TWENTY years to the week since lifting the FA Cup as captain of Manchester United, memories of that illustrious day still burn as intensely as ever for Hull City manager Steve Bruce.
In an illustrious playing career which also yielded three Premier League titles and European Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup honours, Bruce admits his three FA Cup winners’ medals – the last as a non-playing squad member in 1996 – have an extra-special place.
Preparing to head back to the Wembley showpiece for the first time as a manager, Bruce has been stressing the unique nature of the occasion to his Tigers players this week as they aim to add to the canon of famous FA Cup upsets against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal today. Bruce said: “We must be rank outsiders, but that’s the beauty of the FA Cup. Manchester City were huge favourites last year but Wigan came up and won the thing and that’s why, for me, it’s the greatest competition. For a club like ours to take on the mighty Arsenal has a fantastic ring to it. The club has never been there in its history, so it’s a wonderful achievement. But you’ve got to try to grasp the occasion and enjoy it, because if you’re not careful it just goes past you.”
Bruce made his cup final debut in 1990 as United edged past Crystal Palace after a replay, and returned as captain four years later to marshal United to a stunning 4-0 final win over Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea. After also captaining United in a 1-0 final defeat by Everton in 1995, he was left out of the side for the 1996 win over Liverpool due to injury.
Bruce recalled: “My first one was in 1990 and it was the showpiece, the pinnacle of the season. There was a clamour of it and I’m reminded of the intensity and of the attention. It was over in a blur. Not many of them are married but I told the players it’s a bit like your wedding day – before you know it you’re married, and before you know it the FA Cup final’s gone. The memories of the FA Cup are the ones you cherish when you’ve finished your playing career. The ones you really remember are your FA Cup days and, believe me, it’s far better when you’ve won one than when you’ve lost one.”
On the face of it, the Tigers are hardly in the best of shape going into their first final, having rounded off their Barclays Premier League campaign with a run of five successive games without a win.
In addition, they are shorn of cup-tied frontmen Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long, and have doubts over a number of players including another striker in Sone Aluko and defender Paul McShane.
But there is better news for Bruce with goalkeeper Allan McGregor, pictured left, successfully staging a comeback from kidney damage which was initially expected to keep him out for the rest of the season, and Robbie Brady also pushing for a surprise recall after his groin operation.
For Bruce, the poor end-of-season run which followed the 5-3 semi-final win over Sheffield United was more than mere coincidence. “We try but we can’t keep it normal – you can tell that,” Bruce added. “You can’t put a lid on it. They’re playing in arguably the biggest game of their career and that’s what you play football for. All they’ve thought about for four weeks is the FA Cup final.
“When you play for your youth team or your district team you want to do one thing – play in the FA Cup final. There’s a spring in their step and so there should be. Everybody enjoys a shock and, if you’re not an Arsenal fan, I’m sure the rest of the world will be rooting for Hull. The reality is it’s a one-off, and it’s a place where heroes are made. Who can be that hero and go and win us the FA Cup?”
Scotland goalkeeper McGregor is set to keep his place after making his comeback in the Premier League defeat by Everton and George Boyd – who is in Gordon Strachan’s squad for Scotland’s friendly against Nigeria later this month – is also likely to feature
Meanwhile. Arsenal’s club record signing Mesut Ozil is convinced that if the Gunners can overcome Hull, then more titles will follow.
Ozil, signed from Real Madrid for £42million in September, has just returned following a hamstring injury to provide a timely boost for Arsenal, who should have fit-again England midfielder Jack Wilshere also available at Wembley along with Aaron Ramsey, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is battling to overcome a groin problem.
“We are in the final and we want to take this silverware now,” said Ozil. “I’m convinced we’ll achieve that. We can win titles with this squad. This is very important for the fans as well because they’ve been waiting for so long. We qualified for the Champions League and we are in the FA Cup final. If we can win the cup, then it will be a great season. However, it will be a tough game because Hull fights till the end – nowhere else other than in England are there so many teams who never give up.”