When Steve Bruce stepped into the Newcastle hot-seat in the summer of 2019, several supporter groups got together and released a damning joint statement. Describing the club’s decision to replace Rafa Benitez with the experienced gaffer, whose highest Premier League finish was tenth over a decade ago, as ‘beyond disappointing’, the statement wasted no time in making its point plain and clear. ‘Steve Bruce is an unambitious appointment by an unambitious owner,’ was its opening gambit.
Right from the off, before a ball had been kicked in anger or a training session undertaken, a line had been drawn.
In his first season in charge, Bruce guided the Magpies to 13th, a respectable return given the limited reserves of talent at his disposal, though some investment had been made to accompany his arrival, with £60m spent on Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin. Even so, by Premier League standards, the net spend had been minimal while across other transfer windows Newcastle’s obdurate inactivity was proving ever more costly. It led to Benitez having his fill and heading to China. It led to a long-held assumption becoming a nigh-on incontestable fact that this once aspirational football club was now content to tread water, safe in the knowledge there would usually be three worst clubs below them in the table.
Newcastle head to fellow strugglers Wolves this weekend. With the hosts definitely improving of late, a 2-0 score-line at 15/2 is a tempting price.
This uninspiring mandate played out once more last term, with Newcastle eventually finishing mid-table but only after scrapping among the relegation places for the most part. Again, this huge club with huge potential and a huge fan-base had survived. And that was deemed sufficient.
It is a mandate set by Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s owner who remains an immensely unpopular figure on Tyneside for many reasons, not least his refusal to invest, and it could be argued that with this cautious model in place, Bruce is peculiarly the right man for the job. Prior to joining the club he supported as a boy, his managerial record in the top-flight stacked up to 1.12 points per game which over the course of a season comes to 42.5. Traditionally this will see a side stay up. In short, and bluntly put, it could be reasoned that after hanging up his boots, Steve Bruce has carved out a second career in just about doing enough.
🗣"We've got to keep bashing away."
Steve Bruce addresses Newcastle's form so far this season, with them still without a win. pic.twitter.com/VfpOwVrkeV
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) October 1, 2021
Furthermore, as regards to Ashley’s PR problem, and his intention to sell the club necessitating that Newcastle remain a top-flight entity come what may, Bruce is his perfect stooge. Grateful for being given the opportunity to manage in the Premier League, there is simply no chance the 60-year-old is going to walk anytime soon while he is just about good enough to keep Newcastle up but not good enough to be a thorn in Ashley’s side, as Benitez was, demanding some ambition is shown.
Better yet — for Ashley at least — his head coach has taken it upon himself to defend his employer, indirectly and otherwise, on numerous occasions. “We have to accept where we are,” he stated last December, a resignation to circumstances that no manager worth his salt would ever cede to, and it is precisely comments such as this that has changed the attitude of the fans towards Bruce from disappointment to anger.
Therefore, though it’s a mighty reach, we might say that Mike Ashley’s game-plan dating back to the summer of 2019 has worked out well. He now has a manager who shares his unpopularity, thereby acting as a useful buffer to the fans, and what’s more, it is an individual indebted to him, who doesn’t bang down his door regularly demanding a creaking squad is revamped.
Except the game-plan isn’t working, not really. Indeed, as anyone who has attempted to play too cautiously in poker and found themselves eventually blinded out will willingly testify, it was a strategy that was always going to back-fire at some point.
Newcastle United are winless six games into the new campaign and are already out of the Carabao Cup. Their performances have been abject at times, giving up 65% possession at St James Park to an average Southampton and being played off the park against Aston Villa. Yes, there is still three teams who are worse than they are but only marginally and for how much longer?
Increasingly, it is starting to look and feel like a mediocre, under-invested squad of players are tiring from treading water.
Doubling down on the Wolves punt, 10/11 is available for only one side or neither to score this Saturday. This is a must for any bet builder.
The club of course are insisting all is well, spinning out a half-truth that at least the Magpies are more entertaining to watch this season. At least there is that. As for Bruce’s position, unsurprisingly that is still secure.
Reliably informed #nufc do not believe Bruce is under pressure, there is a view performances have deserved more points, the dressing room is united behind him & team is more entertaining to watch than previous years. His job is not under threat and is unlikely to be any time soon
— Luke Edwards (@LukeEdwardsTele) September 27, 2021
Yet, as always, it is not the view of those who are culpable that matters. Who matters most are the fans, who truly, without exaggeration and without the assistance of a crystal ball, could have told anyone who’d care to listen two years ago that this point would inevitably be reached.
Kev Lawson is the founder of NUFC analytics account @WyAyeScout on Twitter and he believes his club are inexorably heading in the wrong direction.
“With three formation changes and no wins in six games, it’s a case of more things change the more they stay the same at Newcastle United.
As Steve Bruce isn’t wedded to any playing identity, they lack enough consistency to make firm conclusions at this stage. However, their attack is ranked 8th based on expected goals so far and defensively they’ve given away three penalties which are, in part, the reason they’re ranked 19th for expected goals against.
The issue is, Newcastle fans have walked this road before with Steve McClaren and once that negative momentum builds it’s hard to reverse without a change in the dugout. This is a team that went nine league games without a win last season and has just seven wins under its belt in 2021, so while the data suggests they’re probably a lower-midtable team the margin to relegation is too small to leave it ‘ticking along’ as Bruce stated a week or so ago.”
Steve Bruce has always wanted to be judged on results. Well this season, his #NUFC side are winless in their opening six Premier League games – and have failed to beat Southampton, Leeds & Watford. Who do they seriously pick up three points against?
— Harry Roy (@HarryRoySport) September 25, 2021
Football writer Aaron Cox meanwhile describes himself as a Newcastle ‘life sentencer’. Aaron places much of the blame for Newcastle’s demise directly at the feet of a manager who has the second worst win percentage of the 33 coaches who have presided over 200+ Premier League games.
“The way the team plays it is almost as if Bruce has tried to install an ‘us against them’ mentality, after he was rightly slandered for us being the most boring watch in the country. The issue is that he has ruined a defence that was one of the best outside the top six before his arrival, so when playing that way and without a recognised striker at present, we simply can’t win. To not have a win from the games we have had is unacceptable. It is worrying times as always.”
As for determining who is most responsible for these worrying times, the verdict is in.
“In terms of weaknesses, you can’t look further than the manager. He’s had more than two years in charge and made the team worse.”
Newcastle are 1/1 to be relegated this season. The odds are slight but that’s because the possibility is so very real.