‘Let me have a crack’ said Steve Bruce, speaking about his recent appointment as NUFC head coach alongside a puzzled Joelinton. It was the first day of Big Joe’s transformation from unspectacular but useful Bundesliga forward to, ‘story-Brazilian-parents-tell-their-kids-to-get-them-to-behave’, and for many the alarm bells were already ringing loud and clear. Talking about taking charge of a Premier League football club like it’s the same as trying to put together a set of shelves from whatever you can find in the loft is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. Plenty of managers have a down to earth self-confidence and cliches have been a part of football for forever. But something about the way Bruce said it rang worryingly true. There was no understated irony, no hint in his voice that belied an understanding that you can’t simply ‘have a crack’ at running a multi-million-pound organisation and expect anything less than a disaster. It was the most honest he’s been in the job.

 

Two weeks later the season opened at SJP with the visit of an Arsenal a couple of months away from sacking Emery. Two poor teams ‘entertained’ the crowd (remember them?) in the rain. Joelinton got his first taste of being a lone striker in a team that would in 20 short months go from a well drilled unit to one where every position was ‘lone’. As isolated on the pitch as they had to be off it. Nil nil at half time. The game was there to be won. Shelvey got injured in the 54th minute and Bruce replaced him with debutant Willems. Jetro played in central midfield for two minutes until Bruce shouted from the side lines ‘what the fuck is going on?’ Willems then moved to wing back, with Ritchie, who had started there, moving to central midfield. A minute later Aubameyang scored the winner after Maitland-Niles skipped past the baffled Willems to supply the assist. When goalkeepers make those sorts of mistakes, they are taken out the team for a few weeks. It’s a bit more difficult to do that with new head coaches. Afterwards Bruce said there was ‘a lot to work on, a lot of big positives’.

 

Steve likes talking about work. Never have more sleeves been rolled up or more dust been brushed off the battered and bruised body of one of the many declining institutions in this country than at Bruce’s NUFC. Steve is not alone in this. Like many of the other mutated big toes stuffed into tracksuits that make up his peers, the likes of Pulis, Warnock, Pearson, McClaren, Grayson et al, ‘hard work on the training ground’ is the cure for all ailments. It’s a deft sleight of hand that puts the blame on the players, implying they aren’t running around enough, without directly saying it. Because of course the manager’s job on the training ground is to be photographed standing with arms folded, or maybe pointing a finger and shouting. Perhaps even sharing a joke with a player who’s recently said to be unhappy. Bruce does this well.

What is never mentioned under this Head Coach is the hard work off the training ground by him and his staff. The other 6-8 hours of the day when the players aren’t doing ‘work’ befitting the Under 9’s (their words). Scouting opponents and potential new signings. Watching games back to find patterns and opportunities in the play. Devising set piece routines, fine tuning tactical systems, liaising with the medical department on injuries. Making plans for what to do if you go 1-0 down early on, if you get a red card, if the opponent gets a red card, how to close out the last ten minutes when you are winning and if you get round to it, remembering to reapply for your player’s work permits. In the case of the work permits it seems the work just didn’t happen. We can speculate on the rest. Ten games without a win, Newcastle United’s first team playing continuously for over 12 hours without scoring a goal and there hasn’t even been a call to Lee Ryder from ‘a source close to Steve Bruce’ to say the players are coming in for extra training. There isn’t even the illusion of hard work anymore. He will never back down from a challenge though, and yes he will say that whilst refusing to take questions from journalists.

 

There is no doubt we are in the end game of Bruce’s tenure at Newcastle United. If there is one man who knows how to make someone’s working conditions unbearable it’s Mike Ashley. The apparently imminent appointment of Graeme Jones to ‘bolster the coaching staff’ is, I would suggest, a not-so-subtle suggestion from Ashley for Bruce to resign. Like when the board went on a bizarre lads day out to York and decided McClaren’s race was run, the writing is on the wall for Bruce. Eventually we’ll get a statement from Charnley and Jones will assume charge for the remainder of the season and there will be more talk of hard work.

Speaking of Lee Charnley, we are in the age of conspiracy theories so let me add another one to the heap; Lee Charnley isn’t real. The human brain is known to create false memories under stress. No one would deny supporting Newcastle isn’t hugely stressful; Lee Charnley is a figment of our collective imagination. We invented him in a bid to make sense of how badly a football club could be run and honestly, would the club look any different had he never existed? Another one who’s ‘work’ should come under intense scrutiny. Work that includes deciding that spending £40million on Joelinton was better in the long run that giving the previous manager a new contract and let’s say for arguments sake £35million to spend how he saw fit.

 

But back to work. There are two types of managers. Tacticians pretending to be man managers and man managers pretending to be tacticians. The focus and discipline needed to plan and execute strategy and tactics for months on end is rarely found alongside the interpersonal skills and sheer charisma needed to bond together a team of egomaniacal millionaires. The best managers obviously have a high capacity for both skills, but it’s nearly always weighted in one direction or the other. Steve Bruce is neither. Not anymore anyway. He was once a man manager. His high point was taking Birmingham into the Premier League in 2002. Only four years after he retired from playing, he understood that generation of players. Twenty years later and he’s a general without an army. A leader of footballers who don’t exist anymore, constantly squinting over his shoulder at the bench to see if there’s a 29-year-old Geoff Horsfield there ready to ‘put himself about’ and save the day. It’s popular to label Steve Bruce a dinosaur. This is unfair. Dinosaurs ruled the world for hundreds of millions of years. Steve Bruce ruled half of Birmingham for a summer.

By Jonny Lennard