Steve Bruce: Inside the literary career of Newcastle manager

By Ciaran McCauley

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Steve Bruce's foray into the world of crime fiction has been largely forgotten about...

*This article was first published in November 2016. It was edited and re-published on 18 July 2019.*

Spoiler alert: The following contains plot details from Steve Bruce's trilogy of crime thriller novels Striker!, Sweeper! And Defender! If you have the means to get your hands on these out-of-print rarities and don't want to find out how Sherlockian football manager Steve Barnes foils everyone from Irish terrorists to rogue Mossad agents then do not read on…

Steve Bruce - you know him right? Football manager and Manchester United hero.

A league-winning captain and no-nonsense centre half who was arguably the best to never play for his country.

But there's more to Bruce, a hidden depth of literary aspiration.

A little-known alternative career that involved plotting murder-most-foul instead of just plotting how to win three points at the weekend.

Meet Steve Bruce, crime writer.

In 1999, Bruce published three little-read but increasingly-sought after books of football-centric murder and mayhem - Striker!, Sweeper! and Defender!

While the novels have long been known, and described by Bruce himself as a "laughing stock", they remerged recently thanks to the work of Northern Ireland-born writer, and self-professed expert on Steve Bruce's literary career, Seamas O'Reilly.

Image source, Seamas O'Reilly
Image caption,
The dead striker on the cover of the book appears to be a giant

Spurred on by an interest in "really terrible books", he was inspired to seek out the rare novels, despite some copies costing upwards of £100 online.

Thanks to some help through social media appeals, Seamas was able to get a hold of all three.

His resultant reviews proved so popular they were published by football site The Set Pieces, even attracting the attention of football podcasts broadcast by The Guardian and the Irish Times.

The resultant viral chatter on Steve Bruce's writing career became so loud the family were forced to respond.

'A good egg'

First son Alex, also a professional footballer, told BBC Five Live his father didn't write the books - before making a quick U-Turn on Twitter.

Then Bruce senior told Sky Sports the books were "genuine". When asked why he hasn't written any more, he said: "Have you read them? Go and read them and you'll understand why."

"I do have a real soft spot for Steve Bruce," said Seamas. "I'm happy to have played a role in bringing his literary worth to light."

Bruce is a "good egg", said the Derry-born writer - albeit one so hard-boiled, he put together three novels following the football-noir adventures of Leddersford Town manager Steve Barnes.

Striker! opens with Leddersford's star forward found stabbed to death in the changing room. Naturally, Barnes, already a suspect, is forced into trying to solve the case.

Kidnappings, betrayal and suspense

Seamas managed to buy a copy, stamped as originally belonging to a library on the Shetland Islands, for a relatively benign £12.

Worth every penny too, he said. He devoured its 127 pages and went straight back again for seconds.

Image source, Allsport/Getty Images
Image caption,
Bruce was manager of Huddersfield Town when he launched his short-lived literary career

"I loved it. There was just so much mad stuff," he said. "The book is filled with kidnappings, betrayal and suspense. Near the finish, a sniper shoots a football out from under the foot of Steve Barnes as he's standing in the technical area at the end of a game.

"This is three pages from the end.

"I published a review of 3,000 words, but it could have been 8,000."

According to Seamas, second in the series Sweeper! (a book about the kidnapping of the club's janitor, pun fans) is the "magnum opus" while Defender! is "disappointing" and "incident-free".

However, all three are highly recommended for giving the reader a fully-constructed literary world that our resident Steve Bruce expert has dubbed "the Bruniverse".

"There are so many strange decisions made in the writing of these books, such as the way the world is constructed," he said.

"So, for instance, there's fake names that stand in for real places, like Leddersford for Huddersfield and Mulcaster for Manchester.

Image source, Seamas O'Reilly
Image caption,
According to Seamas, Sweeper!, a book about the kidnapping of the club's janitor, is Bruce's "magnum opus"

"But, he also talks about Manchester United and mentions Alex Ferguson. It's like reading a Batman comic where he takes a train from Gotham to New York."

A series highlight is when Bruce manages to reference his well-known lack of international recognition.

When British Secret Service agents kidnap Steve Barnes (one of four kidnappings in the book) and ask him to go undercover, he refuses.

"He tells them, 'my country never wanted me'," said Seamas. "His reasoning for not helping counter-terrorism is not that he lacks training or expertise or that he's a middle-aged football manager, it's that he never got an international cap."

Slide tackling crime

The book also involves Barnes taking out a bad guy with - what else - a slide tackle.

After publishing his first review last year, a copy of Striker! was available on eBay for £60. By the end of 2015, it was worth £200.

Seamas said the third book would now cost at least £300, a price jump that appears to be directly related to the newly-revived attention on Bruce's literary offerings.

"I'm quite proud that apart from giving some bored office workers some lunchtime LOLs, I also managed to make the other books quite expensive for other people to buy," Seamas said.

Image source, All Sport/Getty
Image caption,
Bruce makes reference to the fact that he was never capped for his country

"It seems that the more people talk about them, the more expensive they get."

He added, tongue-firmly-in-cheek: "I do certainly like to think Steve Bruce has read the reviews.

"There's just this image in my head of Bruce at home, rushing in from training, tapping away incessantly on his Remington in an oak-pannelled study…"

Unfortunately, Bruce has ruled out further adventures from the kidnap-prone world of Steve Barnes - but at least we'll always have Leddersford.