Wigan Athletic's plans to unveil Steve Bruce as manager were dramatically halted yesterday after a last-minute hitch in which Birmingham City are thought to have demanded he pay back more than £250,000 in advance wages and image rights.
Wigan were preparing to have Bruce ceremonially sign his contract during a press conference at the JJB Stadium yesterday but an 11pm call from Birmingham to Wigan's chief executive, Brenda Spencer, on Tuesday night revealed the apparent dispute. The figure would constitute a sizeable sum for Bruce even though his proposed move to Wigan would treble his £15,000-a-week St Andrew's salary.
Though Spence did not rule out Wigan looking elsewhere for a manager – "we did have a list, but Steve's always been the one we've wanted," she said – Wigan do expect the dispute to be resolved. The matter now appears to be in the hands of Bruce, 46, who stands to earn £2m a year plus a £1m bonus for keeping Wigan up, should he move to the JJB. With the prospect of remaining at St Andrew's unthinkable – Bruce cleared his desk there on Monday – he appears to have no choice but pay up.
Bruce is well acquainted with this kind of dispute, having experienced Birmingham's row two years ago with Robbie Savage during his acrimonious departure from the club. Savage had two weeks' wages – totalling £7,000 – deducted and was also ordered to pay back other bonuses when he left St Andrew's. Savage resisted and took his case to the PFA, but lost.
The Wigan chairman, Dave Whelan, is furious about the hitch, which his club have desperately sought to help resolve since Tuesday night. At first, the club concluded that the dispute was quickly resolvable and put yesterday's press conference back by an hour, rather than cancel it.
But eventually Spencer emerged, straight from a telephone call with Birmingham City's managing director, Karren Brady, to reveal that the unveiling of Bruce would not go ahead.
"It's quite a bizarre press conference with empty seats," Spencer conceded, at a gathering which had echoes of Peter Ridsdale's disastrous attempts to unveil Martin O'Neill as Leeds manager in October 1998, when the Irishman did not show and in the end Leeds hired David O'Leary.
"It was going to be Steve Bruce but, unfortunately, something has come up," she said. "It's an issue between Birmingham and Steve and until that is resolved we can't announce him as our manager.
"We have agreed compensation, but this issue is nothing to do with Wigan. Our chairman is desperate we have a manager in place, and he is hopeful something will happen in the next 24 hours. We just have to sit tight, hold fire and hope that it will be resolved, that Steve can sort it out."
The protracted situation means that Bruce has still not visited Wigan since overtures to him were first made following Chris Hutchings' sacking. His relationship with Whelan precluded the need for a face-to-face interview and after attending the funeral of the former Busby Babe John Doherty on Tuesday he remained at his home in Hale, Cheshire, yesterday. It had originally been planned that Bruce would view Wigan's training facilities yesterday afternoon after officially signing as manager.
Birmingham's attempts to find someone to replace Bruce are proving almost as colourful as Wigan's efforts to remove him and, after several audacious attempts to lure high-profile names, there are rumours that the Russia manager, Guus Hiddink might be approached in the next few days.
It emerged yesterday that the Midlands club have approached Italy's World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi. The Blues' co-owner David Sullivan, who has promised the club's disconsolate fans "a top foreign coach" said the approach to Lippi, who enjoyed huge success at club level with Juventus before leading Italy to the World Cup in 2006, was not "a stunt." He said: "It's genuine. We made an approach and Lippi turned it down.
"He [Lippi] is available at the moment and we are looking at bringing in a manager of his stature and calibre, if at all possible. He was one of the first we went to but, unfortunately, nothing materialised."
Birmingham have also pursued Martin Jol and been rejected in their search for someone to succeed Bruce. "Of course, you get knock-backs. That's football. But if you do not try you will never know," Sullivan said.
Wigan certainly need a manager in a hurry. At present, they are one off the bottom of the Premier League following a run of seven successive defeats, a miserable sequence that led to Whelan axing Hutchings before the latest, a 4-0 hammering at Spurs.
After a failed attempt to coax Wigan's former manager Paul Jewell into a return, Whelan turned to Bruce, who was in charge for 56 days and eight games at the end of the 2000-01 season. Should the deal go through, Bruce is set to be handed a £15m transfer kitty as he fights to save Wigan from relegation.
Whelan has agreed £3m compensation with Birmingham. "He will keep us out of relegation problems and all the fans will be delighted we've got him," Whelan said this week.
Sullivan is determined to bring in a new manager within the next 10 days with Bruce's No 2 Eric Black – the bookies' favourite for the job ahead of Alex McLeish – acting as caretaker for Saturday's game with Portsmouth. Whelan has insisted that Black will follow Bruce to the JJB within a month,but it now seems there might be some hard talking to be done before that.