Steve Bruce glared ominously, sighed with exasperation and launched a tirade against the local press. Newcastle United had just been beaten 4-1 by Manchester United in a match nobody realised they’d be playing in.
They gave their all against the Cristiano Ronaldo show, threatened and even equalised. However, in a sense it made it worse. This was brave and battling for long spells, yet still extremely easy for the Red Devils to salute the return of their king. Nobody was watching, were they?
This is Newcastle United, tossed aside on one of their better days. That is how Steve Bruce would categorise it, anyway. It comes after a summer of nothingness, once again. Of cheap, negligent inaction masked as working into the wind. A nameless, aimless, shameless statement purported that life was tough and belts needed to be tightened. That the club had performed a near miracle by securing Joe Willock from Arsenal on a permanent deal, with plenty of thinly-veiled digs at Steve Bruce, claiming everybody knew the repercussions of signing Willock would be reflected in no more incomings, even on loan, despite the manager trying his upmost to recruit a further two faces.
Fan ire will always be directed at Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s tyrannous owner, whose negligence is only matched by his disdain. This week marks 13 years since he first promised to sell the club in the wake of Kevin Keegan’s resignation as manager, yet he is still here, still silent and still complicit in the slow, painful death of a football club on which the heart of a city rests.
Yet, having grown weary of Bruce’s rhetoric about its current state and how difficult it makes his job and, more pressingly on Saturday, the insistence that he was taking positives from the defeat, just as he did after a collapse against West Ham, a loss at Aston Villa and last-gasp disappointment against Southampton, fans have turned. Chants, and a banner, have made their position on his future crystal clear.
Pressed to ask questions of Steve Bruce over a holiday taken at the beginning of the international break, which supporters felt was indicative of his work-rate and attitude towards the current plight, the Newcastle Chronicle felt his wrath. He snapped and launched into a specific attack on the newspaper, claiming it is their negativity and constant undermining of his position. Only days earlier, quizzed on his thoughts about the statement, he was equally as snappy, attempting to bat away the topic with the sort of vigour that suggested genuine desperation, as if the pressure was beginning to take a toll.
Just like the point about taking positives away from the game at the weekend, Bruce’s holiday lit the touch paper for fan anger because of the way Newcastle are playing. He attempted to dismiss the fact he was enjoying himself on a beach in Portugal because six players were away on international duty and his hands were otherwise tied.
Had Newcastle won against West Ham and held on at the end against Southampton, his decision to go away would surely have been met with less scrutiny; just as there would have been more validity to his suggestion that there were good moments against Manchester United if they weren’t winless and treading water at the start of yet another campaign, where the bare minimum is not only accepted but openly celebrated.
Steve Bruce claims to have developed a thick skin over a long career in football but evidence for that is in short supply. He bites back and every semblance of criticism — deemed by him to be unfair despite no measurable progress and an endless malaise prophesied by his attempts to shift blame and reduce expectation — while keeping his own feet dry as the waters deepen around him.
Newcastle are a club in persistent denial, shouting and screaming at everybody that it isn’t their fault. Rather than attempting to win over the fanbase, or better serve to give them something worth believing in, he shuts his eyes, covers his ears and screams ‘what can I do about it?’ over and over again.
Nobody wants to see Steve Bruce constantly compared to Rafael Benitez. But when his defenders, who coincidentally often doubled up as Benitez critics during his three years on Tyneside, ask why one is so much more popular than the other despite achieving broadly similar results, they seldom listen to the answer. It begins with their voice, the way they communicate with the people they represent.
Benitez told fans to dream and showed he’d do everything in his power to improve, whereas Steve Bruce points the finger and strikes out at doubters, simultaneously creating more by talking in terms of surviving, trying and attempting, rather than going, doing and succeeding.
His arrival was met by a wall of apathy and he was fighting a difficult battle from the start. But it wasn’t destined for this. There have been moments of triumph and deserved credit early on but, as things turned sour, Bruce began to cower. The blame game is nothing new, it is a continuation of the negativity which engulfed swathes of last season.
Against Leeds, Steve Bruce needs a victory and nothing else will do. It’ll come against a backdrop of protests and vitriol thrown his way and the only way he can even begin to move on is to accept his share of responsibility. Attacking the press, the fans and even the players, as he did with Matt Ritchie last season, only alienates them and ultimately sabotages himself; the sooner he realises that, the better for everyone.
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