Newcastle Have Gambled on Bruce but Shadow of Benítez Looms Large
Some years ago Steve Bruce wrote a trilogy of football-based thrillers. Their hero was Steve Barnes, the all-action macho manager of Leddersford Town who devoted his spare time to solving murders and taking out terrorists in a style sufficiently swashbuckling to make even Lee Child’s creation Jack Reacher seem a bit of a wimp.
These days Newcastle United’s new manager laughs about that brief excursion into the literary world, joking that Striker, Sweeper and Defender are so bad they have become collectors’ items. So far, so lighthearted, yet, as he walks into Rafael Benítez’s old office, Bruce’s tried and trusted amalgam of humor and geordie charm will no longer be sufficient to disarm an army of critics on Tyneside.
Nor is the impending £36m-plus arrival of Hoffenheim’s Brazilian striker Joelinton likely to quell dissent at a juncture which could soon leave Benítez’s successor in desperate need of channeling his “inner Steve Barnes”.
To say Tynesiders are underwhelmed by his installation is an understatement. “We’d have preferred Fiona Bruce,” ranks as one of the more polite jokes circulating in a city where Mike Ashley’s soul-sapping ownership of the world’s 19th-richest football club has left hope in short supply.
If Bruce, who watched from the stands because of a visa issue as Newcastle beat West Ham 1-0 in the Premier League Asia Trophy in Shanghai, imagines an upbringing in Wallsend will offer him immunity from the resultant vitriol he is very wrong. Newcastle are trying to spin the appointment as a sentimental geordie “homecoming” but that sort of schmaltz no longer really washes in a much-changed region where his biggest problem will be that he is not Benítez.
It is said that no one is ever indispensable but, in the eyes of Newcastle fans, their adored Spanish manager was the exception. Whoever replaced Benítez was inevitably going to be the subject of unfavorable comparisons, was always going to be cast as the unloved step-parent, but Bruce comes with the damning label “journeyman Championship manager” pinned to his tracksuit.
Few care that it is a perhaps unfairly dismissive badge that fails to account for an extensive body of work at 10 clubs featuring repeated promotions in sometimes difficult contexts. Still, the overwhelming consensus is that he is simply not good enough for Premier League Newcastle.
Although eight months younger than Benítez, the 58-year-old is cast as resolutely old fashioned. In reality Bruce has altered and adapted since his chastening sacking by Sunderland in November 2011. He is a superb man-manager with a winning human touch but, critically, is seen to not share his predecessor’s grasp of fine detail and intricate appreciation of tactical nuance.
The latter qualities separate Benítez from so many of his peers and explain why he has not only won multiple trophies at assorted clubs but somehow managed to keep a weak Newcastle squad in the Premier League. It took almost every trick in his extensive playbook to secure two mid-table finishes and, even then, Benítez presided over some lengthy losing runs. If it helped that the fans’ adoration for the gilded choreographer who led Liverpool to Champions League glory induced almost unconditional trust, Bruce will not enjoy the benefit of similar doubt.
As Alan Pardew discovered, the atmosphere at St. James’ Park is sometimes wonderful but it can also turn intensely toxic. Despite leading the team to fifth place, Pardew was to be seen as a puppet of the Ashley regime. It almost broke him and is a perception Bruce must avoid.
The trickiness of his task is exacerbated by the lack of the silverware-studded CV which enabled Benítez to delight his adoring public by turning subtly subversive and playing politics with Ashley through the press.
Granted, Bruce has close pals among the north-east media but his room for maneuver is restricted severely by his title: head coach. This dictates that Steve Nickson, the chief scout, will provide him with players much as his predecessor Graham Carr furnished Pardew and then Steve McClaren with sometimes welcome, sometimes unwanted, signings. Bruce will have the final say but will not, as Benítez did, block the long-planned acquisition of Joelinton.
The Spaniard believed the 22-year-old was promising but overpriced and not ideally suited to his system and that, rather than blow the £50m budget plus profit from sales proffered by Ashley on a couple of marquee signings, it would be better invested more evenly. After all, the squad has gaps at full-back, in central midfield, on the wing and, given the departures of last season’s leading scorers Salomón Rondón and Ayoze Pérez, up front, too.
Benítez argued the case for recruiting a few older, experienced professionals but Ashley’s approach revolves around signing under-25s with potentially high resale value and Bruce must work with what he is given during the transfer window’s final three weeks.
His friend Alan Shearer, a former Newcastle manager, tried to warn him off, exclaiming “No, no, no” when Bruce discussed potentially replacing Benítez over a recent dinner but it seems a defection which has disillusioned a lot of people at Sheffield Wednesday was driven primarily by emotion. His late parents always wanted him in charge at St. James’ Park.
Bruce will not have forgotten Halloween 2010 either. That was the day his Sunderland side were thrashed 5-1 at St. James’ Park as Newcastle fans serenaded their then coach with choruses of “Walking in a Hughton wonderland”. As he joked about heading “straight home” and “closing my curtains for a week”, Bruce’s pain appeared laced with envy of a counterpart destined to be sacked, seemingly on one of Ashley’s unfathomable whims, in early December.
Perhaps that was the day he realized Newcastle really was his dream job and resolved never to reject a chance to take it. Maybe, just maybe, the hope of hearing “Walking in a Brucie wonderland” echoing in his ears explains why he has ignored those many friends cautioning him about the perils of stumbling into a fool’s paradise.
The Guardian Sport