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Football News: Partnerships 1: Bruce and Pallister

Partnerships 1: Bruce and Pallister
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Partnerships 1: Steve Bruce & Gary Pallister

 

There have been many great partnerships in sport, where the total of the partnership adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. In the case of Bruce and Pallister (or Dolly and Daisy as Alex Ferguson once called them), it is fair to say Manchester United have had better individual centre-backs, but the two of them together were arguably the best centre-back pairing the club have ever had.

When Alex Ferguson arrived at United as a virtually unknown quantity it was not in a good place. While they were known for good football, they had been mired in mediocrity in terms of results for a long time. Worse there was a real problem amongst the playing staff, who seemed happy with their mediocre results so long as they could get hammered in the pub. Captain Bryan Robson would hold a players' 'meeting' on Tuesdays, which meant all day in the pub getting smashed.

Ferguson decided to weed out the drinking culture and bring in more professional players. One of the early arrivals in 1988 was a little known English centre back from Norwich City who had an aversion to the number 5, due to having scored a number of own goals while wearing it. Bruce had struggled to find a club after leaving school, being rejected by a number of professional clubs before Gillingham offered him a contract. After proving himself at the Gills he had moved on to Norwich and was just about to turn 27 when Ferguson stepped in to get him.

Man Utd agreed to pay a fee of around £825,000 for the centre-back, despite having doubts about fitness. Bruce only found out about the worries over his fitness when Ferguson picked him up at the airport to take him to his medical and kept asking him what was up with his knee. It was only then that Bruce discovered that he had a knee problem which was recorded in his medical records. Bruce himself believes he would not have passed a modern medical due to the problem.

Now he just needed a partner at the back, someone Ferguson felt he could rely on and he turned his sights on Gary Pallister, who was already capped by England, even continuing to be chosen while playing in the 2nd Division with Middlesbrough. Pallister was highly rated and Boro were not going to let him go cheap, even though they had only given Billingham Town, his first club, a set of strips in return for his signature. In the end, it was 1989 before United could finally get Pallister, after a fall-out with temperamental boss Bruce Rioch saw him lose his Boro and England place. Pallister was so intent on moving that he hired his first agent to ensure a deal was done with someone.

First to move for him was Liverpool, but Boro's asking price saw them walk away and leave the door open for Man Utd to step in. As Pallister recalls: "I met my agent at the hotel which was a 15-minute drive away from where I lived. I said I'd follow him in my car. My agent was driving in front of me in his big Rolls-Royce and we came into the car park. My agent went inside the hotel to see that everyone was there and Bruce Rioch said if that ****** walks in here the deal's off. So I had to sit in the car park for something like seven hours while they haggled this deal through. There were no mobile phones back then, so there wasn't a lot to do. I just sat there twirling my fingers, hoping for the best. Intermittently the gaffer (Alex Ferguson) would come out and say, 'we've gone up to £1.8m and they're still saying no....We've got up to £1.9m, up to £2m and they're still saying no'. Eventually at about three in the morning they came out and said 'the deal's been done; £2.3m'. He said 'you've got to go to the restaurant and sort out your personal details'. I went up there and sat with the gaffer and Maurice Watkins and the gaffer went 'that's what Bryan Robson is getting; that's what you're getting'. I just said OK, and it's only lately that I've found out Robbo was on a lot more, so the gaffer did me out of a few quid! He had to get a little bit of money back because they were never going to be prepared to pay £2.3m, but that's what it took. That's where the name 'Cash' came from, that Archie Knox so aptly named me."

That fee was big money for the time, in fact it broke the record for highest fee paid between two British clubs and was the second highest fee ever paid by a British club, beaten only by Ian Rush's transfer back to Liverpool from Juventus. At the time, Ferguson was under severe pressure and Pallister's arrival was not immediately successful. Ferguson was worried about his new signing's lack of physical strength and, after popping round to his house one day to find him sat around munching chocolate bars and crisps, the centre-back was put on a weight-training regime to build his strength up.

As the season went on the Bruce and Pallister partnership began to show signs it was coming together, despite United's lowly finish of 13th in the league they won the FA Cup after Mark Robins' (in)famous goal in the 3rd round was reported to have saved Ferguson's job. Pallister went on to win the Matt Busby Player of the Year award and he, Bruce and Man Utd as a whole went from strength to strength. The next year, 1990/91, was livened up once more by good cup runs, this time the Red Devils reached the final of both the League Cup and Cup Winners Cup. They lost in the League Cup final to Sheffield Wednesday, managed by Ferguson's predecessor Ron Atkinson, but they beat Barcelona in the Cup Winners' Cup final in Rotterdam.

1991/92 saw United make a good start and were on a 12-match unbeaten run before Wednesday beat them 3-2. In the previous 12 games they had only conceded 4 goals. A win over Nottingham Forest in the League Cup final was followed 8 days later by Forest getting revenge in the league at Old Trafford and that launched a run of poor results culminating in a 2-0 defeat at Anfield which gave the league title to Leeds United. Despite failing to win the final title before the Premier League era began, Pallister won the PFA Player of the Year award, in appreciation for just how well he, and Bruce, had defended that season.

Despite a determination to not let the title slip this time around, Man Utd got off to a slow start to the Premier League, in fact they sat bottom after the first two matches following defeats in both. Ferguson kept faith in his defence and they helped the team rise up the table as the season went on, then last year's champions Leeds made the fatal error of selling them Eric Cantona in November. This was their year and they lifted the league title with a game to spare, leaving just one final, meaningless game for United to play at home in front of 40,000 celebrating fans against Blackburn Rovers. With Pallister having failed to score all season he was given the chance to take a free kick on the edge of Rovers' box and duly placed it in the bottom corner to send the fans wild. United had won on the back of a strong defence, conceding just 31 goals in 42 league matches.

That season Robson had begun to really suffer through injury, missing large chunks of the season and so Bruce had shared the captaincy with him, even being jointly given the league trophy at the end of the season. It was time for change and, after the season Bruce was in for a surprise: "I got a phone call from Sir Alex one afternoon. 'Are you in the house? Can I call in and have a cup of tea?', he said. We were wondering what was wrong and why he wanted to come to the house, because that was unprecedented. We sat down over a cup of tea and a biscuit and he said he wanted me to be the new captain of Manchester United. He asked me what I thought, and I was like 'absolutely, bring it on'."

Roy Keane arrived to replace Robson in the heart of midfield and United cruised through the season winning the league and FA Cup double, making Bruce the first Englishman to captain a club to the domestic double. United lost just 4 times in the league and Pallister was present for 60 of the club's 62 competitive matches that season. The only blip was the defeat to old nemesis Ron Atkinson and his Aston Villa team in the League Cup final.

Bruce had begun to pick up injuries and Ferguson signed David May from Blackburn in the summer of 1994 as the end was in sight for Bruce as first choice. The 1994/95 season was affected by the change in rules in European competitions, limiting teams to just 3 foreigners and that led to struggles with Ferguson having to make difficult choices as players like Keane, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Dennis Irwin and Mark Hughes, not to mention flying winger Andrei Kanchelskis, were all classed as foreigners in the Champions League. That was the reason Bruce said made him turn down an approach from Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton to play for Ireland. His place in the Red Devils line-up would have been in jeopardy if he had nailed his colours to Ireland's mast as he would then have become classed as a foreigner too.

While Europe was tough, Barcelona handing them a 4-0 hammering when Schmeichel was one of the foreigners who had to sit out the game, domestic football saw United chasing another double. Andy Cole arrived in January to give the side a lift but Cantona's 8 month ban for his 'kung-fu kick' at Crystal Palace caused enough disruption for Blackburn to pip them to the league title and Everton to beat them in the FA Cup final.

The 1995-96 season was to be Bruce's final one in the colours of Man Utd, though Ferguson wanted to hold onto him, convincing Bruce to reject 3 different offers of a manager's job over the course of the season. Little wonder Ferguson wanted to keep him as United went undefeated in the first 10 games, though they did struggle in the run up to Christmas, failing to get a win in 5 matches, which allowed Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United team to go 10 points clear at the top. Bruce's value was clear though as he missed the game against Tottenham Hotspur, where United were given a 4-1 hammering at White Hart Lane. Bruce's replacement was on-loan French centre-back William Prunier and he was, to be polite, dreadful.

Despite the famous 'grey kit' 3-1 defeat to Southampton, where Ferguson made the team change kit at half-time, United went on a run and won a second domestic double in 1995/96. Bruce made just 30 appearances over the course of the season, due to injuries, and missed the FA Cup final. Cantona tried to get Bruce to go up and collect the trophy but he declined. Ferguson tried to persuade Bruce to stay another year, but Bruce was 36 now and decided it was time to change, moving to Birmingham City. Pallister only stayed a couple more years himself, before he returned to Middlesbrough, United actually making a profit as Boro paid £2.5m to bring the veteran defender back.

Bruce and Pallister were the first choice pairing who helped Ferguson launch a lengthy period of domestic dominance for Man Utd in their 7 years as the rocks at the back. They won 3 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, the League Cup and the Cup Winners' Cup together. 317 matches saw just 282 goals conceded in that time, 180 were won and just 55 times they were defeated, with 133 clean sheets. They will quite rightly go down in history as one of the best centre-back pairings of all-time in the English game.

Written by Tris Burke September 28 2020 08:51:54

 

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