Hull City boss Steve Bruce: 'I'll always cherish my spell at Birmingham'
THAT'S a hell of a lot of Saturday afternoons," said Steve Bruce with a puff of the cheeks after racking up 600 games as a manager in Hull City's defeat to Cardiff City last weekend.
Without today's opponents Birmingham City, the landmark may never have arrived. According to Bruce, a six-year reign at St Andrews was the making of the manager.
Between December 2001 and November 2007, 270 games in charge of the Blues conjured some of Bruce's finest memories in management.
As well as ending Birmingham's 16-year wait for top-flight football in his first season, the club's first top-10 finish for 31 years followed in 2003-04.
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Even relegation two years later was brushed aside with an instant return to the Premier League with promotion out of the Championship.
Bruce's love affair with Birmingham eventually came to an end five years ago this weekend with a switch to Wigan Athletic but, ahead of returning with the Tigers today, the 51-year-old continues to hold the St Andrews memories dear.
"It was great, great times for me and ones I'll always cherish," Bruce told the Mail. "The club was on the up and I had the privilege of managing it.
"Everybody associates me with Manchester United but I was nearly as long at Birmingham as a player (1996-1998) and as a manager.
"It was almost nine years and it's a club where I started to take off as a manager."
Before Birmingham, Bruce was struggling to convince in management. Between July 1998 and November 2001, he had come and gone from posts at Sheffield United, Wigan, Huddersfield and Crystal Palace. A reputation was building for all the wrong reasons.
"You wouldn't have wanted to employ me when I was younger let me tell you," said Bruce.
But just as the three-time Premier League title-winning captain was beginning to doubt his suitability to management, along came drinks in the Birmingham last chance saloon.
"I'd begun to wonder whether management was for me but Birmingham was the club where I needed to be," he said.
"Before that I was a bit hot-headed and a bit of a nightmare to be honest.
"I needed a place of stability at that stage of my career and thankfully the owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, have a habit of keeping their managers and giving them a chance.
"I needed a club to say 'Come on Steve, you've got to make a fist of this.' I was only in there for six months before we got promoted and then we had some success in the Premier League.
"The first game back with Aston Villa, on a Monday night, was one I remember vividly. We beat them 3-0 at home. Those are the memories you can't buy."
The eventual divorce in 2007 was unnecessarily messy.
As Carson Yeung's takeover dragged out, a story all too familiar with Birmingham fans this season as Gianni Paladini attempts to seize control, a series of broken promises left Bruce to seek an exit to Wigan.
Subsequent returns to St Andrews have not been pleasant, either.
Bruce lost there as Sunderland boss 2-1 in October 2009 and 2-0 in April 2011, and a victory today would also need him to end City's 42-year wait for an away win over Birmingham.
But a walk down the corridors of his past will not be haunted by demons, and Bruce added: "It was sad the way it ended with a takeover that never really happened. The club to this day is still suffering in that respect.
"At the time the club was being sold to the Chinese and it seemed to go on forever. I was stuck in the middle of it all trying to get a team together.
"Promises were made that didn't materialise. But that's life and we move on, it couldn't take away from the great times I had there."