The inside story of Newcastle United in China – and Steve Bruce’s first days as head coach
Away from the TV cameras, Steve Bruce relaxed. Sat in an airy dining room with a view of Shanghai’s The Bund across the Huangpu River, he spoke, at length, about the job in front of him.
Bruce had just completed his first press conference as Newcastle United head coach, and he had more to say. A lot more.
As hotel staff busily got the room ready for the next team meal, players came and went. Jonjo Shelvey, Jamaal Lascelles and Matt Ritchie all popped in and out.
“Come in, it’s fine,” said Bruce when one player hesitated at the door.
The only subject that Bruce, appointed as the club’s new head coach 48 hours earlier, wouldn’t tackle was his exit from Sheffield Wednesday, and that was for legal reasons. He spoke as chinking cutlery was noisily sorted on the next table.
The 58-year-old was asked what his parents – who passed away last year – would have said to him.
“My mam would have burst into tears,” said Bruce “She would’ve been so proud, and my dad would have said ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing, son?’.”
Corbridge-born Bruce didn’t hesitate. He took the job, despite a backlash on Tyneside, where he grew up.
Rejected as a kid by Newcastle, he went on to win just about everything in the game, as a player, with Manchester United.
“They rejected me as a player,” said Bruce. “It was one of the big disappointments, so I went to Wallsend Boys Club, a man Pete Kirkley ran it for years and years. He had an affiliation with Burnley so I went there.
“Newcastle said I wasn’t going to be big or strong enough to make the grade, Burnley said the same. Most people said the same, to be fair. That early rejection was the biggest kick, I was 12 or 13.”
All these years later, Bruce is dealing with rejection of a different kind.
“I was fighting against it then, and I’m fighting against it again now, because I’m still not good enough, it seems,” said Bruce.
Only time will tell if Bruce is good enough for one of the toughest jobs in English football, though, importantly, he has the support of the players. They’re getting behind him. Privately and publicly, they’re backing him – and themselves - to keep the club in the Premier League. That’s positive.
The team desperately needed a manager when they flew to China the weekend before last for the Premier League Asia Trophy.
Academy coaches Ben Dawson and Neil Redfearn, put in temporary charge, worked admirably in difficult circumstances, but every player, and every member of staff, just wanted to know who would be leading them this season. And that’s understandable.
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“What’s happening with Bruce?” was a question heard again and again in the days up to his appointment.
At the pre-match press conference, Ritchie spoke of “disappointment” at Rafa Benitez’s departure. The winger, however, also stressed that he and his team-mates were ready to move on.
“To see the manager leave was disappointing,” said Ritchie. “We now look forward to a new manager and a new season.”
Shelvey, speaking at a Premier League community event in the city later that day, also committed his future to the club.
“I won’t be leaving this football club,” said the midfielder.
The team trained well in Nanjing, where the heat was intense and the humidity was very high. They did double sessions on a pitch in the shadow of the Olympic Sports Centre, which would stage last Wednesday’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
They didn’t play so well. Their opposition, settled and stabled, were ahead of them in their pre-season preparations, and it showed.
Newcastle were beaten 4-0, though more significant than the scoreline was the announcement of Bruce’s appointment before kick-off time.
“I’m really pleased in terms of the players knowing who’s coming,” said Dawson in his post-game press conference.
The team took a high-speed train to Shanghai, a sprawling city with a population of 25 million, that night, and Bruce linked up with the squad the following day at the plush Shangri-La Hotel, located in the shadow of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower.
It was in a function room at that hotel that Bruce hit back, in front of the TV cameras, at what he described as some of the “nonsense” that had been written before his appointment.
Having got that off his chest, he relaxed for the more informal sit-down interview with the travelling print journalists
Asked about the mood back home, Bruce said: “I can’t take that personally - the only thing that can improve it is results.”
The following day Newcastle got a positive result. With Bruce watching from the stand because of a visa issue, the team beat deservedly West Ham United 1-0 thanks to a goal from Yoshinori Muto to take third place in the tournament.
“I think it was obvious the difference having a manager in place,” said Dawson. “He's obviously given the players some focus and direction.”
Let’s see what a difference Bruce can make between now and August 11, when the new season kicks off.