And so, the longest goodbye is done, the extended final act has had its curtain pulled down and the fumigation of Mike Ashley’s cold, lifeless, skeletal version of Newcastle United has finally begun. The Saudi Arabian-backed consortium have sacked Steve Bruce, against a growing sense of unease at his presence and clear frustration from a fanbase who have wanted him gone for some time.
It is surprising that he managed to stay so long, taking charge of his 1,000th game in management against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, though was more likely viewed as necessary, given the whirlwind pace of events which led to Amanda Staveley and the rest of Newcastle’s new owners getting the keys to the building only days earlier.
Saudi involvement makes up for 80% of the regime, so they’ll lead the decision-making process. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, board member of the Public Investment Fund, was present at St James’ Park to watch Bruce’s final, pitiful serving, which ended in defeat, having flown in privately.
That was always ominous for Steve Bruce but it was the most open of secrets that his days were numbered. Even he knew, in the end, that he had to go. He has spoken since of the difficulties facing up the stresses of the job and the personal abuse, which has only intensified, hinting at retirement and no longer putting his family, particularly his wife, through it all.
There were calls for Bruce to take charge against Spurs as a matter of sentiment, to let him reach his milestone before departing. It is unlikely that will have featured in Staveley’s mind — she will shoulder the day-to-day running of the club — but rather the realisation that, with no other recognisable football expertise in place at the club, sacking Steve Bruce without a replacement lined up would leave everything very scarce. As it has transpired, Steve Agnew and Steve Clemence, Bruce’s two lieutenants, are in place temporarily alongside interim boss Graeme Jones, while the search for a replacement ramps up.
But what may have seemed required soon became a distraction, an anchor to the old which pulled attention away from the new and exciting. Every day he remained, the conversation turned to his departure. The change in mood was best represented in the stadium, with roars of welcome and freedom, of hope and dreaming turning vitriolic once the result became a formality.
It didn’t benefit the team, whose lack of energy, fitness and focus are most indicative of Bruce’s professional failings, to have him there. Nor did it help his own pride, with speculation swarming him for days on end.
Steve Bruce was hired as a human shield for Ashley, there to take the stick and defend himself and the club with no help. If the carrot was the opportunity to return to Premier League management, four years after his last top flight job, amid very little prospect of another opportunity, then the stick was putting up with numerous conditions which would render the job unattractive for anybody with ambitions of winning titles or progressing in their career. That should be remembered and he should have been put out of thar particular misery much earlier but Bruce was happy to undertake the responsibility of simply keeping things ‘ticking along’.
There is a clear reminder needed here and it has been drummed home consistently in the fortnight since the takeover happened. Things take time and, particularly in this case where the consortium have inherited a desperate situation on the pitch, making their first few decisions and their level of consideration absolutely crucial in order to avert disaster.
With no wins in eight league games now, the situation is perilous and relegation is a very real threat. The next appointment needs to be correct, whether it’s a manager or a director of football. Ideally, the latter would come first, setting the tone for a philosophy that would run right through the club, but the desperation to hit the ground running is indicative of just how far from ideal the timing of the change in ownership is.
But a philosophy of any sort has been so far from Newcastle’s consciousness for the past 14 years. Ashley’s sole aim was to maintain top flight status and reap the financial benefits. There were no dreams of bigger and better. The squad he left is a mix of a few talented players, brought in to secure the bare minimum or potentially bring in a profit, and ageing, tired pros who are sitting on long contracts because renewing was cheaper for the club than replacing them. It is not fit for purpose, just like the training ground and, to a lesser extent, the stadium.
Steve Bruce spoke in terms of restrictions. The club was built on a mantra of success being the minimum required, so it was fitting that Bruce left after seven days off in the last 11, with a performance that laid bare the clear lack of work and focus on the training ground.
Relief is the ultimate emotion here. Fans will celebrate again, now fully able to let themselves dream, free of any reminders of Ashley. For Steve Bruce, the personal abuse and insults stop. The reality is that he is a man for yesterday and can now move on and reflect without being harassed. As for Newcastle United’s future? That starts here.
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