Steve Bruce faces a tough balancing act following in Rafa Benitez's footsteps at Newcastle United
Not first choice, the Geordie must try and reunite a dissatisfied fanbase with a squad already weakened
It was only four months ago when Steve Bruce was reflecting that a journey might have come full circle.
“I began my managerial career in Sheffield and it might come to an end in this city too,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
At 58, Bruce talked of lasting four more years at Hillsborough, of topping 1,000 games as a manager after almost reaching the landmark as a player.
It is safe to say that Bruce was not predicting the unlikely coda to a career; just when it appeared he had been pigeonholed as a Championship manager, he has been granted arguably his biggest job to date.
A man who has taken charge of Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, of Birmingham and Aston Villa will now add his native Newcastle to Sunderland on the list of enemies who have employed him.
If it speaks to Bruce’s longevity and to a record that is better than his detractors would admit, it also points to an essential amiability that has shielded him from accusations of disloyalty.
A manager who has gone up a division can manage upwards: compared to Rafa Benitez, there is likely to be less politicking, less complaints about Mike Ashley’s ownership at St James’ Park.
But while is a Geordie, he has a smaller power base than the Uefa Champions League winner turned Tyneside fans’ favourite.
Bruce, in contrast, has realised an ambition, both of his own and his late parents, to a backdrop of scepticism.
An old friend has scarcely helped his cause. Sam Allardyce revealed he turned down a return to a club where he was unpopular. Bruce was not first choice.
If talk of Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger was always fanciful, a host of seemingly more progressive foreign managers – Patrick Vieira, Sergio Conceicao, Giovanni van Bronckhorst – were mentioned.
Bruce appears an underwhelming alternative, bringing humour but not glamour.
Benitez overachieved, relative to his transfer budget, to finish 10th and 13th. In a valedictory interview after his resignation, the Spaniard talked about “top ten, top eight and then maybe try for Europe”.
Ashley did not seem to share those aspirations. Bruce’s appointment may smack of managed decline, but Newcastle cannot afford to deteriorate too far: they have two relegations in the Ashley years, both in seasons when he plumped for managers, in Joe Kinnear and Steve McClaren, whose recent experience was in the lower leagues.
There is the risk of an unwanted hat-trick if Ashley’s balancing act backfires. Certainly Bruce’s inheritance is less than ideal.
Newcastle’s reigning player of the year is Salomon Rondon but, given their reluctance to spend sizeable fees on ageing players, the on-loan striker is gone.
Their top scorer was Ayoze Perez, but Leicester activated his £30 million (Dh110.1m) release clause. The top scorer left at the club is centre-back Fabian Schar.
Ashley has quoted Manchester United £50m for the promising Sean Longstaff. His capacity to sniff out a potential profit remains intact, but it is a moot point how much of that will be reinvested and on who.
Unlike Benitez, Bruce is not renowned for his coaching, though he promises a warmer brand of man-management.
But any analysis of his two decades in the dugout shows he often stands or falls on the basis of his signings. His contacts in the game may stem from his innate likeability but he has often used them astutely.
Even though his time at Aston Villa ended in both sourness and the farce of a fan throwing a cabbage at him, his recruits – Tammy Abraham, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi – were instrumental in the promotion his successor, Dean Smith, won.
Ashley ought to allow him to recruit who he chooses. But the same could be said of his predecessor.
But if Bruce can appear Benitez’s opposite, the managers can change at Ashley’s Newcastle, but the issues remain the same.
Updated: July 17, 2019 03:14 PM