DURING his time as manager of Hull City, Steve Bruce played an integral role in the development of one member of Liverpool’s Champions League-winning defence. But as he prepares to take his Newcastle United side to Anfield this lunchtime, the Magpies manager has been reflecting on just how close he came to fielding two future European champions alongside each other at the KCOM Stadium.

In the summer of 2014, Bruce paid around £2.8m to sign full-back Andy Robertson from Dundee United. Given the rate of Robertson’s development since, it has proved an astute piece of business, but it was almost trumped by a deal that did not quite come to fruition a few months later.

Needing a centre-half, Bruce met Celtic chairman, Dermot Desmond, in Barbados. The conversation turned to the future of one of Celtic’s central defenders, and more specifically, his potential availability for around £10m. The player in question? Virgil van Dijk, whose subsequent £75m transfer from Southampton to Liverpool made him the world’s most expensive defender. Even now, some five years on, Bruce cannot help wonder what might have been.

“I could have taken him (van Dijk) to Hull,” confirmed the Newcastle boss. “I had dinner with Kenny Dalglish and the owner of Celtic, Dermot Desmond – I’m name-dropping now – and the owner of Celtic was waxing lyrical about the best players he’s had.

“He was saying, ‘(Henrik) Larsson is definitely, definitely the best player that I’ve seen play for Celtic in my ownership’, but what he also said was, ‘But what I can’t understand is why nobody has gone for van Dijk’.

“I thought, ‘That’s interesting – he’s seen a lot of football over the last 12 years’, so I went and watched him a few times and we really tried. I tried to get him before he went to Southampton. You were talking about £10-12m, but we just couldn’t go that high. I tried to do it, but I had no chance.”

Instead, Bruce eventually turned his attention to Harry Maguire, and like the deal for Robertson, the £2.5m purchase of the future England centre-half proved an inspired move. However, while Maguire had already begun to make a name for himself at Sheffield United, and was therefore on the radar of all the leading clubs, Robertson was much more of an unknown quantity when he moved to Humberside.

Prior to playing for Dundee United, the full-back had spent the formative years of his career with Scottish lower-league side Queen’s Park, and Bruce admits to having harboured reservations when his chief scout at Hull, Stan Ternent, insisted he made a move for Robertson.

“Sam said, ‘Steve, I’ve just seen this kid at Dundee- we’ve got to take him’,” he said. “We did our homework. I went to see him, and we took him. It was a little bit of a gamble.

“I remember him arriving with his mum, holding her hand. He was like a little boy. But to be fair, we had a couple of injuries and I threw him in. He went in at left-back and had an unbelievable debut against QPR. He hasn’t looked back, has he? He’s been quite remarkable.”

Much has been written about Liverpool’s forward line, but with Robertson and van Dijk to the fore, Bruce feels Jurgen Klopp’s defence holds the key to last season’s European success, and is the reason why the Reds will continue to push Manchester City all the way in this season’s title race.

“We all know how good they are up front, but I believe the signings of Allison and van Dijk made them what they are now,” he said. “It gave them that backbone you need. Van Dijk? Wow, what a player he is. Him and the keeper just took them to that next level where they are now. They are unbelievable at the other end, but I still think you need that stability at the back.”

Newcastle will attempt to pierce Liverpool’s defence this lunchtime, and whenever the Magpies travel to Anfield, thoughts inevitably turn to 1996’s unforgettable game when Stan Collymore’s last-minute winner scuppered Kevin Keegan’s side’s title hopes. Liverpool’s 4-3 win helped a Manchester United team containing Bruce to finish ahead of Newcastle, and the current Magpies boss remembers the match vividly as he was an expert analyst for Sky.

“I was in the studio with Alan Shearer,” he said. “It threw it our way. The main memory I have is Collymore getting the winner. It’s one of those games you never forget. It was obviously devastating for Newcastle, but it was an important result for Manchester United.”