Written by Matt Hanson @matthanson75
On the 17th July 2019, Steve Bruce was given the opportunity to manage the club he dreamt of representing from being a child. He never managed it as a player, and nobody envisaged it would be as a manager.
At the time Bruce had been preparing to lead Sheffield Wednesday into a Championship campaign, a level where he has enjoyed success as a manager, notably with Birmingham City and Hull City. However, he was also relegated with both clubs.
Bruce is probably best known in local circles for his time at arch rivals Sunderland, where he was sacked in November 2017, the season they were relegated from the Premier League. Local opinion was unanimous, if he wasn’t good enough for the Mackems, he wasn’t good enough for the Magpies.
Many felt he would be a yes man to owner Mike Ashley and he was seen as a budget appointment, very much in keeping with the lack of investment in the squad.
Within days, Bruce was being questioned about his training methods, preferring to put his players through their paces literally with a series of endurance based running sessions.
By the time the season came around the disillusionment had grown. This was not helped by an appalling start as the Toon Army lost their opening 2 games to Arsenal (h) and Norwich (a). After the Norwich game, former Newcastle striker Michael Chopra claimed the players didn’t know their roles and this had come from within the dressing room. Social media was in overflow with calls for his sacking given how lame the performances were.
Respite came in the form of Spurs and a shock win at their new stadium. Joelinton, who has failed to shine, had a rare day to remember as he scored the only goal of a game that Newcastle had only 20% possession.
By the end of August, Bruce had picked up another point in a hard fought home draw against a hapless Watford. Bruce and then Watford boss Javi Gracia were having a battle in the race to be the first manager to be sacked and there was little in them. Gracia would later become the first and in reality Bruce was never a serious threat. Mike Ashley doesn’t like parting with money and a severance package wouldn’t have crossed his mind to move Bruce on. In addition as a successful businessman, he rarely accepts he has got things wrong. Sacking Bruce so quickly would have ultimately said that.
September was even worse. With the international break, only 3 Premier League games were scheduled and a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool saw glimpses of progress, but following a goalless draw at St James Park against Brighton and a 5-0 hammering at Leicester, the calls for Bruce’s head were once again in full flow. The game at the King Power Stadium in particular was an embarrassment as the team simply folded under pressure. Whilst they were reduced to 10 men, the feeble efforts were evident and the clamour for Bruce to be sacked hit it’s height. 5 points from 7 games, 2nd bottom and complete chaos pointed towards one thing, even that early in the season – relegation.
The turning point came in the next game against Manchester United. Nobody had given them a hope, even with Utd struggling themselves but Matty Longstaff capped an impressive top flight debut with a stunning goal and the atmosphere inside the stadium exploded. They haven’t looked back since.
The form including that vital win over Utd reads, played 8, won 4, drew 2 and lost 2. In that sequence came impressive away wins at West Ham and Sheffield Utd but the most notable result and performance came against Manchester City, when Jon Jo Shelvey’s late equaliser saw the stadium once again rocking.
So why has the good feeling returned? Bruce is a likeable bloke and despite mixed results in managerial career, he is highly experienced and well respected. In adversity he has galvanised the troops and despite the lack of a regular goalscorer, they have chiselled out results.
Interestingly, they now sit in 11th place. Level with Arsenal, a point behind Spurs and 2 behind 6th placed Manchester Utd. Any fan would have snapped your hand off at the start of the season. They would have said you had lost your marbles at the end of September.
What comes next? It looks promising. Newcastle have played all the top teams and the 3 remaining fixtures before Christmas see 2 home games against struggling Southampton and the resolute Crystal Palace. Sandwiched in between is an away game at Burnley. All 3 games on paper look winnable, so in a toon wonderland, Newcastle could well be sitting in and around the European spots as the fans, players and Bruce himself tuck into their Christmas Turkey (or kebab!).
If Mike Ashley gives Bruce some funds in January, a season that promised so little could yet yield so much. Nobody will be getting carried away, especially Steve himself but the platform has now been set for a decent season, where mid-table would represent success. Clearly finding the net is still a huge concern and this will have to be addressed if targets are to be achieved.
It’s nice to see good people do well. Especially when nobody has given them a chance. Remind me again, Rafa who?!
Images sourced from BBC & Newcastle Chronicle