Steve Bruce losing media allies after latest shambles
It felt like the end of days. Steve Bruce stood motionless on the touchline, hands in his pockets, head bowed, as Neal Maupay scored Brighton’s third on a desperate night for Newcastle United. The Frenchman, who scored twice in the first 3-0 victory for the Seagulls at St James’ Park in September, hadn’t found the net in 10 games; it was as fitting as it was expected that he would bring the scoring to a close on Saturday night.
Even against the now regular backdrop of hollow echoes and sporadic cheers and screams from the sidelines, the tension was palpable for Bruce at full time. He quickly bumped fists with his opposite number, Graham Potter, and scurried down the tunnel away from the cameras, which have become the eyes for all agitated and angry Newcastle supporters. It was as if he was escaping their glares. Ahead of him were Dwight Gayle and Andy Carroll, two experienced strikers sentenced to 90 minutes on the bench without the opportunity to change the game at all; their faces, understandably, looked like thunder.
There was a shift;,an almighty swing. Supporters have wanted a change of manager unequivocally for months. Some, unhappy with a journeyman manager who seemed to have found a settled home in the heart of the Championship replacing someone of Rafael Benitez’s calibre back in the summer of 2019, never warmed to him. What felt different was the deafening silence from the staunchest defenders of Steve Bruce in the aftermath, and the fact that, almost en masse, the local media spelled it out that Bruce needed to be sacked.
Paul Merson, who only a few hours earlier recounted the same tired cliches about supporters and “expectation” — claiming they were still very much living in the days of Kevin Keegan’s ‘Entertainers — spent much of Sunday responding to criticism on Instagram. He wasn’t climbing down, but it felt like an admission that perhaps he needed to understand their point of view or justify his.
Robbie Savage and Chris Sutton — two pundits who have openly revelled in winding up supporters — both admitted they can no longer defend Steve Bruce, somebody they each played under. With Bruce’s supporters beginning to face facts, there was a genuine expectation that Mike Ashley would discard of his services. After he once again laid down the gauntlet by refusing to walk away, that was the only way there would be a parting of the ways.
Bruce has not verbally panicked in public as Newcastle slip closer and closer to the brink of trouble; his words often at odds with the situation they are describing. He has long looked like a surfer, aimlessly minding his own business in calm waters as an almighty wave approaches on the horizon. It was only a matter of weeks ago that the manager insisted Newcastle were not in trouble because of a gap in points and league positions to the bottom three. Even then, the club was in the midst of a run of form which they still haven’t mended; it is now just two wins in 20 games in all competitions.
The foundation for Bruce’s recent, and misplaced, confidence was clearly his belief that there would be at least three worse teams by the end of the season. It looks as though that is what he is clinging on to, given that he was shocked to see how far ahead Brighton — proficient as one of the most energetic and entertaining teams in the league and only in trouble due to poor finishing — were of his team at the weekend.
He appeared genuinely and completely astonished, which suggests he hadn’t prepared for game in the build up. Brighton played the same way they have all season; in fact, they were afforded the opportunity to settle into a rhythm from the very first minute. As for their lack of goals, like Maupay, they just needed to face Newcastle. Six of their 32 Premier League strikes this season, almost a fifth, have come against the Magpies.
Evidence that Steve Bruce and his coaching staff aren’t working on a detailed approach is coming from all directions. If there was no awareness of Brighton’s style beforehand, then it is no surprise to see the Seagulls comprehensively outplay Newcastle. The table suggested this was a winnable game for the away side, but that attitude ensured it wasn’t. It was a must-win, too; so, apparently, were clashes with Wolves, West Brom and Aston Villa, albeit only beforehand.
Afterwards, Bruce insisted they weren’t, spinning his web of denial further, as Fulham, the club in the most perilous position, sitting two points and one place below Newcastle inside the bottom three, continued to catch up. Victory over Liverpool at Anfield should have been the shot in the arm Steve Bruce and Ashley needed; it wasn’t.
Brighton, too, were in much better form ahead of Saturday; they’d beaten Southampton at St Mary’s six days earlier. Heading to a club with just one win at home all season would be viewed as an opportunity at any normal club, but not Newcastle; they cowered and sat back, failing to soak up pressure while offering nothing going forward.
The players were hiding, completely demotivated; it was the sort of performance expected at the end of the season when teams are mentally on a beach somewhere, not in the heat of a relegation battle, knowing that defeat will thrust everything even further into crisis. Blame lies at their door, too, but motivationally and tactically, they are only as good as their manager. Regarding the latter, they were playing the same formation which, immediately after Graeme Jones appeared as a fresh voice on the coaching staff, gained the victory over Everton in late January.
Built on the idea of ‘split strikers’, its aim was to get the best out of Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron, only one of whom was fit to play on the South Coast, and to add impetus to a flat, lifeless squad while catching opponents out. It worked a treat at Goodison Park, but Newcastle have reverted to type; threatening nothing and inviting everything. In nearly two months, which have seen coaches talking over each other on the sidelines and misunderstandings leading to cracks in the dressing room, Steve Bruce and Jones have remained unmoved.
Despite all that, everything which culminated in that horror show, Ashley is sticking with Bruce. True Faith, the Newcastle fanzine, have voiced their concerns; ‘Wor Flags’, responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring flag displays at St James’ Park in the Benitez era, who haven’t returned since in protest against his departure, have been photographed with banners calling for Bruce to leave. The latest branded him a coward, the name allegedly given to him by Matt Ritchie in a heated argument recently.
In response, Steve Bruce has offered up little more than empty platitudes which do little more than infuriate because of their repetitiveness. Fulham may save Newcastle; their defeat at home to Leeds bred hope of that. But having initially dismissed their threat, Bruce has hardly suitably recognised it since.
Newcastle’s plight began with defeat in the Carabao Cup quarter final to Brentford in December; the manner of which would have been enough to demand change in a club with any sort of ambition. Losing to Sheffield United in January would have been the next point of call for a decision were this a club with any forethought. Ashley has proven time and time again over the span of 14 years that Newcastle, in this guise, are neither; he has enabled Bruce’s ineptitude in the name of loyalty, which roughly translates as a willingness not to question his negligent and unambitious approach, and instead support it.
More than results or performances, both of which were markedly better under Benitez, the main reason for the Spaniard’s immense popularity was his vision for Newcastle. He spoke in terms of potential and possibility, not consolidation and minimalistic achievement. Steve Bruce doesn’t plan for anything more than survival, and that is all that is required: hope of something more than the current purgatory.
Saturday should have been the end but wasn’t and Newcastle are likely to pay the consequences. Bruce, like so many others who are popular in the media because they represent a bygone era and an out of date approach which vindicates the views of many pundits, is protected by a perception that he also pushes. He is not a safe pair of hands and his experience, at this point, is more tired than useful.
Generally, the situation is the same now as it was two years ago: Ashley is the problem and Steve Bruce is a symptom. But there is no hiding from the truth that Newcastle are heading in one direction; an unwillingness to sack the manager, at this point, is a clear message of resignation to a third relegation in just over a decade.
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