Steve Bruce’s unveiling as Newcastle’s manager took place on the same day in July 2019 that Britain’s new prime minister stood outside No 10 Downing Street and introduced a bold prescription for change.
Things have not exactly proceeded to plan for either Bruce or Boris Johnson but where the latter’s manifesto was, if nothing else, full of big ideas, the blueprint outlined by Bruce seemed distinctly conservative with a small c.
Rafael Benítez’s successor knew he was never going to revolutionise Newcastle while Mike Ashley remained the owner and for all the talk about “going for it” in the cups there was a tacit acceptance that his job was simply to keep the team in the Premier League.
The 60-year-old has duly kept his side of the bargain, steering Newcastle to 13th and then 12th in his two full seasons in charge – even if the apparent mid-table stability camouflages a couple of relegation fights which might easily have ended differently.
In mitigation, the squad was limited, with the nucleus of the first team comprising those who won promotion from the Championship under Benítez in 2017 and the £40m supposed star signing Joelinton – bought above Bruce’s head – turning out to be a centre-forward not overly interested in scoring goals.
Managers though are judged by results and, of Bruce’s 84 league games at the St James’ Park helm, only 23 have been won with a mere 93 goals scored. Critically, this season Newcastle are awaiting their first victory.
Given that the contract he negotiated with Ashley offers him about £7m compensation in the event of being sacked after a takeover, Bruce was never going to resign once Newcastle were bought by a Saudi Arabian-led consortium.
It is an open secret that the new owners always wanted to replace him but, with their first choice, Benítez, committed to Everton, the recruitment process has proved tricky and, short term, it suited them to keep the inherited occupant in post.
On the evidence of last Sunday’s 3-2 home defeat by Tottenham – Bruce’s 1,000th match as a manager – he would have been far better walking away and instructing his lawyers to negotiate the finer details of the payoff.
The repeated choruses of “We want Bruce out” which blemished the first game of the post-Ashley era have been very much the soundtrack to this season at St James’. Such chants have been far from helpful to the team and have often appeared a case of critics playing the man rather than the ball but, anyone who has watched Newcastle regularly under Bruce, will understand the frustration.
On paper his record is not too inferior to that of the much-adored Benítez but season-ticket holders could detect infinitely greater method in the Spaniard’s tactics and remember that the final six months of Benítez’s reign – when Salomón Rondón, Ayoze Pérez and Miguel Almirón terrorised defences and the football flowed – carried the promise of good times ahead.
If part of Bruce’s problem is that he is not Benítez and he is correct in assuming that a majority of fans, club employees, local media and, crucially, players never quite stopped pining for his predecessor, he did himself no favours by referring, sarcastically, to the “mighty Rafa” in press conferences. Neither did banning the Daily Mail journalist Craig Hope for reporting a story the manager verified as true concerning a training-ground altercation between Bruce and the left-back Matt Ritchie last March.
It rather confirmed the image of Bruce as being a little out of his depth in charge of his home-town club. He spent decades dreaming of managing Newcastle but was soon quite possibly left to reflect on the saying: “Be careful what you wish for.”
The shame is that, should Bruce retire tomorrow, his overall record is more than decent. In the course of a 23-year managerial career he has spent less than two years out of work and along the way there have been four promotions to the Premier League (two with Birmingham and two with Hull) and a losing FA Cup final appearance with Hull. If most of Bruce’s time has been occupied by promotion and relegation battles he also steered Birmingham and Sunderland into a top-10 top-tier finish apiece.
Bruce’s friends rightly argue he served as a “human shield” deflecting the brunt of supporters’ deep-seated detestation of Ashley but it is also true that he would almost certainly not have lasted so long at Newcastle had games not been played behind closed doors for so long during the pandemic. His team’s often incoherent style and the lack of an evident attempt to forge an identity or philosophy heightened suspicions that Bruce is not a “vision man”.
In January results were so bad that Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s managing director, parachuted in Graeme Jones, a former assistant to Roberto Martínez with Wigan and Belgium and occasional England assistant coach, to assist a manager then admittedly coping with a significant Covid outbreak.
Callum Wilson – one of three consistently high-calibre performers with Allan Saint-Maximin and Martin Dubravka – spoke publicly about Jones’s impact and, albeit inadvertently, his words seemed a damning indictment of Bruce.
“I think Graeme coming in definitely complemented the manager because he’s a little more tactically aware and up to date,” Wilson told The Athletic. “The manager has different strengths and attributes. Towards the end of last season we had more of a style and a philosophy.”