The end of Newcastle United Zoom media calls as testy online Steve Bruce exchanges become a distant memory

Eddie Howe really will face the media at Newcastle United this week.

For the first time in a long time, the club’s pre-match press conference will not be held over Zoom.

Instead, following the lifting of all Covid-19 restrictions, Howe will sit in a room with journalists to discuss Saturday’s home game against Brighton and Hove Albion following an announcement yesterday by the Football Writers’ Association (FWA).

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In a statement, the FWA said: “We are delighted to announce that the Premier League has agreed press conferences should be held in person before matches from today, and then, post-match, from Saturday.

“Reporters should be allowed to cover press conferences as normal again, subject to some space restrictions.

“We at the FWA welcome this return to normality in covering football, and thank the Premier League, clubs and the hard work of your national executive committee for ensuring access.”

Press conferences went online in the summer of 2020 when Premier League football returned after a hiatus during the first coronavirus lockdown.

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Reporters haven’t had to leave their homes to do their jobs, but, consequently, they haven’t been able to do their jobs quite as well. Face-to-face contact is all-important in journalism.

Steve Bruce speaks to rights-holding media pitchside at Vicarage Road.Steve Bruce speaks to rights-holding media pitchside at Vicarage Road.
Steve Bruce speaks to rights-holding media pitchside at Vicarage Road.

Steve Bruce was the head coach at the time, and and his virtual relationship with the press deteriorated over the following months. Zoom press conferences, arguably, didn’t help him.

In January last year, he decided to take fewer questions from written journalists (which follow the TV section) over what he felt was a lack of “respect” shown to him.

Bruce, now in charge of Championship club West Bromwich Albion, refused to speak to written journalists before a home defeat to Leeds United, and also didn’t take a question from a North East-based reporter at Goodison Park after a win over Everton ended an 11-game winless run.

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Speaking at the time, Bruce said: “For me, I’ve got no problem with criticism.

Eddie Howe at Elland Road.Eddie Howe at Elland Road.
Eddie Howe at Elland Road.

“It’s the constant criticism of the club, and when it comes to ridicule, then I think there should be a little bit more respect. We accept criticism. We’re getting beat. It’s the Premier League.

"I give up my time, and I give them respect to speak to them. Yes, they can be pretty damning. We all accept that, but have a little bit of respect.”

Bruce, a hugely-experienced manager, was particularly sensitive to criticism during his time at Newcastle, and was understandable given that it was his boyhood club.

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However, Bruce's decision to limit questions from written journalists over Zoom didn’t help him. If he only took three questions, he could be sure at least two of them would be difficult questions. Reporters didn’t want to waste a question, and media calls were, at times, more confrontational than convivial.

Also, virtual press conferences didn’t allow for off-record guidance, something which helps reporters get a better understanding of certain issues, and follow-up questions. This guidance also helps managers, and it’s something many of Bruce’s predecessors used to their benefit.

Ultimately, Bruce’s brief and testy exchanges with journalists didn’t help him – or the club.

Fans got used to him sparring with reporters, and, amid chants against from from supporters, he reacted angrily to a question on an early-season break in Portugal while a number of his players were on international duty following a defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford in September.

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Asked about fan unhappiness over his trip abroad, Bruce snapped: "Do you think I really have to answer that to you? That's what the fans are asking, are they? We have trained all week, and we were in every day. The preparation was meticulous, let me tell you.

"We had six of them away. The preparation was fine, absolutely fine, and we’ve been in all week. You could see the game plan was, what we worked to.

"To have to answer questions like that ... is typical to the question I would get off you – and your newspaper, if I’m being brutally honest. That's why they are the way they are, the way you are and your negativity, constantly, and your newspaper."

The optics weren’t great. Bruce faced fewer questions than any of his predecessors because of the Zoom format and his own unhappiness with coverage of his tenure.

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There was one final barbed response ahead of the visit of Tottenham Hotspur to St James’s Park last October. Bruce rounded on journalists following a week of reports that he was set to lose his job following a £305million takeover.

“I hope you are feeling the heat with your bosses, because it hasn’t happened, has it, what you all wanted,” said Bruce. “Let’s hope you get a bit of stick from the people who put you in charge. The information was wrong, wasn’t it? You haven’t done your job properly.”

The club’s new owners won’t have been impressed with his response, and, as it was, Bruce was sacked five days later with the team winless and 19th in the Premier League.

It’s not just the team’s form which has improved since Howe’s appointment. Media relations have improved too. Yes, the 44-year-old – who has guided the team up to 14th place – has been guarded at times, but, importantly, he’s tackled every question.

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The return of in-person press conferences following talks between the Premier League and the FWA is welcome.

Mixed zones, which allow journalists to speak to players after games, are returning too.

There’s a lot to talk about at Newcastle right now, and, for once, it’s all positive.

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