Steve Bruce exclusive: Reclaiming record from Neil Warnock and gaining perspective from personal tragedy

Steve Bruce has a smile on his face as he discusses reclaiming a little piece of outright history from an old adversary.

Neil Warnock’s triumph with Cardiff drew him level on four promotions to the top flight, and now Bruce can go one better again if Aston Villa manage to see off Fulham on Saturday in the Sky Bet Championship play-off final, live on Sky Sports Football.

“He’s been around the block a bit! I was the first to wish him well because it was quite a remarkable achievement, but he’s caught up with me again,” joked Bruce. “Next year he can’t get promoted though, unless something weird and wonderful happens. I’m happy for him that he’s had the enthusiasm to get Cardiff promoted at his age.

“But of course I want to beat him! If I can make it five I’d be delighted.”

Twice Bruce has been automatically promoted from the second tier and twice he’s won the play-off final. His most recent Wembley triumph was two years ago in his final game with Hull City. Experience is a word that he has heard all year and he hopes that will stand him and his side in good stead on Saturday.

“I hope it can help the players and the staff,” Bruce said. “I won’t sit here and say that I’m not going to feel some butterflies on the day but, like everything in life, if you’ve already experienced something then you know how to handle it better.

“Make no mistake about it, though, however many times you’ve done it it’s still a wonderful occasion and the reason you’re in football is for days like this. I’ve said many times in big games like this you can smell the hot dogs a little bit, that’s what Archie Knox used to say all those years ago and nothing has changed.

“Hopefully we can put a smile back on the faces of Aston Villa fans for a change because for five or six year it’s been pretty desperate at times. Let’s hope it’s our turn again.”

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Villa’s squad is also packed to the rafters with experienced names and faces. Few players have more appearances at Wembley than John Terry, while Alan Hutton, Robert Snodgrass and Mile Jedinak have been around the block a few times and more.

Bruce insists, however, that experience is not the be all and end all. He even admits that, on occasions this season, it may have even held them back.

“Experience or not you’ve still got to put your boots on and perform,” he said. “When you go over the white line on a big occasion the experience you’ve had before can stand you in good stead.

“Don’t get me wrong I would have loved to have had all these players at 25, but I doubt that would have been possible! But we’ve been on TV more times this season than Coronation Street and we need players who can handle playing for Aston Villa.

“The flipside of that experience is that the amount of games we’ve played has caught up with us a few times this season, and that’s where my management might have been better. But 19 months ago this club was in a fair old state and I remember speaking to my technical director Steve Round and saying that we might be happy to keep this lot in the Championship, that’s how desperate it had become. And slowly it’s turned around.”

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On the pitch the last year or so has been an extremely successful one for Bruce, but away from football it has been incredibly difficult. He has lost both of his parents since the turn of the year and he’s the first to admit it’s given him a keen sense of perspective.

“I’m incredibly thankful to my staff here because I’ve had more days off than I’d have wanted so I could spend time with my mum, and I’ve got a unique family who have helped me through it too,” he said.

“I’m not one of those who can sit here and say it’s the be all and end all, because for me it isn’t and at the end of the day it’s just a game of football. My mum had been seriously ill for three or four months and I’ll never forget them because it was horrific, and the one little chink of light I’ve had is to try and get Aston Villa promoted. It’s given me a little bit of escapism.

“It’s been difficult and people who have been unfortunate enough to lose a parent will know that to lose two of them in such a short period of time was horrendous, but hopefully they’ll be looking down and giving us a bit of luck.”

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The play-off final will be 26 years to the day since Aston Villa’s European Cup triumph in 1982. Bruce hopes, however, that it can be used as a positive rather than something that will weigh down his side with even more expectation.

“Let’s hope it’s another omen,” he said. “When you’re talking about expectation at a club like this, it was only 1982 we were in the European Cup final and we’re the fifth most successful club in England in terms of trophies won.

“I’ve waited something like 20 years to get a club like this one, although it’s probably only because it was a mess and in the Championship! If it had been fifth and in the Premier League would I have got the job? I’m not so sure. But that’s why it’s been a delight to manage here because you always want a chance at a big club, in a big stadium with big support. It hasn’t disappointed me.”

Don’t miss the Sky Bet Championship play-off final between Fulham and Aston Villa on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event from 4pm

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