There’s a line in Paula Abdul’s seminal Eighties hit ‘Opposites Attract’ that well describes the magical chemistry that can be created when yin meets yang: “Things in common, there just ain’t a one, but when we get together, we have nothing but fun.”
Abdul’s masterpiece of course was celebrating mismatched couples who somehow ‘complete’ the other, the union becoming greater than the sum of its parts via a series of differences and this phenomenon – that, in academia is known as ‘balanced dualism’ but let’s not get into that – is also evidenced so often in football’s great partnerships.
Think of the formidable striking duos of yesteryear that complemented a big targetman with a speedier, smaller collaborator. Or most beautifully there was Kenny Dalglish’s artful guile servicing Ian Rush’s singular obsession with scoring goals for Liverpool back in the day. It was a similar blending of talents that took England to a World Cup quarter-final in 1986 when Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker replicated the formula.
In defence, conflicting styles tend to work best too, and this is certainly true of the famed duos through the decades. An example that immediately springs to mind is the silk and steel of Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi in their Milanese pomp while in England, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at Manchester United brought a bountiful number of titles to Old Trafford by pooling their very different resources. One was a henchman, seemingly carved from Serbian rock. The other was a ball-playing, thoroughly modern exponent of his craft. Together, they were unbreachable.
Yet acknowledging how this pairing Riggs-and-Murtaughed their way to incredible success under Sir Alex Ferguson then leads us to fondly recalling their predecessors and suddenly the grand theory takes a stumble.
Because across the Nineties, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister played alongside the other on 317 occasions for United, on route to winning three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup.
They were the foundation on which the club’s sustained dominance was built, forging a partnership that has gone down in folklore, a partnership that has become synonymous with highly organized solidity and fortitude. Yet remarkably and uniquely, both players were essentially the same.
Both were imposing oak trees who from appearance only gave the distinct – yet wholly incorrect – impression they were cumbersome and immobile. Both were tall and broad, and there is no getting away from this, old-fashioned in their defensive virtues. This wasn’t silk and steel. Together they were stone pillars.
Yet it worked; indeed, it can be said with no little under-statement that their pairing, through the early days of the Premier League as United reigned supreme, soon became a gold standard for defensive partnerships; a standard so high and consistently so, that it has rarely been matched since.
Bruce arrived first, purchased from Norwich City for £800,000 in the winter of 1987. It surprises when revisiting the transfer that he was already 27 upon joining United but then memories come back of the numerous summers when clubs nearly took a punt on him but declined, perhaps doubting whether he could make the step up to the big time. It’s one hell of a lame spoiler alert to declare that he could, and he did.
Pallister came two years later, and perhaps it was his £2.3m fee – a record at the time between British clubs – that effected his form but initially the towering centre-back struggled, too regularly being manoeuvred into areas he didn’t feel comfortable; too regularly allowing forwards to dictate the narrative. In his first full season, the Reds finished 13th in the league with famously only success in the FA Cup keeping Ferguson in the job.
The following campaign is most notable for Bruce’s goal-scoring feats, with a remarkable 19 making him the club’s second-highest scorer that year, but then everything clicked and there are no spoilers necessary for what came next.
We’ve all seen the films and documentaries and retrospectives on Sky. We’ve read the books and those of us from a certain vintage have the memories, chockful of imperious moments from an imperious team.
Across seven trophy-laden years ‘Dolly and Daisy’ – the nickname given to them by Ferguson – were a pivotal and fearsome basis for United’s unparalleled success, with Peter Schmeichel behind them and Roy Keane offering ferocious protection ahead. All told, they kept 133 clean sheets and were breached every 102 minutes, the latter a stat that would impress across a season. Spread over seven that is astounding.
It staggers truly that Bruce never played for his country and that Pallister only received a meagre 22 caps. It frustrates that no England boss ever thought of bolstering the Three Lions with such architectural pillars.
Individually, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were very good but together, they were the best in the business. Almost identical in style and that style being robust and old-fashioned, we may genuinely never see their like again.
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