It perhaps says a great deal about the modest history of the Gills that the greatest player to grace the shirt in the last twenty-five years was never even fully capped by his country, but Steve Bruce is still fondly remembered by all the fans who watched the team between 1979 ad 1984. He was a favourite son and the genuine warmth of the reception he received when he returned for a testimonial speaks volumes – he was and still is a Priestfield legend. Last season saw him return as manager of Huddersfield Town and receive a standing ovation from the Gills supporters while the visiting fans just sulked in silence.
Steve Bruce came through the youth team at the Gills and made his debut at the age of eighteen on the opening day of the 1979-80 season. He immediately became a fixture in the side and remained a key member up until his departure at the end of 1983-84. From the very beginning it was obvious that Bruce was a quality player and destined to make it to the top. He was a commanding central defender, fearless, brave, intelligent and blessed with vision and intelligence during an era of, ahem, less sophisticated defending. He became the focus, a linchpin at the back, he had a physical presence which gave you a warm feeling of reassurance in a team not always noted for its defensive solidarity.
Steve also weighed in with a significant number of goals. Often they were towering headers which thundered into the net after he had barrelled his way through the mayhem in the box. I particularly remember his winner against Chesterfield in 80-81, an archetypal goal. However my favourite has to be his thunderous shot at the Rainham End in a famous 4-2 win over Sheffield United in 83-84. He even took (and scored) a few penalties during 83-84 but it was his strength, leadership and all-round defensive abilities that brought the talent scouts flocking to Priestfield.
He might even have left in 1983, rumours abounded but then bad luck struck in early April, and not for the first time. In a tetchy game against promotion-chasing Newport County (yes, that long ago!), Bruce got “involved” with one of their players. In the end he attempted to retaliate with a reckless tackle. Sadly it was Bruce that broke his leg, but it meant he stayed for another year. He returned to the side in September and was soon enjoying a magnificent season in a successful team. He might have notched a couple of comical own goals and seemed willing and able to break his poor old nose at every opportunity but it came as no surprise when in the summer of 1984 he left to go to Norwich City for the princely sum of £135,000 controversially set by a tribunal.
Gills fans closely followed his subsequent career, an own goal against Liverpool on his City debut, a winner against Ipswich to take them to the Milk Cup final, relegation, promotion and a dream move to Manchester United in 1987 where he remained until 1996. As their club captain he lifted plenty of silverware and enjoyed a solid partnership with Gary Pallister. A far cry from his early days at Priestfield but those who saw him play would not hesitate to make him the captain of any team of Gillingham “greats”. If you wanted a defensive header winning, Brucey was your man – every time. Shame about the nose though.
234 apps, 38 goals