Perennially Maligned but Ever-Present: What Next for Steve Bruce?
Since 1979, football simply has not known life without Steve Bruce. From the moment he kicked his first ball for Gillingham against Luton, to the moment he trudged his way out into the dugout for his 1,000th game in management against Tottenham on Sunday, Bruce has featured in every single season that English football has had to offer.
To put that longevity into context, since he made his professional bow, Notts County have appointed 41 managers, the backpass rule has been implemented, Sir Alex Ferguson joined Manchester United, bought, managed and sold Bruce, won 28 trophies and has spent nearly a decade in retirement.
But that’s only in the world of football – eleven Olympics have taken place, 43 new countries have formed and The Simpsons have created over 700 episodes. While the rest of the planet has kept spinning, Bruce’s world has revolved exclusively around the beautiful game.
That game may not feel quite so beautiful for ‘Brucey’ anymore, though; since being appointed as Newcastle manager in 2019, the former Manchester United legend has endured constant pelters at the helm of his hometown club, with his own stock plummeting despite keeping Newcastle afloat – prior to his dismissal on October 20th. He was an ingenious appointment by Mike Ashley – not in the interest of the Magpies’ long-suffering fan base, but for Ashley himself.
The machiavellian businessman knew what he was doing: Bruce is a safe pair of hands, and was always very likely to keep a largely average Newcastle side comfortably in the Premier League – something he has achieved with 12th and 13th place finishes.
A boyhood Magpies fan, who was managing a ticking time bomb in Sheffield Wednesday, Bruce was always going to take the job. He was the perfect scapegoat and deflection artist, as Ashley continued to eek every last pound out of United.
That was until this October, when he ended a turbulent 14-year spell in charge by selling the club to the PIF of Saudi Arabia – throwing the morals of the game into disrepute for a whole host of reasons that are better left discussed in their own space. Bruce was a dead man walking in their 3-2 defeat to Spurs, and was duly sacked just two days later; a decision Toon fans will say is long overdue.
Overall, they’re probably correct. In 2019, he was afforded over £60m to assemble his squad, with £40m of that going on Brazilian flop Joelinton – a player former boss Rafa Benitez wasn’t keen on – as Bruce was backed with the second-largest transfer kitty of any manager in the Ashley era. The next year, £40m was spent, before Joe Willock was brought in for £25m in what was, admittedly, a disappointing summer in the window just gone.
Bruce had to get more out of this side in terms of going forward – Newcastle aren’t a club in the Premier League simply to exist, but a club who should be battling it out in the top half, making Europe and going deep into cup competitions. Their squad is largely average, but funnily enough, they have some very exciting players going forward.
Allan Saint-Maximin is the quintessential ‘crowd pleaser’, someone who gets fans off their seats and can move Newcastle up the pitch with his supreme speed and dribbling ability. Callum Wilson has scored or assisted 76 goals in 156 Premier League games since 2015, with Willock, Joelinton, Ryan Fraser and Miguel Almirón added to this, you can make a front line that is capable of scoring more than 94 league goals in 84 games.
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Down the other end, Bruce’s side have conceded 139 goals in that time – keeping just 18 clean sheets in the process, the same amount of times they’ve conceded 3+ in a match during his tenure. For a side that is supposedly built on solidity (deploying a five-back formation for more than half of those matches), at the expense of releasing his attacking options, that is nowhere near good enough.
Rightly or wrongly, his performance has been routinely stacked up against his predecessor’s; the widely popular (but far from perfect) Rafa Benítez. The Spaniard earned his place in Geordie hearts by arriving at St James’ with the club in a tailspin towards the second tier, before sticking with the club through relegation to ensure an immediate return to top flight football.
From there, Benítez brought 10th and 13th place finishes and a combined 89 points from the two campaigns – perfectly mirroring the 44 and 45-point hauls seen during Bruce’s full two seasons in charge. Despite the similarities in league positions and points totals, Bruce has been chastised while Benítez was generally lauded – a fact which riled many pundits, as allegiances in the industry between Bruce and those we see on our screens became clear. But there were some very simple reasons for why that was.
With Benítez, there was genuine hope that, if the club could be sold into the right hands, then he could (and probably would) have got Newcastle upwardly mobile, due to the former Real Madrid manager’s pedigree, history of winning trophies and record for improving sides – three factors relatively lacking with the fairly humdrum appointment of Bruce.
Ashley, in typically conniving fashion, used Rafa’s ability almost against him, affording him £75m during his two Premier League summer windows in charge (£25m less than Bruce), but crucially that money was used in trying to morph a Championship side into one more befitting of being able to compete at the highest level, and wasn’t spent in a ‘Covid market’. The season prior, they did spend around £55m while in the second tier, but did also recoup close to £95m on outgoing player sales – with 28 players coming or going during a whirlwind off-season.
Benitez wasn’t untouchable, though, receiving criticism quite often similar to the sort Bruce has received. The current Everton boss has always been known as a pragmatic manager who kept the handbrake on more often than not, something seen as a necessity for the Newcastle side he managed.
The likes of Dwight Gayle, Mohamed Diamé, Christian Atsu, Joselu and Paul Dummett featured in over half their games, a similar calibre of core players that Bruce has had to work with, but an undoubtedly worse crop than those who played most often for the Toon last term, for example. You could suggest that Benítez had less options to be more forward-thinking – a case which holds plenty of weight.
During his time, Benítez presided over the league’s 7th best defence in both seasons, but from 2019-21, they were 7th and 5th worst respectively. Bruce’s side – with the aforementioned additional fire power – only managed to score three more goals in that time, too, despite owning a better attack, and a similar, if not marginally better, backline.
Ultimately, unlike with the likes of Joe Kinnear, Alan Pardew, Steve McClaren or indeed Bruce – Newcastle were lucky to have Benítez. For the first time in not only the Ashley era, but really the 21st Century, NUFC had appointed a manager who brought the enthusiasm, togetherness, talent and CV to prove he could have returned them to the upper echelons of English football.
After three seasons, though, the Champions League winner finally decided that enough was enough, leaving Tyneside upon the expiry of his contract – as his toxic relationship with Ashley grew to the point of no return. The move widened the ever-growing chasm between fans and board, leaving them to wonder which man he would next turn into a clown, only to run his cash-guzzling circus.
As we know, it was to be Bruce who, in fairness, has quite comfortably kept Newcastle in the division which has made this alluring sale far easier, claiming the scalps of Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs in that time – while dealing with the regular rigmarole of trying to direct Britain’s biggest soap opera. I commend anyone that has taken the Toon hot seat in that time, and while I do believe Bruce should have loosened the shackles if even a little, I also think he should be praised for keeping the side clear of danger and financially better off.
What next for the 60-year-old, then? He is now on the hunt for his 12th managerial gig, having already had spells at Sheffield United, Huddersfield, Wigan (twice), Crystal Palace, Birmingham, Sunderland, Hull, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday.
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That list ticks off plenty of the archetypal ‘Brucey Jobs’ as they shall be referred to: clubs that are good enough to be in the Premier League but will most likely need help getting or staying there, where the Colbridge native’s thick skin has been tested with the lofty expectation of many clubs he has walked into in the past.
He has shown no shame in managing sides on either side of the city divide, taking the jobs of both major Birmingham and Sheffield clubs, while trying his hand with the two biggest North-East sides as well as two Yorkshian outfits. Assuming he doesn’t fancy retaking the reins at one of his previous posts (he’s left plenty on sour terms), where could we see him pitch up next?
Cardiff feel quite Steve Bruce-esque: they’ve had a taste of the Premier League and are struggling under fellow Brucey cohort Mick McCarthy at present. But McCarthy’s collision course with a P45 could come too soon for the Newcastle gaffer, and their current plight may be too unappealing for a man who wants (needs) a break from the game.
Say he were to look ahead to next season then, who could fit the bill? Middlesbrough are firmly marooned in mid-table and Neil Warnock can’t go on forever, with one imagining Bruce would revel at the opportunity to stay in the North-East and become the first man to complete the Tyne-Wear-Tees trilogy. But after appointing Warnock, Tony Pulis and Tony Mowbray in the past decade or so, perhaps its best they steer clear of defensive, English coaches.
Stoke are, somehow, a bit too ‘sexy’ nowadays; West Brom are too good; Derby’s predicament is not for the faint hearted and Nottingham Forest are seemingly on the rise under Steve Cooper. Maybe Blackburn are the next on the Bruce hit-list: a club desperate for a shot at the big time, and he could certainly handle the pressure.
Moving away from English shores, a few years ago, India would have potentially been mooted, but even a devalued Steve Bruce is beyond the Phil Brown’s and Teddy Sheringham’s of this world. The hype train on Chinese football seems to be cruising by from European managers, too, while I would suggest Bruce isn’t quite the sexy name or flavour of the month gaffer that the nation would have slapped a massive contract to, either.
Moving away from club duties, there seems to be an obsession that long-standing bosses have to try their hand on the international stage. Pep Guardiola has been long linked with the Brazil job, while José Mourinho will surely take over the Portugal hot seat at some point in his latter years. Bruce may well have been interviewed for the England post back in 2016, but the nation have made decades of progress in the meantime and are now levels above the likes of him and the man who actually got the job – Sam Allardyce.
Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – the latter being the birth country of Bruce’s mother – feel very typical of the man, but have also decided to promote from within and look to ingrain continuity with a younger generation of players, a decision which may not bring instant success, but probably keeps the former England B international away from their respective dugouts.
Or, quite simply, could this be the last time we see him on the touchline? After more than 43 years, over 1,800 games as a player or a manager, maybe it’s time for the once sought-after Bruce to call it a day – he has even admitted that himself.
The Athletic’s Adam Hurrey brilliantly stated that he is very BeIn Sports, with the 1980s playing CV, classically English nickname and his presence of a ‘proper’ footballing man with the wit to match. A career, or at least a stint, in punditry could well be on the cards, although it seems harsh to put him in the same bracket of Qatar’s disgraced Sky pundits.
He’s taken periods out of the game before, and while Bruce has suggested that this could be the end – citing the lack of desire people had for him in the position and willingness for him to fail – the footballing bug bites all managers sooner rather than later.
After lifting the inaugural Premier League title, owning the record for promotions to the big time and managing the 6th highest number of games in it, surely he couldn’t resist? He is far from perfect, but this isn’t the way to say goodbye after nearly half a century of service to the game.
He managed to get promotion and, for the most part, Premier League survival down to a fine art – nobody can say they’ve done it better than him down the years. It would be great if he could harness the potential of a team struggling for inspiration in the second tier and take them on a Premier League journey – enjoy the swansong he deserves, rather than enduring the nightmare he experienced in the shadow of English football’s most infamous owner.
‘How’s the bacon, did you say?’, late-headed goals, even later kebabs and promotion parties – c’est la vie, Brucey.
By: James Pendleton / @jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Rob Newell – CameraSport