Why did Steve Bruce fail at Aston Villa?

Following on from Daniel Hunter’s (‘A Love Supreme’ fanzine) analysis of Steve Bruce’s mixed time in charge of Sunderland during 2009 and 2011, True Faith’s Marc Corby spoke to Richard Sutherland of ‘The Villa Park Podcast’ for a look back at the days The Geordie managed his club. The conversation occurred before Saturday’s marvellous victory at Everton.  It’s open to debate whether the long overdue change in tactics, self-belief and positivity was Bruce’s ‘work in progress’ coming to fruition or if the visually active Graeme Jones has made an instant impact.  Either way, appointing Jones could have just saved Bruce his job.

Richard’s first game was a 3-1 win over Chelsea (26/04/86) and you can follow Rich and the gang: @villaparkpod

Villa appointment:

“We got relegated with Newcastle in 2016 and got taken over by Chinese businessman Tony Xia who brought in Roberto Di Matteo as manager – a brave new era if you like.  It didn’t go well at all for Di Matteo [1 win in opening 11 games, 20th place] as there was obviously a lot more wrong with the club than signing a few decent players at Championship level to fix it and Steve Bruce came in.  At that time he had a reputation of getting clubs out of The Championship, he’s going to be a steady pair of hands, an experienced head, you know what you’re going to get, and at that time it was the right move.”

Initial impact:

“He brought in the likes of Conor Hourihane and Scott Hogan for a lot of money [undisclosed] but we sort of petered out that season [5 points from play offs in at Christmas, 7 defeats in 8 followed], finishing mid-table in The Championship.”

Tactical Nous:

“Gong into the 2017-18 season he didn’t have a lot of money and signed experienced players on free transfers.  We didn’t start well [1 win in 7 league games continuing the bad form to 2 wins in 13] and Bruce came under a bit of pressure.  The first signs of the ‘Bruce effect’ in terms of signing good, honest pro’s who will do a decent job but he won’t necessarily improve players or have any tactical nous.  Any manager that was tactically aware and had their team set up in a certain way, we would struggle against them.

Reaching the Play Offs:

“He survived that and we pushed on winning 7 in a row including beating Birmingham 2-0 and it looked great but so often he was found wanting in certain games.  We had the biggest budget by far that season but he would set up not to lose, so defensively, he never gave the fans any idea that we had a clue or an identity and actually playing attacking football.  We picked up wins when we expected to but it culminated in the Play Off Final v Fulham. We went into that game against a side that played fluent football, had an identity and a way of playing and we were found wanting.  Lewis Grabban [striker] touched the ball about 4 times all game! They went down to 10 men for the last 30 minutes and Bruce’s idea to try and win the game was to shove 3 more strikers on and hope for the best.  We lost 1-0 and it transpired that the club were a day away from going out of business.  It caused a lot of upheaval and credit to him for staying with us in a lot of uncertainty, but it automatically gave him a get out of jail free card in that he ‘can’t bring any players in,’ ‘hasn’t got the funds,’ ‘we’re gonna have to dig in together,’ ‘pull our sleeves up,’ the usual kind of Brice clichés.  For me personally it (Play off defeat) was the final straw but there was 60/40% in support of Bruce.”

Player progression:

“We got new owners that rescued the club and Bruce managed to convince Jack Grealish to stay.  He signed John McGinn for £2.5m so you have to give him credit for that as well.  He’s very good at getting players to come to the club, he sells the club very well but if you’re asking him to improve players or a tactical player on the pitch, that is where he’s found wanting.  Players want to improve and see a project, to see where they could be in 5 years but unfortunately Bruce can’t do that.  He’s a ‘here and now’ coach, a man who shoves players out on the pitch saying, ‘go out and enjoy yourselves’ when we were crying out for tactics instead of ‘give the ball to Jack and see what he does.’  That’s what it felt like during the final months.”

In the Media:

“The parallels are so similar [with Newcastle] in terms of what he says in interviews.  ‘Who is going to come in and do a better job,’ ‘the usual idiots in the fanbase are the ones who shout the loudest,’ ‘I’ve got the majority still with me,’ almost dismissing fans opinions.  Because he played the game, thinking he knows best, the fans should be grateful that we’re staying in the Division or still up there for Promotion which it was for Villa at the time.”

Final months:

“Despite the takeover the attendances started to drop and the feeling became toxic culminating in that game when we drew against Preston 3-3, the famous ‘cabbage-gate’ game when a fan came to the dugout and threw it [cabbage] in his direction.  The away ends were turning pretty toxic against him.  We lost at Sheffield United 4-1 and the “Bruce Out!” chants were going throughout [first defeat of the season but a 4th without a win]. Once you lose the away fans your time is almost up.  Had Glenn Whelan scored a last minute penalty against Preston then Bruce could have kept his job but he missed [Bruce’s final run was 1 in in 9], thankfully, and 2 weeks later we got Dean Smith.  He knows how to coach and bring the best out of players and the change was almost night and day.

Comparison with other Villa managers:

“We’ve had some bad ones. Jozef Vengloš [sadly passed away on the day of our chat], Remi Garde was terrible, Matteo wasn’t very good, Alex McLeish…The problem with Bruce is, he’s comes into a club and you think it’s a steady pair of hands but he sucked so much life out of Villa and caused such a toxic relationship between him, the club and the fans that it makes it so hard to think he’s a good manager.  To improve players, setting up an identity, push us on and improve us as a club he’s got to be down as one of the worst.  You’ve got to look at where we are now, bringing in Dean Smith who took us on a 10 game winning run when Bruce said ‘who you gonna bring in to get us out of this Division, do any better’…within 6 months we were in the Premier League.  With Bruce, instead of making it happen he waits for it to happen.”

Getting the Newcastle job:

“Initial thoughts were ‘Good Luck!’ but I knew this was going to happen.  Villa were a crisis club and we needed a steady hand like Steve Bruce to come in and steady the ship.  You guys weren’t on that trajectory and had a brilliant manager who had a set way of playing and even though it was quite defensive it wasn’t defensive like Bruce, that’s accidental cos you’ve got no attacking idea.  Under Rafa it was like, ‘this is how we set up for each game and I’m going to hold you to those standards.’  So you went from that and, well Rafa’s gone but they should have thought ‘lets get a manager like a Dean Smith for example who is up and coming and come in with new ideas and improve players.’ You ended up with Steve Bruce who will say the right things, get you onside but I knew you’d fluke a few results, he’d try and shut the critics up but then you go on these terrible runs and he’s always on the defensive.  I knew this would happen and I don’t like to see it.”

Confidence going into the fixture at Villa Park, 23/01/21:

“In terms of footballing ability, absolutely yes [we were confident].  In terms of ‘could Bruce shithouse a win?’ – there was always that nagging doubt.  But if Villa turned up and played anything like what we know that they could then we’d win easily and that’s how it panned out.  It wasn’t even a game or a contest and I couldn’t take the piss [out of Newcastle supporting mates] cos you didn’t lay a glove on Villa.”

Media Mates:

“Whether it’s ignorance or wilful ignorance is open to debate but there is a conflation of criticising Bruce as a coach and a tactician and then criticising him as a man and if he’s a nice bloke or not.  He may be a nice bloke but that doesn’t mean he’s a good manager and good for your club.  What he tends to do is hang on those excuses and is downbeat in interviews with the whole world on his shoulders.  He does that ‘woe is me’ attitude, gets people on his side and drives them to the point of despair with the club when, for the good of the club and for him you just need anybody in [to replace him].  It got to the point at Villa where his position was untenable for him to be there.  But somehow, he keeps those friends in the media cos he always gets another job later down the line.  It was the Villa fan channels in the end who said ‘we can’t cope with this’ and I guarantee you, it will be ‘the Newcastle fans never accepted me because I managed Sunderland’ like he said when at Villa [about previously managing Birmingham].  He never said it at Sheffield Wednesday [regarding Sheffield United] as he left them in the lurch to go to you guys.”

On ‘rivalry’ with Newcastle supporters:

“I think the faux rivalry is disappearing to be honest with you.  The general feeling amongst Villa fans now is because you have Steve Bruce as manager and for what you’re going through, not that you want anyone to feel sorry for you as a club but we empathise with what is going on, what he does to a football club, leaving you devoid of ideas and any hope of getting out of it.  It’s not fair on you to see that and I don’t want Newcastle fans to go through that cos we went through it and it’s not a nice way to be as a team.  I feel Bruce’s time was a waste of 2 years to be honest.”

“He sucks the lifeblood out of a club. He has no loyalty so why should any supporter or anyone have any loyalty to him?”

Marc Corby – @NUFC_1980_1994