Inside the manager's office: Steve Bruce opens up on his 'difficult' agenda at Newcastle United
Steve Bruce’s feet are now under the table at Newcastle United, but he’s not sitting comfortably. Yet.
Behind him, as he sits at his desk at the club’s training ground, is a huge floor-to-ceiling photograph of St James’s Park. It’s full. There isn’t a spare seat.
And that’s the thing. The stadium was nowhere near full for the club’s last home game – a crowd of 44,157 watched the 1-1 draw against Watford – and it won’t be sold out for Brighton and Hove Albion’s visit to St James’s Park later this month.
It was a different story when Rafa Benitez was sitting in that same office, which overlooks the immaculate training pitches at the club’s Benton base. The club’s average attendance was 51,121 last season. Thousands haven’t returned. When will they be back?
Bruce, in his office, has had some time to reflect on his first eight weeks as head coach over the past fortnight. A number of players have been away on international duty, while the rest were given some time off. Bruce himself has had a couple of days off. He picked up a couple of books to take his mind off the job, though that’s easier said than done.
The place has been a lot quieter, though the treatment room, unfortunately, has been busy. Andy Carroll, Allan Saint-Maximin, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle are among those unavailable to Bruce.
Things have calmed on Tyneside since Benitez’s abrupt and acrimonious departure, but discontent at owner Mike Ashley hasn’t gone away ahead of what could a long, hard winter for Bruce and his team.
There was a protest outside Sports Direct’s annual general meeting in London yesterday, and there will be more demonstrations on Tyneside against Ashley over the coming weeks and months. Some fans just plan to stay away until he’s sold up.
For Bruce, only results will win over fans – and bring more back to St James’s Park.
“Make no mistake, I knew, early on, it was going to be difficult,” said Bruce. “I always knew that the start we had is equally more difficult. To calm the storm that everybody was riding at the time, getting a few results was the only way really.”
Newcastle have taken more points – four – from their first four games than they did from their first 10 under Benitez last season. The team, which won at Tottenham Hotspur last month, is doing OK. However, United, 14th in the Premier League, take on Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday – and the club also has fixtures against Manchester United and Chelsea next month.
“When I looked at the first five games, we've got three of the top six,” said Bruce. “So I knew it was going to be difficult.”
“Difficult” an understatement, though Bruce has been helped by a summer recruitment drive which saw five players – Carroll, Saint-Maximin, Joelinton, Emil Krafth and Jetro Willems – arrive at a club which has generated a profit on player sales a year earlier.
Benitez had been forced to sell to buy a year earlier after refusing to sign a new deal before getting guarantees over transfer spending.
The Spaniard, now in charge of Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang, was adept at addressing the media. He knew what to say and when to say it. He had the supporters behind him – and he knew it.
Bruce, in his first few weeks at United, has learnt to stay out of the politics at the club. He antagonised some fans with some dismissive, early remarks on an anti-Mike Ashley demonstration and positive comments on the club’s owner.
The scrutiny on Tyneside is intense, and Bruce – who has bristled at some of the criticism that has come his way – is choosing his words more wisely now. And it keeps coming back to results on the field. Bruce needs to find a winning team.
Bruce said: “Can we go and get a couple more results? That's got to be the aim, and the only thing I'm really focused on and concentrating on, because that's the only thing I can affect.
“The only thing I can affect is on the training ground and making sure that they're ready and capable, and, of course, the result at Tottenham gave everyone a lift.
“We had a good week. We played very well against Leicester (in the Carabao Cup) – lost on penalties – and did OK against Watford. Big occasion at the weekend coming up, but I've thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Bruce has even “enjoyed the stick” he’s had since taking over at his boyhood club, though the same can’t be said for his family and friends.
“I only want what's best for the club,” said the 58-year-old, who was raised in Wallsend and rejected by Newcastle as a schoolboy. “I want to try and take the club forward, and the sickness in me has enjoyed it.
“I've enjoyed the stick, and I've enjoyed the challenge. The more it piles on, the more I seem to enjoy. I hope it wanes a little bit – a few results will help.”