STEVE Bruce is set to resign as manager of Wigan Athletic, to pave the way for him to become Sunderland’s next manager.
Unless it becomes clear that Alan Shearer will not become Newcastle United’s permanent boss, Bruce is expected to be installed at the Stadium of Light imminently. Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has long been resigned to the fact that Bruce would eventually move to pastures new, and will not try to stand in his way. Whelan’s primary objective will now be to negotiate a generous compensation package, with a fee of around £5m set to be agreed.
For Bruce, joining Sunderland represents an opportunity to prove he can be as effective a manager working with a lavish transfer budget as he has been on a shoestring. The Black Cats’ next manager is expected to be handed a transfer budget in the region of £50m once minority shareholder Ellis Short completes his buy-out of the Drumaville Consortium in the coming weeks. Having being harshly nudged towards the exit door at Birmingham City 16 months ago – he jumped before he was pushed after the board dragged its heels over a new contract – the former Manchester United defender has earned a reputation as one of the country’s brightest young managers.
Roy Keane may not have been impressed by his old team-mate’s failure to claim silverware in a managerial career which has already encompassed six clubs, but Bruce has been widely praised for taking the unglamorous Latics to within sight of Europa League qualification by Christmas despite a budget a fraction of the size of many of those clubs below Wigan in the table.
But in January the 48-year-old was forced to sell star players Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacios and now the season is over, the big clubs will be back for the rest of his leading lights, with Antonio Valencia and Paul Scharner set to depart. The latter may now be tempted by Sunderland, who have long admired the versatile Austrian.
The haemorrhaging of his prize assets underlined to Bruce the limits of the ambitions of a poorly-supported team deep in rugby league territory. Bruce rebuilt his side, turning again to his impressive contacts in world football’s backwaters, but was clearly demoralised by the lack of appetite shown by his remodeled side.
Having reached 33 points by the time the January transfer window closed, the Latics managed just 12 more from a possible 42. One of their three wins came at the Stadium of Light, the last had to wait until the season’s final day.
The news that former Tottenham Hotspur coach Martin Jol yesterday signed a three-year contract as manager of Ajax only hastened the Black Cats’ efforts to persuade Bruce to move to Wearside. The only threat to chairman Niall Quinn’s hopes of unveiling Bruce as Ricky Sbragia’s replacement will be the current uncertainty at St James’s Park. Bruce grew up a Newcastle United supporter and his affection for them has never waned. He rejected the opportunity to succeed Sir Bobby Robson out of loyalty to Birmingham and seemed to regret it ever since.
Bruce has made it known privately he would love to one day manage the Magpies, but thought Alan Shearer’s imminent appointment had ruined his chances once more. He will now be monitoring the protracted negotiations between Shearer and the United hierarchy.
On his trips to Monkwearmouth as an opposing manager, Corbridge-born Bruce has been an unpopular figure with the Stadium of Light fans. But he is conscious of the fact he will not be the first Newcastle fan to manage the club.
And former Newcastle centre-half Bob Stokoe was the last man to lift a major trophy on Wearside when he led the Rokerites to a shock victory at the 1973 FA Cup final. His dash on to the field at the final whistle is immortalised in a statue at the club’s new home.