Dark horse in Newcastle United manager race is ideal candidate as Bruce exit looms

The hunt for a new chief at St. James’ Park looks like a looming inevitability...

Monday, 11th October 2021, 2:33 pm
Steve Bruce, Manager of Newcastle United. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Those resilient few who showed the requisite willpower to fight off sleep well into the wee hours of Sunday morning were treated to a heavyweight title fight that will resonate through history as an all-time classic.

Tyson Fury, the all-conquering Gypsy King, proved once again that he is the greatest of his era in a stubbornly masterful display that ended with a knockout so brutal it bordered on the cartoonish.

In truth, Deontay Wilder was out on his feet a moment or two before his legs gave way beneath him, but Fury - ever the predatory showman - kept him upright with a salvo of punches before landing the telling blow. Perhaps it was that split second of limbo, the staying of the inevitable, that made for such an emphatic, ferocious finish.

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There’s no way of knowing if Steve Bruce waited up to watch the fight, but whether he’s a connoisseur of pugilism or not, the Newcastle United boss must have felt a certain amount of empathy with Wilder in those dying few seconds.

At the time of writing, the 60-year-old has still, just about, held on to his job at St. James’ Park, but it’s probably fair to suggest that his time on Tyneside falls firmly into the category of “borrowed”. Thursday’s confirmation that a Saudi-backed takeover of the Toon Army had been completed looks to have represented the haymaker that ostensibly finished Bruce off, and now it’s likely a matter of hours before he crashes to the canvas.

The vast majority of Newcastle fans would welcome Bruce’s departure. The vast majority of that vast majority would probably treat it like a national holiday.

No wins in seven this season, just 15 points from the last 111 available in all competitions - to labour this boxing analogy just a little further, Bruce has been playing rope-a-dope and getting battered in the face with nearly every punch.

It was okay for him to walk that kind of tightrope with the safety net of Mike Ashley’s apathy beneath him, but now, with filthy rich, hyper-ambitious owners at the helm, it’s hard to see how he survives from here.

And that raises the question - who would be the best man to replace him?

Bookmakers are having a field day touting potential candidates, seemingly taking a darts-in-map approach to the process.

Names as disparate as Lucien Favre, Antonio Conte, and Roberto Martinez are currently said to be leading the race, and that’s without the glut of British managers who are supposedly on the Magpies’ radar too.

Steven Gerrard and Eddie Howe have both been mentioned profusely, although it’s difficult to imagine either biting your hand off for the Toon gig just yet. Gerrard is onto a good thing at Ibrox, while Howe - much like a migrating swallow - could be awkward to lure this far north in mid-October.

There are others too, of course. An out-of-work Frank Lampard has been linked with so many vacant positions that he’s like a walking advert for Indeed, while Brendan Rodgers looks decidedly less secure in his role at Leicester City than he did at the end of last season.

By far the most intriguing prospect, however, and the one that could prove to be the smartest appointment of all, is Graham Potter.

The Brighton manager has long been hailed for his innovative, free-flowing tactical approach, and after a couple of false dawns, he looks to have finally hit his stride on the south coast.

Albion sit just two points off the top of the Premier League after seven matches, and have lost just one game so far this campaign. Granted, there’s a long, long way to go, but that early promise represents the culmination of a meteoric rise for their young boss.

As recently as 2018 he was plying his trade with Swedish outfit Ostersund - a side he took from the fourth tier to the Europa League - and prior to his eight-year stint in Scandinavia, he was working with Leeds Metropolitan University.

In sharp contrast to the merry-go-round of managerial dinosaurs, the pipe and slippers brigade who rebound around the country like severance pay pinballs, Potter has had to graft to get where he is today, and he’s done so with an unconventionally progressive set of methods. The 46-year-old holds a master’s degree in leadership and emotional intelligence, and during his spell with Ostersund he encouraged his players to put on a production of Swan Lake for the local community.

Now, nobody’s necessarily advocating for Potter to force Miggy Almiron into performing The Nutcracker down the Bigg Market this Christmas, but it just goes to show that he is willing to think outside the box, and to push players beyond their comfort zone. Under Bruce, Newcastle have never looked like doing either - in fact, you could justifiably argue that they’ve spent most of his tenure in the corner of the box, curled up in the fetal position, silently rocking back and forth.

By comparison, Brighton’s only real failing last season was that they didn’t have a proper goalscorer. The Seagulls were languishing in 16th come May, four places beneath the Magpies, but their expected goals tally - and the points it would have translated into - could have elevated them as high as fifth. That’s borderline absurd.

Aside from his obvious potential, Potter could also help to address a more immediate problem facing Newcastle. They may be the richest club in the known universe, but as things stand, they are still in a relegation battle, and as such, could do with a manager who has firsthand experience of that particular bear pit.

While Brighton have, to his credit, never looked like genuine relegation fodder during Potter’s time at the club, there have been periods when things have gotten a little dicey. While more illustrious names like Conte or Zinedine Zidane, even, may get fans salivating, when push comes to shove the Magpies’ main priority at the moment has to be putting together a run of form between now and January that can drag them well clear of the mire they find themselves in.

It’s all very well being richer than Croesus, but that will count for little if the Toon Army are playing Championship football, and Potter - a man who has continually plucked a tune from patently average squads - would be as adept an escapologist as they could ask for.

Really, that’s the beauty of bringing him in. He is, in essence, a man for all occasions. Make no mistake, Newcastle’s ascent will be a slow process. Even optimistic forecasts would suggest that it’s going to take them a few years to properly feel the effects of their newly-excavated bottomless money pit. In Potter, they would have a manager who can grow along with them - somebody who can deal with the nitty-gritty in the short term, but who can match the club’s limitless potential too.

He may not be the biggest name in the running, but he might just be the most savvy.