It is perhaps a measure of how surprisingly well things are looking at Newcastle United at the moment that I have started to look at the PL table again. Though I should qualify that … looking well, relative to the subterranean expectations I had at the start of the season when Steve Bruce arrived on Barrack Road, fresh from doing the dirty on Sheffield Wednesday.
Although, on the morning before the West Ham game we sit in thirteenth only 3 and 4 points behind Arsenal and Tottenham in eighth and ninth respectively, we are only thirteenth. Clubs of far less stature than Newcastle United … Wolves, Burnley, Sheffield United, and Leicester are all ahead of us in the table and that isn’t a one-off. That has been the norm over the last 13 years. That is not to decry the achievements of those clubs who have proven (generally speaking) to be consistently better run operations than Mike Ashley’s Zombie Club.
Still, as someone who expected us to have had a season not dissimilar to the one Aston Villa are enduring, thirteenth in the PL with games to come against sides below us – Watford, West Ham and Brighton –– and a hardly frightening Spurs – in the last six games of this really weird season hints at the possibility of the club finishing a respectable tenth. Possibly. I don’t think I’m being unduly pessimistic to imagine we’ll get pumped by Man City (again) and Liverpool (again).
Then again, United could only draw with Villa at home so this side and this league is unpredictable outside of the top 4 clubs in the main. Nothing can be taken for granted.
United’s comfortable position of thirteenth is a good one for Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United. But it isn’t good enough for the real Newcastle United. Let’s be absolutely clear about that. Let’s not allow our expectations to fall so low so as to believe that thirteenth in the PL is a good one for Newcastle United. It isn’t. It is mediocre.
The question then is how has the club not crashed and burned? After all we have £40m’s worth of non-scoring centre-forward-cum-not-a-centre-forward-maybe-an-outside-right leading the line (who Rafa wouldn’t sign off but Bruce claims he did) and we have been asked to celebrate Andy Carroll getting another year’s contract despite the sum total of his fitful season’s contribution being 4 assists. Dwight Gayle has recovered from his injuries to remind us he exists by notching against Villa and Bournemouth whilst missing what looked like the miss of the century against City in the Cup before being outdone by Isaac Hayden’s howler at Bournemouth. Muto? He might as well be reported as a missing person.
So, to whom to give the credit? Well, doubtless to the irritation of some, I’ll point in the direction of Rafa Benitez who nurtured a great team spirit after relegation in 2016 as well as coaching his charges within an inch of their lives in maintaining a disciplined defensive shape. That has been a worthy legacy that the current Head Coach has benefitted from.
I’ll also pay credit to the players themselves. Despite the low expectations of them this season they have kept working hard and only momentarily let their heads drop on occasion. They remain the “good bunch of lads” they have been since the 2016/17 season.
Although guilty of a few errors (not surprising given how we’ve been set up for much of this season), Martin Dubravka was perhaps a shoe-in for Player of The Season before ASM’s renaissance since the restart in particular. Having a goalie as your best player for 75% of the season tells its own story.
I’ll also point to Lady Luck. I’ve long considered Newcastle United to benefit from very little in the way of good luck over the years. But this season has been different. In fact looking at some games and moments (Sheff U(a), Spurs(a), Chelsea(h), Palace (h), Brighton (h), Norwich(h)) I think we’ve potentially used up our good fortune for the next decade.
But it would be mean not to acknowledge Steve Bruce has not been as terrible as many of us thought or as his managerial CV suggests.
Bruce has delivered the goods for a Mike Ashley Newcastle United. In terms of his mission – keep Newcastle United in the PL on a shoestring – he can say he has achieved that.
He may even, to the barely concealed glee of an Orient fan on social media, collect more points than Rafa Benitez. Weirdly, so do Sunderland fans of a certain eccentric leaning as they think this will demonstrate the respect and affection we had (have) for Benitez was misplaced and Rafa isn’t all that if Bruce can, in one season, get more points than him. That’s the logic. I know, I know.
I’ll go further in recognition of Bruce – he has maintained the team spirit and unity at the club. It would be churlish not to recognise the togetherness of the players. There is no rumour of cliques and division as there has been over the last 20 years, pre and post Ashley. Bruce, always apparently affable and liked by the players has run a happy ship. He is a man that appears to have little ego and there is a former manager of Chelsea and Man Utd now in the employ of Tottenham who could do with learning something of Bruce’s humility. Jose may argue that Bruce has plenty to be humble about.
Bruce’s lack of failure this season (I can’t call thirteenth in the PL, going out the LC in the first round and being whipped by the first PL side we drew in the FAC as success) has had a striking impact upon the football media.
Rather like the days of Alan Pardew, the English media now wishes to tell us Steve Bruce is a “great manager”, has done a “brilliant job” and have not held back from burnishing Ashley’s Head Coach with all kinds praise and tributes. Some believe Bruce should (post-takeover, what takeover?) be placed at the wheel of what we would hope to be an ocean liner of a football club in comparison to the spluttering tug-boat it has become under Mike Ashley’s ownership.
Why do the media behave this way?
I read some back and forth between various journalists last week who were upset at being accused of framing their generous reportage of Steve Bruce because of friendships with Ashley’s Head Coach. No-one can prove or disprove that has happened but it is absolutely the case that some NE journalists do indeed have close relationships with Bruce going back many years. That is a fact. It is undeniable.
So, when Bruce makes the rather bold claim last week that ASM won’t be sold any time soon and that he has signed a five year contract eyebrows are raised. They are raised because Bruce has accepted a position at Newcastle United as Head Coach where he has no say what players are bought and sold. He only has an opinion at best. That’s why he’s there. Unlike Rafa Benitez, Bruce has no clause in his contract allowing him to have the final say on transfers incoming and outgoing. Bruce has less power, a smaller pay packet and thus is far more disposable and that will make him more compliant.
I have also been surprised that the media have not jumped on that in a way they definitely would have had it been Pardew or McClaren had come out with statements of equally little credibility. Indeed, I was rather reminded of Pardew making a similarly bold claim in regards to Andy Carroll only 6-7 weeks before he was packed off to Liverpool with £35m going Ashley’s way. If I recall Simon Bird (The Mirror) made Pardew squirm by asking him how supporters could ever trust another word he said. We couldn’t.
Additionally, no-one pointed out the contradictions in Bruce’s comments last week regards ASM and the clashes he’s had with him this season even though he denied that to The Mail’s Craig Hope when it was put to him there had been a falling out with the player. Bruce memorably asked Hope if he was calling him a liar and was clearly ruffled at that line of questioning. There is a clear inconsistency. But no-one has picked up on that and put it to him.
There is clearly an element of jobs-for-the-boys trotted out by all manner of pundits – many whom have grown up in English football with Bruce, have friendships and well, a preference for English managers to get a chance. But let’s understand that for what it is – irrational favouritism on their part.
I don’t doubt Bruce is an easier gig for the press pack than Rafa, often aloof, wary and distant with them. We know Bruce is more familiar, conversational and indulgent of those that cover United. It’s my opinion that buys him favours. Perhaps its calculated to do so?
There is also a clear nonsense in suggesting Steve Bruce is a better manager than Rafa Benitez because he might get more points than the Spaniard this season.
Why is that even a proposition?
Benitez is an elite coach with a stellar CV and can point to trophy winning achievements at clubs across Europe and in the PL. Steve Bruce simply cannot. Bruce will be 60 on his next birthday. He has been in management for 20+ years and is a stranger to silverware or consolidating any club in the top half of the PL. His managerial career is as a bottom feeder in football management.
Admittedly all of that is in the past. History’s like that. But Rafa spoke to us of yearning to take United to a higher level, the project if you like, developing a club that can be built, its facilities, its philosophy and we were excited by having such a man with a vision at our club. It is what our club has needed for decades. Rafa got that.
Bruce, for whatever he does that counts as success at Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United will never be able to even think in that way. Ashley’s Head Coach is as powerless as Pardew and McClaren before him. The contract that Bruce has signed renders him little more than a jobbing builder to Rafa’s status as a potential grand architect for Newcastle United.
But whether Bruce gets more points than Rafa this season is irrelevant. If the choice is to be made between Bruce and Benitez or Pochettino then a mission accomplished to prevent United from being relegated as a career highlight isn’t going to cut it I’d hope for any new owners.
Bruce’s best chance of staying at United is of the takeover not happening. But f that comes to pass I think he’ll be having more chats with Lee Charnley about giving free tickets away next season.
We want more than he could ever deliver …. and what we want should not be beyond Newcastle United.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …