Steve Bruce says he is insulted by claims he will be a yes man for Mike Ashley. In a defiant press conference at Newcastle’s team hotel, Bruce hit back at suggestions he will merely be a puppet for the club. Speaking ahead of the clash with West Ham, Bruce said: “Recruitment, yes that has insulted me, the things that have been said. Let me tell you, if I thought I couldn’t have control of transfers, then of course, I wouldn’t be doing it. I wouldn’t do it at all.”

Evening Chronicle, 20 July 2019

The most grimly predictable aspect of yesterday’s transfer deadline day was that the day passed off without any additions to United’s alarmingly imbalanced, injury-prone, and threadbare squad. Altogether less predictable was that the loan signing of a Leicester reserve-team player who barely managed 300 minutes of league action last season briefly became the hill on which our once resignation-happy manager was being encouraged by his media friends to rediscover his former habits and take his last courageous stand.

With a deal apparently in place and the player keen, poor brave principled Brucey had supposedly been “shafted” by a club hierarchy who refused to sanction the loan fee and/or insisted that a non-home-grown player be sold to make room. Other hilarious reports had our alleged head coach going rogue and negotiating deals on his own, presumably in the (not unreasonable) hope that no-one would be monitoring the fax machine aboard the ghost-ship HMS St James’.

But none of these things could possibly be true because, as Bruce himself has made abundantly clear since his appointment, he alone is responsible for transfer business. Let’s not insult the man. After all, we already know that he doesn’t do coaching or tactics and it’s certainly not inspirational oratory that he brings to the role. If he doesn’t conduct transfer business, then we’re faced with the impossible existential question of just what the point of Steve Bruce is.

In this context, there’s an altogether more plausible way of reading yesterday’s events. At face value. This was no betrayal. This was the logical realisation of his transfer policy. And the evidence has been in front of our eyes ever since he started his nocturnal snuffling at Arteta’s door at the beginning of the summer.

How else to explain the frantic dampening of expectations from the very beginning, whether that be tenuous appeals to the financial effects of COVID or consistent insults to our status as a club? How else to explain the ludicrous argument that there was no room in our 25-man squad, as if those not good enough could not be omitted or as if four goalkeepers had to be named?

These excuses were being made very early – or very, very early as Bruce would no doubt put it – and reached new levels after the surprising permanent signing of Willock, presumably on terms very much to the benefit of the player. The club had “broken the rules”. It had gone “above and beyond”. There was even open admission that the whole budget had been blown. And then there was outrage at the suggestion that we were weaker than at the end of last season, despite the fact other clubs had invested heavily while we had sought only to restore the squad to its previous make-up while simultaneously allowing departures that were not replaced.

These were the words of a man who knew all his eggs were in a single basket in the form of Joe Willock’s  freakish goal-scoring run of last season. A man who knew the price of that signing was an absence of strengthening elsewhere. That was the deal he struck with the club hierarchy as the man – in his own words – with ultimate responsibility for recruitment.

And before the usual suspects in the press shed any more tears for their friend, in the process shifting all blame to Ashley, let’s not forget that this is a manager with a net transfer spend of £94.84 million over his five transfer windows at Newcastle. Want to quibble over the Joelinton deal that was clearly agreed before his appointment? Well, OK, in that case, I’ll have back the £30 million recouped on Perez that summer, and we’re still at net £85 million.

And what do we have to show for that spending and two full years to shape the squad? A set of players entirely unable to actually play the formation that is the product of those two years in charge, a formation that requires at least five players in the squad to play out of position at any one time. It’s almost as if there was no strategic plan at all. And that’s why Choudhury has become so essential. Because of wilful managerial incompetence.

Only Bruce could pin his entire transfer strategy on a fluke run of performances from a player that he had actually dropped from the team and didn’t restore to the starting line-up until the final four matches of last season. Only Bruce could spend more than £20 million on a midfielder and leave his midfield considerably weaker. Only Bruce could make his team so desperate that a loanee with little track record of substance and entirely unwanted by his parent club could suddenly become a make-or-break deal.

Maybe it’s all groundwork for a face-saving resignation when the atmosphere becomes too toxic for survival. Maybe he really has been shafted this time. But the real grounds for considering his position are the managerial decisions that got us to this point in the first place and for which he only ever praised the club’s hierarchy – fully and handsomely, at that. If, as his media defenders have argued, Bruce’s main (sole) quality has been his relationship with Ashley and his ability to extract transfer cash, then he is now an entirely busted flush, utterly devoid of purpose, stripped of all credibility.

Either way, this transfer window is a matter for resignation and not only for supporters again robbed of hope.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731