NEWCASTLE UNITED are 90 minutes away from Wembley, but for manager Steve Bruce, the experience of watching his beloved Magpies play at the national stadium would not be a complete novelty. This time around, however, at least he wouldn’t have to sit on a stool.

Back in 1976, a 16-year-old Bruce was one of six members of the Newcastle Schools’ squad selected to be ball-boys at Wembley as Newcastle took on Manchester City in the League Cup final. Dennis Tueart’s acrobatic overhead kick broke black-and-white hearts, but Bruce can still vividly remember the thrill of being so close to the action as he sat on the touchline.

Forty-four years on, and while Newcastle have been back to Wembley on a number of occasions since their League Cup final appearance, their wait for a first major domestic trophy since 1955 goes on. So while Bruce accepts his side face a formidable challenge as they prepare to lock horns with Manchester City again in Sunday evening’s FA Cup quarter-final, he cannot help but imagine what it would be like to lead out his boyhood club at the home of English football.

Yes, it would be a diminished experience if, as looks all but certain, spectators are not allowed to attend the FA Cup semi-finals or final this season. But for a Geordie raised on tales of FA Cup heroics from the likes of Jackie Milburn and George Robledo, it would still represent a career high.

“From the day I first walked into the job, just to be given the opportunity to manage the club is still something that is a little bit surreal because of my past and when I was a kid,” said Bruce. “I remember way back, and once you’re born here, you’re always a Newcastle fan, it’s always going to stay with you.

“That’s never changed – no matter where I’ve played or coached, the first result I always looked for was Newcastle’s. So to go and lead a team out (at Wembley), for me personally, it would be terrific.

“How lucky am I? I’ve said it many times. How lucky am I to be a Geordie managing the team? There’s not been many of them over the years. I’ve been given this wonderful opportunity, and if we can pull out all the stops and get to a semi-final or final, then that would be the icing on the cake.”

From the moment he replaced Rafael Benitez last summer, Bruce has made a point of talking up the cup competitions. His enthusiasm for the FA Cup in particular stands in marked contrast to the policy adopted by Newcastle for the majority of the Mike Ashley-era, which has seen the cups publicly described as “not a priority”.

Unlike a number of his predecessors, Bruce was given free rein to select his strongest line-ups for Newcastle’s matches against Rochdale, Oxford and West Brom, and with Wednesday’s draw with Aston Villa having taken Newcastle to the 39-point mark in the Premier League table, Sunday’s game has become easily the Magpies’ biggest of the remainder of the campaign.

“We’re never going to win the Premier League,” said Bruce. “But a Premier League team can win the FA Cup if you get a good draw. The draw has been kind so far, apart from this one, so it is the biggest game (of the season so far).

“It would have been great to have a packed St James’, but let’s try to see what we can do. Let’s hope we can pull off a shock and get to a semi-final, which then would be a great occasion.”

Standing in Newcastle’s way are a Manchester City side that ceded their Premier League title to Liverpool when they lost at Chelsea on Thursday. The outcome of the title race has felt inevitable for some time, but Bruce still expects Pep Guardiola’s side to be smarting from confirmation of the loss of their crown.

“Man City will be disappointed,” he said. “However, they are serial winners. They seem to have owned the League Cup, and they’re still involved in the FA Cup and Champions League now too. For them, it’ll be all about winning as much as they can.

Newcastle (probable, 4-4-1-1): Dubravka; Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Rose; Saint-Maximin, Bentaleb, Shelvey, Ritchie; Almiron; Joelinton.