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A Different League

Steve Bruce: Pantomime Villain or Tragic Hero?

By Matty LongPublished 4 months ago 6 min read
2

I described Steve Bruce as a tragedy when the Newcastle takeover first looked to happen in 2020. Back then, I meant it as a sympathetic term; I genuinely did feel a bit sorry for him. But a lot has changed since then. When I surveyed Newcastle fans with the simple question "What do you think of Steve Bruce?" I received answers such as:

"Out of touch,"

"Stuck in the past"

"Ashley apologist"

"Doesn't belong in football in 2023"

More nuanced approaches included "great centre half ... stole a living as a manager," or a Brazilian fan who noted the similarities with many managers in his home country who think "their names and credentials from ages ago will translate into success." Another commented "while abuse is unjustified ... if he really cared for the team, he would've stepped down."

And the of course some fans went the whole hog (no bacon pun intended):

"Dinosaur, buffoon, charlatan and puppet all rolled into one. Oh, and absolutely useless."

and, finally:

"Useless cabbage heed."

Before I unpack what the reasoning behind all this sentiment is, I think it's interesting to look at some of the answers given by Sunderland fans when asked the same question:

"I always liked him while he was here"

"He's good at attracting good players to sign deals"

and even:

"One of our best managers of the last twenty years"

And I don't think that's just because he has riled up their rivals so much in recent years. I think many Sunderland fans always liked Steve Bruce, even if, although definitely not quite as much as Newcastle, he probably should've achieved more with the team he had when he was there, and did of course receive a lot of criticism towards the end.

A lifelong Newcastle fan, Bruce's appointment in 2019 was met with instant disappointment on Tyneside, not only because he wasn't considered a brilliant choice, but because of the fact that he had managed Sunderland at all. I understand why this infuriates passionate fans, but I think it's Bruce's tactical ability that was the main concern. Players/coaches and their relationships with their boyhood clubs is a debate I've covered in a previous article, and not so relevant, I think, in this case.

Bruce also had a hard act to follow, as his tenure was immediately preceded by that of Rafa Benitez, one of the club's most popular managers in recent years before Howe came along (and indeed one of the world's most decorated). The fact that Rafa's leaving was largely down to him disagreeing with Ashley meant the feeling in the area was extra negative and a difficult environment for anyone to begin working in.

Yet Steve Bruce took all this in his stride. He was not going to pass on the opportunity to manage his boyhood club. He made this clear when he took the job, and also stated that it meant a lot to him because the club also meant so much to his father, who he had lost a year earlier. When you read about Steve Bruce growing up, his passionate support for his team is evident. He would sneak into the stadium when he couldn't afford to pay to watch games. NUFC was in his blood. But, as I say, the mood in the city was bitter at the time, and for good reason to be fair.

However, fans may forget that some of Bruce's achievements during his first season silenced the naysayers at times. He just about equalled Benitez's last season until COVID hit. And attending matches that season (before the aforementioned germs caused that to stop) were equally as enjoyable for me. Some highlights were the 1-0 defeat of Chelsea, the 2-2 draw with City (eclipsed by a much more exciting 3-3 draw under Howe) and not to mention the best cup run for a long time (no need to detail what eclipsed this). Obviously, Howe's successes during his first season were so brilliant, so tactically nuanced, and so everything Bruce was not, that these don't mean much now.

Personally, I think Steve Bruce was as lucky that season about as often as Benitez was unlucky the season before. But it's pointless to discuss football from that perspective, because, as that master of punditry Michael Owen once put, 'whichever team scores more goals usually wins.' Let's not forget Bruce won manager of the Month in April 2021.

But I think it's fair to say that the consensus regarding Steve Bruce's tactical ability - "utterly useless ... clueless" are not wrong. But there is one perspective where this is the case that I'd like to focus on, Joelinton.

"He's Brazilian, he only cost £40million

And we all think he's fucking brilliant

He's Joelinton!"

This song is sang from the terraces in adoration by Newcastle fans in recent times, but the lyrics are clearly tinged with a hint of irony, as under Bruce, Big Joe was nothing apart from a £40million waste of money, especially following the brilliant Salomon Rondon, who left with Benitez. His utter uselessness when deployed as a forward under Bruce has not been forgotten, and most fans will use this as a demonstration of the difference between Bruce and Howe:

"Awful"

"Awful"

"Awful"

"Shite"

to ...

"Hard to think of a turnaround as big as his in my time watching football"

"He perfectly embodies both the style and philosophy of Eddie Howe in his intensity and unwillingness to throw in the towel."

Now his injury putting him out for the season has left Newcastle fans gutted. Quite the transformation.

But long before Howe's redemption of Joelinton into one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league, was his second goal for the club, ending a drought of five months, against Rochdale in the game that put the team through to the next round of the FA cup. He had finally scored at St. James' Park and he ran straight over to hug Bruce. Yes, we can talk about why it took him 20 games to score a goal, or why it was in a replay match against a league one side, but the point is this is the kind of man and manager Steve Bruce was to players. And a personality that may never have resonated with Newcastle fans, but always proved popular on Wearside.

But, as my Brazilian friend pointed out when drawing comparisons with similar men, "football no longer has a place for managers who can only motivate." Even Sunderland fans conceded that he "doesn't have the managerial or tactical know-how to get the best out of his players."

I think Bruce knew his days were numbered, but I think it became a Shakespearean tragedy in the end. Yes, Bruce faced unwarranted abuse, and yes, it must be the bitterest pill to swallow being forced out of your boyhood club to mark the beginning of a glorious new era, but he really did let it get to him, and became incredibly defensive. Something he may have had a talent for as a football player, but not as a manager. He became confrontational during press conferences and claimed he was scapegoated by fans. If my research is correct, he did the same when he left Sunderland, claiming it was because of his childhood support of Newcastle. He went on to have a disappointing spell at West Brom and, as I write this, isn't connected with anyone and was last heard claiming he was the driving force behind the selection of Howe as his successor. Does Steve Bruce represent an age in football that is gone, as it becomes embroiled in money? That's not really for me to say. I hope when his boyhood club finally do win a trophy, he can enjoy it for no other reason than he is a fan. Because that's what football is all about, really. I was struck by the words spoken by Allan Saint-Maximan, who had ups and downs at Newcastle, and who had a great deal of love for this club. Indeed, many fans had a great deal of love for him:

Just before I go I would like to remind everyone that the time Joelinton hit that shot into his own head was after his transformation under Howe was well under way. But more on Joelinton next time.

Nonfiction
2

About the Creator

Matty Long

Jack of all trades, master of watching movies. Also particularly fond of pizza, country music, watching football, travelling, and tea.

X: @eardstapa_

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Comments (2)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock4 months ago

    Somehow hitting a shot into your own head doesn't sound quite as impressive as when Brad Johnson through a touchdown pass to himself with the Minnesota Vikings. But I agree with you completely about the role of the fans, no matter what sport we're talking.

  • A lot of pertinent points. Bruce was an adequate manager under a very bad owner. But remember Joe Kinnear and Dennis Wise, Ashley wanted Newcastle in the Premier League nothing more. Howe exceeded expectations even with the new ownership. Hope this continues

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