Why Steve Bruce never got he 'respect' he always craved at Newcastle United
In the end, there was only one decision that could be made by Newcastle United’s new owners.
Steve Bruce has left his position as head coach by “mutual consent” after an eventful two years, two months and three days in charge of the club.
Bruce, in truth, could, and arguably should, have gone sooner. Certainly, most fans wanted him gone sooner.
But Bruce was safe under former owner Mike Ashley, not least because his dismissal would cost up to £8million, an extraordinary sum for a manager with a below-par Premier League win record.
Ashley has given Bruce the most lucrative two and a bit years of his managerial career – by some distance.
Bruce – who took charge of his 1,000th career game on Sunday – will get another job if he wants one, but few would expect to see him again in the top flight of English football.
Yet Bruce, comfortably in the end, kept the club in the Premier League for two seasons running. Newcastle finished 13th and 12th respectively in his first and second seasons as manager.
Those finishing places were good enough for Ashley, who appointed Bruce two years ago following the departure of Rafa Benitez.
Bruce pledged to “keep the club moving forward” after meeting up with the squad in China in the summer of 2019. Ashley, we know, just wanted him to keep the club in the Premier League.
Amid a backlash back on Tyneside, the squad and staff in a sweltering Shanghai for the Premier League Asia Trophy were open to the appointment. They had endured a wearying few months of speculation over Benitez’s future – and wanted to move on.
One senior player who would later clash with Bruce was happy, at the time, with the change. He backed the players to regroup – and go again under Bruce.
Bruce, for his part, said: “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. The most important thing is to keep the club moving forward.”
Things unravelled quickly. There was a mix-up over a substitution in his first game against Arsenal, and a 3-1 defeat to newly-promoted Norwich City the following week.
Bruce, speaking to a small group of journalists in a post-match huddle, was surprisingly strident in his assessment of the team’s performance.
“I can't go on to the pitch with them,” said Bruce. “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.”
And an “embarrassing” 5-0 loss to Leicester City the following month prompted a return to the tactics previously used by Benitez.
“The two or three times I’ve tried to change us, it didn’t really work,” said Bruce.
And that’s the thing, Bruce was never able to successfully transition the team away from a back five to a system with a back four, which was always been his preference.
Bruce chopped and changed formations, and only really found an identity in the latter part of last season following the appointment of Graeme Jones, who quickly got the respect of the players on the training pitch. Jones would oversee the bulk of the training sessions, but Bruce would pick the team at the end of the week.
One criticism of Bruce at Aston Villa was that his team didn’t have an identity, and fans have levelled the same accusation at him since his appointment at Newcastle.
That said, Bruce got through his first campaign at the club, and United, for once, did some good business in the transfer market last year. The club signed Callum Wilson from Bournemouth for £20million, yet things unravelled once again on the pitch.
A strong Newcastle XI suffered a shocking Carabao Cup defeat to a second-string Brentford side before Christmas during an 11-game unbeaten run which led to the recruitment of Jones, who brought “fresh ideas” to the club.
There was a brief upturn, but things got worse in March. And Bruce’s position looked to be untenable following an abject 3-0 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium in March.
It seemed that change was better than no change, with the club seemingly on
Ashley was unmoved, and the following morning it was made clear that Bruce was safe in his position.
Bruce and Jones reverted to a back five again – and United, eventually, pulled away from trouble and finished 12th thanks to a run of goals from loanee Joe Willock.
Willock returned in the summer on a permanent deal, but the midfielder was the only arrival, and Bruce was left with a weakened squad.
That in turn weakened Bruce’s position at the club going into what turned out to be his final season.
What also weakened Bruce was his dealings with the media. Bruce insisted that he was able to handle flak following his appointment, but the 60-year-old – who started his managerial career more than two decades ago – was particularly sensitive to local media criticism.
Bruce refused to speak to written journalists before a home game against Leeds United in January – and didn’t field questions from local reporters following a win over Everton at Goodison Park later that month.
“For me, I’ve got no problem with criticism,” said Bruce. “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.”
Respect goes two ways, and Bruce wasn't always respectful during his time at Newcastle, and fans picked up on his reaction to particular journalists during Zoom press calls. Digs at Benitez were also picked up by supporters.
Until recently, Bruce was fielding few questions than any of his predecessors, and he also snapped when asked about a short holiday in Portugal during an international break.
Bruce said: "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.”
It was a fair question, and Bruce should have just answered it. Whatever issues Bruce had with journalists, he had to bear in mind that he was speaking to fans through them.
A national journalist was also banned from games for writing a story that Bruce admitted was correct.
Then there was communication with players. Bruce was barely on speaking terms with some members of his squad at times.
In another sense, maybe there was too much communication. Following Jones's arrival, Bruce’s players would hear many different voices given the sheer number of coaches working with them.
Behind closed doors football, meanwhile, spared Bruce scrutiny from he stands for more than a year. That long winless run last season was played out in empty stadiums, and the return of supporters this season changed the dynamic.
It didn’t take long for the first “we want Brucie out” chants to be heard.
Bruce – who admitted in the summer that his contract didn't expire at the end of the season – repeatedly insisted that he would not walk away from the job.
And, in fairness, there probably isn’t a manager in world football who would walk away from an £8million pay-off.
In the end, the decision had to be taken out of his own hands.