The story of Steve Bruce's rollercoaster first year in charge of Newcastle United
Those were Steve Bruce’s words after taking the Newcastle United job.
Only that “dream” job has been a nightmare, at times, for Bruce, who today celebrated his first anniversary in charge at St James’s Park.
The expression on Bruce’s face told its own story after an early season defeat to Norwich City.
Bruce had just seen his team convincingly beaten 3-1 – and he was furious.
United’s head coach had been in the job exactly a month when his team took to the field at Carrow Road.
Far Eastern promise
Bruce hadn’t had a full season to work with his players before the 2019/20 campaign, which would be interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, kicked off.
This time last year Bruce was preparing to fly to China after agreeing to succeed Rafa Benitez on Tyneside.
A couple of days later, as Tyneside was coming to terms with his surprise appointment, Bruce was coming to terms with the heat and humidity of Shanghai ahead of his team’s Premier League Asia Trophy game against West Ham United.
“I've not been in Newcastle to monitor it,” said Bruce. “I don't read it. If you read and scrutinise everything thrown your way, you'd end up in a madhouse.
“Just judge me over the period of time, and I'm quietly confident, after nearly 400 games in the Premier League, that I’ll do OK.”
And you know what? Bruce has done OK. He’s kept the club in the Premier League, and exceeded the expectations of some fans by doing so.
Too much, too soon
But the performance against Norwich was definitely not OK, and it was a sign of things to come. Bruce had sought to change too much, too soon.
“I can't go on to the pitch with them,” said Bruce, in a huddle with journalists in the concourse at Carrow Road.
“The one thing in management I've always tried to instil into my team is we make mistakes, but I can't forgive a performance where, basically, you don't put your boots on.”
It seemed an extraordinary thing to say, yet a week later the team beat Tottenham Hotspur thanks to a goal from Joelinton, the £40million club-record signing who would dominate the headlines for months on Tyneside, to get up and running.
That day Bruce – who had changed the system after taking charge – reverted to the counter-attacking tactics used by Benitez.
And the first half of the season saw Bruce, keen to put his own stamp on the team and get United on the front foot, wrestle with a change in formation.
United’s players, so well drilled under Benitez, were comfortable with what they had been doing, but Bruce wanted to take them out of that comfort zone.
But it was too early to change, as shown by the 5-0 defeat to Leicester City at the King Power Stadium in September.
A shocked Sean Longstaff called it “embarrassing”, and United went back to basics.
“Looking at the way the team is happiest, we’ll sit deep and play on the counter-attack, which is exactly what we did when we played against Tottenham,” said Bruce.
“The two or three times I’ve tried to change us, it didn’t really work.”
But it wasn’t sustainable, in the longer-term, having a manager playing a system he didn’t really want to use and didn’t believe in.
Bruce had to do it his own way, and he felt that it was time for a change earlier this year after the goals dried up. This time it worked thanks, at least in part, to the brilliance of Allan Saint-Maximin.
The team hit form just before lockdown – a goal from Saint-Maximin against Southampton eased any lingering relegation fears – and the team picked up where it left off following last month’s behind-closed-doors restart to mathematically secure Premier League safety.
The downside was an FA Cup defeat to Manchester City. Maybe the outcome of that game would have been different had St James’s Park been full.
Benitez, of course, guided the club to a 13th-placed finish last season – and was lauded by fans.
Twelve months later, the club was again in 13th position before the weekend, but Bruce still has an uneasy relationship with some sections of a fanbase which has, for months, been impatient for news of the proposed £300million takeover.
Bruce, last week, was keen to dispel the “myth” that the club had “stagnated” under his watch.
"Judge me on results we have had, where we are,” said Bruce. “We’ve got a chance to have our third-highest points total in the last 13 or 14 years. And one of them we finished fifth.
"So this myth the club is just stagnating – it’s not right.”
The club has been more fluent going forward before and after lockdown. It’s gained something, but it’s also lost something. There have been too many defensive errors, and Newcastle go into tonight’s game against Brighton and Hove Albion on the back of three successive defeats.
Newcastle may yet exceed last season’s 44-point tally, and Bruce does deserve credit for the job he’s done in challenging circumstances.
Some fans, however, have pointed out that that doesn’t necessarily mean that Bruce is the right man to take the club forward should the takeover be approved.
Bruce firmly believes he can take the club higher up the Premier League next season.
A year on from his controversial appointment, his future, and so much else at United, seemingly hinges on the takeover.