It’s going to be a busy old time for cabbage wholesalers in the North East next month as our interim head coach celebrates a notable milestone. Brighton away at the beginning of November will be Bruce’s 100th game (whoop!) in charge of Newcastle. No sooner will Tyneside souvenir shops have emptied their shelves of commemorative centenary stock than it will be time for another landmark – the end of that monthwill also mark the 10th anniversary of Bruce’s sacking at Sunderland.
The coincidence of the two landmarks is notable because Bruce was in charge on Wearside for 98 games, only a handful more than his current tally at United, and that permits a direct (and suitably chastening) comparison of his record at the two clubs.
SAFC: P98 W29 D27 L42 F123 A138
NUFC: P95 W29 D25 L41 F122 A159
You’ve got to give it to the man, he’s nothing if not consistent in his will-sapping mediocrity. Two draws and a defeat in his next three matches and the stars will have aligned to offer a perfect symmetry of damning inadequacy exactly a decade apart. There could be no more fitting statement of Bruce the manager than to reproduce that failure result by result, a full ten years after was finished as a credible top-flight manager.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) September 29, 2021
At this point it’s worth revisiting Louise Taylor’s damning judgement in The Guardianon Bruce’s time at Sunderland, not least because it’s written by an established football journalist who stands resolutely outside the old boys’ drinking club that continues to protect Bruce today. As Taylor put it:
“Steve Bruce was a manager who refused to move with the times. The former Sunderland No. 1 paid little attention to modern coaching methods, technology or tactics – and now he looks like a man whose era has passed.”
Importantly, that judgement wasn’t made in the last couple of years reviewing his sacking with the benefit of hindsight. It was written on the day he was relieved of his duties, 30 November 2011. In other words, all of 3589 days ago.
Re-reading Taylor’s piece today feels like being given a window into your own future, every observation an unerring portent of what has unfolded on Tyneside with gripping relentless inevitability.
There are the managerial excuses, the accusations that fans’ expectations were too great, the rushing back of injured players, the lack of involvement in coaching, the scorn for analytical advances, the complete absence of any coherent tactical plan or overall recruitment strategy. Above all, there is the terrible gnawing realisation that his self-deprecating everyman shtick is no act but rather an honest reflection of the yawning chasm where his technical knowledge and managerial expertise should be.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) September 28, 2021
But don’t take my word for it. Look at what Taylor wrote all those years ago:
“One of the principal reasons Bruce is no longer in charge at the Stadium of Light concerns his apparent inability to tweak formations or tactics during matches. Whenever a rival manager re-configured his system mid-game, Bruce invariably failed to come up with a countermeasure.”
“If he failed to cut it as a tactician, the 50-year-old did not seem much of a strategist either.”
“Always rather amorphous, if not downright scrappy, Sunderland’s high-tempo style lacked creativity, not to mention control, in central midfield.”
“Unashamedly old school, Bruce believed that motivation was the key to management but the influx of overseas coaches has raised the Premier League’s technical bar and despite his relative youth, he has begun to look suspiciously like a man whose era has passed.”
Of course, that was 10 years ago. What seemed mildly anachronistic then is positively prehistoric now, all the same tendencies having been magnified a hundredfold in the intervening years.
Finally, it’s also worth remembering the extent to which Bruce’s managerial record on Tyneside has been flattered by a number of generous Cup draws. As a result one in five of his total wins have come against lower league teams: Blackburn, Morecambe, Newport, Oxford, Rochdale, West Brom.
Take those out and it’s a win ratio of 28% in the Premier League and an average return of 1.1 points per game, worse even than his Sunderland record. And that’s before we mention the 15% increase in goals conceded. How lucky we are to have been blessed with late-era Bruce the Entertainer.
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— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) September 25, 2021
Perhaps most depressing of all is that this record isn’t any worse than we expected. In fact, it’s absolutely exactly what his entire career predicted. Take a look, for example, at the comparison below between Bruce’s current record at Newcastle after 82 matches andhis average record over the same number of games across his entire career in the Premier League.
NUFC: W23 D23 L36 (1.12 pts per game)
PL Career (ave.): W22.96 D22.79 L36.25 (1.12 pts per game)
That average of 1.12 point per game will earn you 42.5 point per 38-game season. Enough to keep you up. Just. Maybe Charnley, Barnes, and Ashley aren’t such idiots after all. They found the perfect manager for their 17th-place vision. Except that averages are derived from higher and lower figures, and in the last two seasons we’ve managed 45 and 44 points. You can work the rest out for yourselves.
Truly, what a time to be alive.
Matthew Philpotts @mjp1973