rivals Ipswich, a club that has gone backwards since the supporters demanded the sacking of Mick McCarthy. He had secured the club’s position in the Championship for several years. But in this age when football fans think they know better because they watch Match of the Day and play pretend football matches on their PC; for many, anything less than playing in the Premier League is unacceptable. They march, protest and even throw cabbages at managers.
On February 2nd Steve Bruce will be back on the touchline. It’s possible we will see a less animated man at work. If his break from the game has worked, we’ll no longer see him argue with the fourth official or be warned about his conduct by a referee. Time will tell if that is possible for a man who has craved success as a player and manager.
Whether or not a more chilled out Steve Bruce will be a good thing for Sheffield Wednesday football club, we shall see. But I’m tipping him to get off to a winning start and I’ve backed Sheffield Wednesday to win at odds of 9/5.