More than 60 games in charge, fourteenth in the Premier League table, two points from 21 – Not Steve Bruce in 2020 but Bobby Robson in 2001. What that episode tells us about today…

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Easter Saturday and a late point against a Bradford City team that was all but relegated left us in thirteenth place without a win in six games. It could have been worse. We’d been two goals down after ten minutes. As Biffa, that reliable barometer of glass-half-empty realism, put it in his match report on Nufc.com: “A late winner might have papered over a few more cracks, but the fact remains that we were glad of point after a meeting with the league equivalent of San Marino. Nobody should settle for that”. Defeat in our next match at Ipswich dropped us down to fourteenth. 

We would finish eleventh in the Premier League that season, the same as the previous season; we’d finished thirteenth in the two previous seasons. Things were scarcely any better in the cups: a third-round exit from the FA Cup (1-0 in a replay at Villa) followed our regulation defeat to a lower league team in the League Cup (2-1 at Birmingham). After more than 18 months and 60 games in charge, this was hardly the progress the manager was hoping for.

The year was 2001, and the manager was Bobby Robson.

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Given what came next, it’s hardly surprising that Easter 2001 has largely been written out of our collective memory of Bobby Robson’s tenure, but it’s an episode that has come back to me repeatedly over the last few months as we obsess over questions of managerial progress and the meaning of thirteenth place. It’s also an episode which illuminates some interesting truths about our current predicament.

First, and perhaps most challengingly for how we feel about the current regime, it reminds us that stagnation is not the sole preserve of the Ashley era. That particular run in the spring of 2001, for example, included an especially soul-destroying Sunday afternoon at the Valley and a 2-0 defeat to Charlton on Sky: tactically confused, lacking in effort, and without any kind of cutting edge, it really did feel as though progress would never come.

It also shows how long it can take for managerial influence and culture change to yield consistent results and how unexpected an upturn can be. Certainly, no-one anticipated at the time that the largely unheralded signings of Bellamy and Robert and backdoor entry to the dubious pleasures of the Intertoto Cup – via the “fair-play” standings of all things – would be the catalysts to transform that same team into Champions League contenders in the space of six months.

Finally, it offers a stark reminder that not all managers are treated equally. Robson (62 league games, fourteenth place) was quite clearly granted goodwill and patience at this point that his immediate predecessors and successors were not – Dalglish (52 league games, thirteenth place, FA Cup final),Gullit (44 games, thirteenth  place, FA Cup final), Souness (57 games, fourteenth place,, FA Cup semi-final), and Roeder (53 games, thirteenth place).

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Here, the comparison with Dalglish and Roeder is the most telling. The former brought a managerial track record at least the equal of Robson, having won the league with two different clubs. But his thirteenth place can only be understood in the context of his starting point– the successful and adventurous team he inherited and systematically dismantled– and of his joyless public demeanour which so contrasted with the genuine and effortless affection inspired by Keegan.

Meanwhile, Roeder’s contrast with his predecessor was only positive. The immediate and electrifying way he turned around Souness’s failing team felt just as uplifting as Robson’s instant transformation of Gullit’s. In fact, Roeder’s points-per-game record at the time of his departure (1.42) was almost identical to Robson’s at the end of that run in early 2001 (1.45).What Roeder lacked, of course, was the managerial reputation to offer credible promise of progress beyond the inevitable plateau that followed.

In fact, what the fates of these managers suggest is that a number of different elements are needed to offer a manager protection, and all of Robson’s predecessors and successors lacked at least one of them: 1. managerial track record and status in the game; 2. the context of appointment and comparison with the preceding manager; and 3. emotional investment in the club and connection with supporters.

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And, so, to the present.

At Christmas 2020, as the “histrionics” over his performance took firm hold, Steve Bruce was averaging only 1.15 points per game over the previous 20 games and only 1.25 per game over the previous 40 games. After losing to Ipswich on Easter Monday 2001, the equivalent figures for Bobby Robson were near-enough identical: 1.15 (last 20 games) and 1.28 (last 40 games).

But while Robson could still draw on enviable reserves of managerial “credit”, Bruce is clearly entirely deficient in all three of the crucial areas which provide that support: a mediocre record as a manager; an unflattering contrast to his predecessor; and an unerring knack of alienating fans, both on and off the pitch. He has no protection against poor performances and results, and that’s what has made his current position inevitable since his appointment.

At the same time, the present situation also shows vividly that this credit is not extended evenly by the three groups which have traditionally determined a manager’s position: the fans, the media, and the club hierarchy.

While Bruce’s stock remains inexplicably high in the media – at least among the British “roll your sleeves up” school of punditry – his lack of track record and emotional connection with supporters has left him entirely bankrupt with the fanbase.

Most importantly of all, though, the rules of managerial survival at St James’ changed abruptly 12 years ago when Kevin Keegan left for the second time. Since then it has been a positive requirement of Ashley appointees that they actively lack those three sources of managerial capital. Only managers whose standing is obviously inferior, those who need the job more than it needs them, can expect to be appointed and to endure under Ashley, because that weakness prevents them from making demands – financial and political – that undermine the club’s strategic, planned-for mediocrity.

Of course, there was one exception to that rule. And we all know how that ended.

MATTHEW PHILPOTTS – @mjp19731