Manager dropped during the Wembley walk by Alex Ferguson knows the players left out against Arsenal will be 'destroyed'
Steve Bruce was standing in the middle of the Wembley pitch when Sir Alex Ferguson wandered over and turned his world upside down.
The hands on the clock pointed to 1.30pm, there were only 90 minutes remaining until Manchester United kicked off against Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup final but Ferguson had still to name his team. Newly recovered from a hamstring strain, Bruce expected to resume his central defensive partnership with Gary Pallister. He greeted his manager warmly.
An awkward moment ensued. Ferguson told Bruce his smart suit would be staying on because he had failed to make the bench but worse news swiftly sunk in. Ferguson was making it clear Bruce's Old Trafford days were also up.
"It's only taken me nearly 20 years to get over it," says Hull's manager says jokingly as he pondered his own team for Saturday's FA Cup final against Arsenal. "It was the most disappointing moment of my career.
"It was Fergie's way of saying 'Steve thanks very much but this is it for you, your time at this club is up'. He was telling me I wasn't just missing the Cup final. It doesn't matter how you dress it up, you've sometimes got to tell people something they don't want to hear. When Sir Alex told me it was the end of my career I said to myself 'look Steve, you're 35, you've had a fantastic innings' but it still wasn't easy to accept."
Although United's former captain – who at least had the consolation of playing in two winning FA Cup final sides while also celebrating, among other things, three League titles at Old Trafford – is not planning on terminating any contracts at Wembley he knows he will still devastate half his squad.
"Naming teams late is something I've taken into management," he says. "Sir Alex would always leave it late for big games, that was his way of keeping everyone on an even keel until shortly before kick-off. But telling people they're not playing is something I'm not looking forward to. It doesn't matter if I put them in a room, an office or out on the pitch, those players are going to be desperately disappointed. It's always the hard part of the job. I'll have 11 ecstatic players and 11 who are absolutely destroyed."
He expects to upset Steve Harper who has deputised admirably for Allan McGregor following the serious kidney injury Hull's first-choice goalkeeper suffered at West Ham in late March.
"I saw McGregor the day after and he was in an intensive care unit," Bruce says. "He was in a bad way. The doctors had just said the next 24 hours were crucial because he could lose his kidney.
"But McGregor being McGregor, said: 'hopefully everything's going to be all right in six weeks'. He then said 'the Cup final is in seven weeks'. He was convinced he was going to make it. I walked out thinking 'aye, you're mad' but he's given himself every chance."
Then there's David Meyler. "David suffered a horrific knee injury at Sunderland. It was that severe doctors thought he'd never play again. For him to reach a Cup final is fantastic."
Bruce's own journey to Wembley has carried him along a road to redemption after the crushing disappointment of his sacking at the Stadium of Light in November 2011.
"I'd worked for 11 years to get a big job like Sunderland so what happened hurt," says a 53-year-old rejuvenated by leading Hull into the Premier League.
"When this job came up a lot of my pals said: 'Steve, are you sure, Hull's a mid-Championship club at best?' But then I met the owner, Assem Allam and thought why not?
"He doesn't have a mobile phone – so I can't get sacked by text. I go and see him every two or three weeks for a cup of coffee. He lives three miles away. He's been here nearly 50 years, he gave the local hospital £7m last week. He's a genuinely nice man."
Bruce puts the Egyptian in the same bracket as Dave Whelan his former chairman at Wigan Athletic. "After my second management job at Huddersfield I thought I'm not really cut out for this, for chairmen not telling you the truth and telling you what you should say and what you shouldn't say. But Dave Whelan was a breath of fresh air."
Whelan's joy at Wigan's FA Cup triumph last May was tarnished by relegation and Bruce empathises. "With my players all thinking about the final, the last four or five weeks have been the most difficult I've had at Hull," he says. "But at least we're safe in the league. Roberto Martínez told me the same thing happened to Wigan last year, only he couldn't pull them back round in time and they went down.
"The final's a bit like your wedding day. It's over in the blink of an eye. But it's a day when you can make a name for yourself. You can become a hero."