Date: 21st May 2008 at 8:19am
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In football (and indeed in sport generally these days) it seems that we are forever lamenting the lack of characters present in the modern game, with various factors such as intense media scrutiny tending to make individuals much more insular than they perhaps were in yesteryear.

Quite where ‘yesteryear’ meets the ‘modern game’ is always open to debate of course, but regardless of that there can be no doubt that when we’re talking characters, and in particular those with a connection to Heart Of Midlothian Football Club, there were few bigger than Pasquale Bruno.

The Italian defender, who was already something of a legend in his homeland (probably for all the wrong seasons!), was a truly inspired Jim Jefferies signing for Hearts back in November 1995. As mentioned in the article about Gilles Rousset last week (who signed for the club a month before Bruno), Hearts had been through some difficult times and Jefferies was desperate to stabilise things and build a new team that was capable of challenging back up at the right end of the SPL table again. The signings of Rousset and Bruno provided the catalyst for the subsequent few years of talented Hearts sides to make their mark in Scotland, and although the Frenchman went onto achieve legendary status for his part on the Scottish Cup triumph of 1998, there will be few who will forget the sight of Bruno donning the famous maroon and white jersey.

Nicknamed ‘The Animal’ in his native Italy, Bruno was approaching the age of 33 by the time he came to Tynecastle, which was a move that no-one in Scottish football had predicted. Despite his advancing years he was seen as a relatively ‘big name’ signing, and one who could provide the necessary boost that the playing squad badly required. He had a wealth of experience from his time in Italian football, where despite his nickname he’d earned distinction as an extremely uncompromising defender, with Torino and most notably Juventus being among his former clubs.

Most people had heard of Bruno, and most would also have seen the infamous footage of him completely losing the plot after a red card whilst with Torino, where he started fighting the referee and subsequently all of his team-mates as they tried to intervene! It was probably this that had earned him ‘The Animal’ nickname, because despite appearing to know every little dirty trick in the book, it was relatively uncommon for Italian defenders of his generation not to as a rule – their cynicism around the world was well-known (Claude Gentile anyone?!), so to have such infamy attached to his reputation must have taken some doing. I therefore liked the guy before I’d even seen him kicking a ball for us!

I’ll never forget seeing Bruno’s debut for Hearts. It was on a bitterly cold November afternoon at Tynecastle where the opposition were Partick Thistle. Hardly the most glamourous of introductions to the Scottish game I’m sure you’ll agree, but Bruno’s influence on the side was clear for all to see. He played in the middle of a three man defence, and compared to everyone else on the park the guy just oozed class – his reading of the game was immaculate and he just had the air of a player with so much confidence in his own ability that everything looked so easy for him. Of course, it WAS only Partick Thistle, and a poor Partick side at that (Hearts convincingly won 3-0), so we didn’t immediately see him as the greatest player we’d ever had, but given the mediocrity of the previous few years there was genuine belief that having a talismanic character like Bruno in the side could help to inspire Hearts to better things. This faith was fell founded.

During his first couple of months as a Hearts player, Bruno demonstrated little in the way of excessive aggression or anything that would lead you to believe that his reputation was justified, but at the same time he had a real aura about him that clearly made opponents keep their distance. You just knew that underneath the grinning, charming exterior he was displaying to everyone that the animal inside was waiting to escape, and it most certainly did at times through the 14 months or so that he was a Hearts player.

Bruno actually crammed quite a lot into his reasonably short stint at Tynecastle, so I thought I’d list some of the more memorable moments below, in no particular order:

1 On his debut against Thistle, Bruno goes to escort the ball over the byeline as two opponents converge of him from either side. Thinking that he was simply going to leave the ball alone till it ran out of play, the two Thistle men desperately ran towards the byeline to block his route, only for Bruno to take the ball at the last minute. As he did so both Thistle players ran straight into each other, both requiring attention from the physio! Cue several ‘Bruno, Bruno’ chants from the stands…….not the last time this was to be heard over the next 14 months.

2 Scoring his first and only goal for the club at Celtic Park. With Hearts a goal down early in the second half, Bruno came up for a corner and steered it on the volley into the corner of the net. Cue wild celebrations from the player, who left the field of play by battering through a couple of stewards to join the Hearts fans crammed into the partially completed stand behind the goal. At last someone putting these cretins in their place!

3 Being the first of four Hearts players to be red-carded on an infamous afternoon at Ibrox. We all know what tends to happen at Ibrox from time to time as far as referees are concerned, but admittedly Bruno was eventually given his second yellow for probably his umpteenth foul on Brian Laudrup. Before leaving the field of play, Bruno then proceeded to burst out laughing and shake the hands of almost every member of the Rangers team – he offered his hand to referee Gerry Evans who flatly refused…….I wonder why?!

4 Absolutely nailing Keith Wright at Easter Road right in front of the Hibs bench. Wright had been niggling the whole afternoon and Bruno chose him moment wisely when both the referee and linesmen were unsighted. Wright got a good old-fashioned kick in the kidneys for his troubles, provoking a furious reaction from those in the Hibs dug-out.. For the rest of the match Bruno could then be seen making ‘cut-throat’ signs to the Hibs bench – clearly someone had annoyed him……..!

5 A major tussle with Raith Rovers’ Ally Graham at Starks Park one afternoon. I didn’t get a good view but apparently off the ball and again with none of the officials looking, Bruno had clocked the big striker and completely laid him out. Urban myth has it that Bruno overheard Graham moaning about him in the tunnel afterwards and saying he wanted to fight him………..Bruno was rumoured to have gone over to him grinning from ear to ear, stating that ‘with me…..there is no fight – I just call my friends, and they go…(making a gun trigger gesture)….’BOOM’!’ I don’t believe that the fight ever took place……

6 Giving a masterclass in man-marking during the home leg of Hearts’ Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade. Bruno looked a million dollars in the gloriously deep maroon strip that Hearts played in that night (as also sported in the Coca Cola Cup Final that year), and he rarely allowed Red Star’s main man Stankovic (I think) a look in. The only time that the wirey young midfielder got away from Bruno saw the Italian committing an absolutely hilarious professional foul right on the touchline. His acknowledgement was equally hilarious – not even waiting for the referee’s decision, Bruno simply turned his shirt around to show him his number, effectively awarding himself the booking. Genius.

7 Playing in an unfamiliar central midfield role, Bruno strolled through the famous 3-0 win at Ibrox in 1996 when Allan Johnston scored a hat-trick. At one stage with the score at 3-0, he got the ball in the centre circle when the Hearts fans started chanting his name – instead of carrying on playing, he put his foot on the ball and waved to the fans from the centre circle, before spraying a pass nonchalently out to the right wing. Any bears who were still in the ground by then (admittedly not many) were absolutely raging!

I’ve no doubt omitted some other classic Bruno moments (and feel free to list your own in the comments below), but hopefully this has been an enjoyable little reminder of the sheer entertainment that was Pasquale Bruno during his time at Tynecastle. I wonder if and when we’ll see his like again? I tell you what, we couldn’t half do with someone like that at our club right now……..