And so, after 819 days, 96 matches, and more than 8,700 minutes of football, the longest period of caretaker management in English football history is surely at an end. In years to come, the record books will show 29 wins, 25 draws and 42 defeats, 123 goals scored and 161 conceded, 1.11 points per league game. But even those crushingly mediocre statistics will never capture the depths of emotional despair to which we were driven by the soon-to-be (and long since) defunct managerial tenure of Steve Bruce.

We’ll all have our favourite memories, of course, but take my hand and let me guide you through some personal highs: the 1-3 collapse against newly promoted Norwich in his second game that showed us what lay ahead; the 0-5 thrashing at Leicester a month later and the accompanying 0-3 disaster in the return match in January; the abject non-performance against a Brentford reserve side in the quarter-finals of the League Cup just before Christmas last year; the 0-1 defeat three weeks later to a Sheffield United team that had failed to win any of its previous 18 matches; the 0-3 surrender at Brighton in what everyone, the players included, thought had to be his last match in charge; the 0-3 surrender at home to Brighton at the beginning of the season; the 0-0 against a doomed West Brom that was the most soul-destroying 90 minutes of football ever broadcast in Britain.

Unfair to concentrate on individual matches? Well, instead we could reflect nostalgically on the two wins in 21 matches that we managed between December 2020 and April 2021. Leave aside the golden days of April and May 2021 – we’ll come back to those shortly – and we’ve won two of our last 29 matches. This season we’ve played the teams currently lying in 18th, 17th, 16th, and 15th places in the league and failed to win against any of them. Despite playing only one team in the top 8, we’ve conceded 16 goals, secured only 3 points, and gone out of the League Cup at the first hurdle.

And all this in the context of unprecedented largesse from the Ashley regime. In his 15 months in charge, Bruce had a net spend in transfer fees of nearly £100 million. In the previous 12 years of the Ashley era, the total net transfer spend was little more than £30 million. Those figures are more damning than any.

But of course, the last two years of purgatory were about so much more than results. There was the manner of the performances – disjointed, passive, dispirited and utterly dispiriting; the lack of any consistent pattern of tactics, selection, or recruitment; the failure to play players in their most natural positions; the systematic dismantling of one of the best drilled and most effective defences in the league; the obvious neglect and decline of young players; the constant talking down of our team and our club; the substitutions; the non-substitutions; the injuries; the excuses; the complete lack of any attention to detail; and the absence of basic professional competence.

When Willems came on against Arsenal in Bruce’s first game and didn’t know where to play, we really should have known. And, of course, we did. We’ve always known.

Above all, football is about faith, identity, and belonging, about passion, commitment, and belief. And the one absolute constant of Bruce’s tenure was the wilful sapping of those elements from all those of us who longed only to offer them up and receive them in exchange. From the hangdog demeanour to the self-indulgent fits of anger, we had to suffer only contempt for the fans of whom he claims to be one. From the endless non-existent positives to the accumulation of points, from keyboard warriors to fan mail, from a work in progress to ticking along, from daffodils to bacon, we have had a manager who has inspired only ridicule instead of pride.

True there were occasional moments to enter in the other side of the ledger. The ludicrous final minute of injury-time at Goodison and Hayden’s injury-time winner against Chelsea three days earlier; Matty Longstaff against Man United; Everton and Leicester away last season, Bournemouth the year before; West Brom in the Cup; and, lest we forget, sixth place in the Premier League current form table in the final nine games of last season. We’ll always have that.

But those moments have only ever been that, moments that show what might have been, reminders of the talent and resolve in a squad that could have achieved so much more, that was on the verge of achieving so much more before Bruce’s arrival. Even the run at the end of last season said more about Bruce’s failings than his qualities. As much of a surprise to Bruce as to anyone else, it was the product of another desperate lurch in formation and driven, let us never forget, by a player who Bruce had actually dropped, only to make the lynchpin of a formation and recruitment strategy that unravelled as quickly as it first miraculously came to pass. He was only ever guessing at being a football manager.

In truth, Bruce was always an accidental villain, a hapless fool who never expected this opportunity, a parody tribute act to a manager who had been consigned to Premier League history as yesterday’s man more than 10 years earlier. His was famously the 11th name on Charnley’s not-so-shortlist who couldn’t believe his luck to be offered millions of pounds to go through the motions. Not a coach, not a strategist, not in charge of recruitment, and not a communicator. Not a manager.

In this respect, Bruce epitomised the anti-club that we became under Ashley, but his stewardship also laid bare the fatuous and craven vacuousness of a long bankrupt strand of English football and the journalism it inspires.

Let this be the end of all that. And the beginning of everything that Steve Bruce never was and never could be.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731