Contrary to Robbie Savage, Chris Sutton, Ally McCoist, Carlton Cole et al in the pundit class who just happen to be signed up to the same PR Company as one Steven Roger Bruce, Newcastle United supporters are not unreasonable.

Neither are we demanding, with impossible expectations or ready to fly off the handle. We are amongst the best informed and active of supporters in the country. The evidence of that is in the Newcastle United Supporters Trust – with 14,000 fee paying supporters, the largest members’ supporters union in the country, the largest fan-supported Foodbank, the best supporter-led choreography in England via Gallowgate Flags/Wor Flags and several supporters backed charities (e.g. Sir Bobby Robson Foundation) which all combine to illustrate the fundamental strength and value of our club’s support and how centred it is in our region.

You reading this are part of that. This is who we are and what we are about. There are occasions when the toxic nature of Newcastle United’s ownership poisons the atmosphere within the support and some of the exchanges via social media are at times unconscionable. But that doesn’t define us. We are better than that. The support this club of ours gets is peerless and the core of what Newcastle United is about.

Our support isn’t stupid. On the contrary, there is a clear-eyed understanding at what Ashley has done to our club. There may be a few outlier voices contradicting the overall consensus that Ashley has hollowed out United, trashed it and rendered it to its current zombie status. But they aren’t serious people.

Where we currently are with Steve Bruce in the dug-out is exactly where many of us feared we’d be 18-months ago. It’s no less painful just because it was so obviously predictable. It’s not so much Bruce the individual in this regard but what he represented when Rafa Benitez declined to sign another contract for Ashley’s club.

In the three years of Rafa Benitez, we heard the Spaniard talk of a project to take the club forward. We understood immediately. Benitez represented a strategy, a coherent philosophy to develop the club into the second decade of the twenty-first century. We understood what that meant in terms of investment in facilities at the training ground, the development of medical and other infrastructure to support scouting and the academy. Benitez had an overarching vision for the development of Newcastle United as an elite sporting institution. Many of us bought into it completely.

We all know Rafa is a scholar of the game. He describes himself as a teacher but he is also a details man. Although Benitez can outline the broad sweep of strategy, it is underpinned by an attention to detail, to assessing and evaluating everything at his disposal. That is why he could offer a fully costed business plan to Ashley illustrating in detail, what he could achieve for the club within the scenarios of several budgets.

Like all elite coaches who have operated at the top of the game, Benitez has a sharp intellect.

I don’t think this is unique in top level football but if you listen to the likes of Ancelotti, Guardiola, Klopp, Mourinho, Pochettino and Bielsa you will hear an intellectualism within football. It’s a pity within the wall to wall coverage we don’t hear these men speak in detail enough regards the game and are limited to mainly hearing talk when still pumped up post-match and directed to comment upon a controversial refereeing decision.

These managers have developed or worked within discrete football philosophies and indeed their names have become synonymous with certain ways of playing the game be that Barca’s tiki-taka or Dortmund’s gegenpress. Who can watch Bielsa’s teams and not identify identity and style? For no small reason, Bielsa is garlanded as a great coaching mind and allowed to invest in better players I have little doubt, Leeds will progress on his watch.

Benitez is in that class of manager. I can’t be the only one to shake my head in incredulity at the comparisons made between Bruce and Benitez. The specious comments that there is no difference between the two at United makes me wonder what those people have been watching.

I’ll come to Bruce but Benitez’s teams were supremely organised and I know I wasn’t the only one that took pleasure in seeing some of the best defensive performances of almost 50 years as a match-goer under the Spaniard’s coaching. There is admiration to be had in lots about football and great defensive displays are amongst them.

It is also nonsensical and simply not based in reality to suggest Rafa’s teams always played a cramped, overly defensive or negative style. Following Almiron’s arrival and having Rondon fit and ready, those two with Perez were a formidable attacking trio. Rafa’s side finished his final season playing front foot football and was a pleasure to watch. That is the truth.

Off the park, Rafa understood the importance of the Newcastle United community. The Spaniard was engaged in Tyneside life like no previous manager, perhaps bar only Kevin Keegan. There was a social, communitarian element to Benitez which under-scored his core beliefs in his role at a prominent football club. That didn’t start at Newcastle United (his Scouse congregation will attest the same while at Anfield) but flowered on the barren terrain of club-supporter relations in the Ashley years.

We saw in Benitez – a believer in our club, a professional, a strategist, a fighter, a thinker, hard-working with a zeal for the detail – a modern man, the type of which our club could benefit enormously.

The obvious flaw in this burgeoning relationship between manager and supporters was of course Mike Ashley.

 

Benitez’s straining, his restlessness to take the club up the league to enable him, a proud man to compete with his peers jarred with Ashley who simply did not share that vision.

While we believed Benitez’s successful navigation of United back to the Premier League, a first season back finish at 10th could be the start of a period of success for the club, Ashley, I guess was already thinking, mission accomplished.

For whilst we optimistically looked at those first two seasons as the building blocks for more progress, Ashley was done. Rafa’s second full season in the PL with United, finishing 13th was regression. The fault-lines had opened up with the “what Rafa wants, Rafa gets” a discarded credo and every transfer window provided a further rupture in the relationship between manager and owner.

I don’t paint Benitez as a messianic figure. He made mistakes at United as every manager does. When the writing was on the wall on Barrack Road, Rafa looked after himself and took a highly lucrative job in China (incidentally, the salary at Dalian is roughly the equivalent of what Ancelotti is on at Everton). I can’t blame him for that. He was flogging a dead horse with Ashley and Co.

Rafa’s departure had a profound impact upon our support. The club lost 10,000 season ticket holders in one summer. It has been forced (pre-Pandemic) to offer free part season tickets to kid on the stands are full for TV cameras. Those fans who walked away recognised the lost opportunity and could stomach no more. I would anticipate disaffection with Ashley has spread further in the interim and more are ready to chuck it in when it becomes plain we might be up for paying to return to SJP stands. . 

I don’t see any mad rush to get back to SJP when public health allows and the club may be in for a further shock when the turnstiles are re-opened.

Whoever was going to follow Benitez would be compared in a hard light. It has been widely reported the club approached Viera, Arteta and Gerrard amongst others but were rejected. Such is Ashley’s abysmal reputation in football there were likely more who said no to his club. I should add, Ashley was rejected and not Newcastle United.

Goodness knows where he was on the list of potential successors to Benitez but Bruce represents his polar opposite.

Where Bruce’s strengths lie as a modern coach remains to be seen but I’ll give him credit for convincing the owners to allow him into the dug-outs at Sunderland, Aston Villa and now Newcastle United on the strength of a wafer thin CV and record of failure in twenty plus years of management.

The media speaks about his man management. Certainly, the local press did not hold back little more than 12 months ago from telling us how much the players enjoyed training under Bruce and his easy-going manner. Little doubt they have enjoyed all the days off too.

Tucked into various reporting have been tales at how much better Bruce gets on with Ashley, how he’s been able to persuade him to buy a player like Callum Wilson (outside the Ashley age limits) and how the Sports Direct supremo feels welcomed at the training ground. So, the insinuation is after the politicking and discord of the Rafa era, where the Spaniard challenged Ashley to be more ambitious, to back his plans but perhaps lacked warmth, Bruce was the man to turn the corner with the Bucks Billionaire and finally help the club progress. Really, that was the writing between the lines. Its barely credible. 

Eighteen months in and it is worth revisiting that hopelessly naive reportage.

In the aftermath of the expected Man City chasing, the curtain was drawn back on Bruce’s real job at Newcastle United – his remit – as he described it, to keep the club in the Premier League – and no more.

This comes as no surprise to any of us. It was explicit in the departure of Benitez and the arrival of Bruce. It has been poorly disguised by Bruce’s meaningless ramblings about being there to progress the club etc.

Now, it is out in the open. Bruce has put that in the public domain himself – a stark admission of the meanness of his objectives at our club. He is doing little more than keeping the whole thing ticking over until (no, I’m not going to mention a takeover) something happens, he unravels, is sacked and then moves onto the next short term appointment which will expose his coaching short-comings further.

The pundit and media class may affect bewilderment at what we supporters want or expect but they shouldn’t really. It is painfully simple and crystal clear. We had a glimpse of a better future under a lottery-win of a managerial appointment in Benitez. We were confident in Rafa and bought into long term “project”. But we lost it because of Ashley’s lack of ambition.

In its stead has been replaced a time-server, a boss’s man, a shill, a puppet, a plastic Geordie ticking off a bucket-list must-do entry before retirement and his last crack at managing a serious football club ahead of being projected into the lucrative world of empty, cliché-ridden punditry.

For a project to elevate United further, we now have a remit of survival. Benitez v Bruce in a nutshell.

Bruce isn’t good enough for our club and while he kisses Ashley’s arse in the Pardew fashion, so the bitterness and bile will build. Poor results will continue to enflame the support. 

Bruce is the lightening rod for the discontent at United and rightly so. He is taking Ashley’s coin and thus part of the most malignant force to have attached itself onto Newcastle United in all of the years since 1892.

Bruce is in a place he should be familiar with – on the ski run to a failure of the type he has had previously. A path he has travelled several times before whilst blaming everyone but himself for being shown the door. He’s already cranking up the nonsense ahead of the inevitable parting of the ways. 

The remaining question is how much damage he does before Ashley wakes up to the potentially cataclysmic error he has made in appointing another knacker after losing a genius.

Keep On, Keepin’ On …

MICHAEL MARTIN