Steve Bruce has done a fine job at Newcastle but that might not be enough to save him after the takeover
Toon manager may have to prove he can produce a brand of football his previous teams have not been renowned for
Normally the season’s quiet success stories receive their reward.
These are not normal times for Steve Bruce, however, and for once that is not a reference to Covid-19.
The imminent takeover of Newcastle by the financier Amanda Staveley and the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund has brought suggestions the new owners will give Bruce a chance, but also those that the manager fears for his future.
Understandably, too. The task changes now. In a sense, Bruce has to be the antithesis of himself, to show wildly contrasting skills to those he has demonstrated in his nine-month reign, to illustrate he represents the future.
With his understated prowess, he made Newcastle more sellable. He was parachuted in less than four weeks before the season started, deprived of the chance to make his own signings, to a club widely tipped for relegation.
When football halted, Newcastle were 13th, on 35 points; three from safety, in effect. The ends had justified the means.
Newcastle were the lowest scorers and had the lowest share of possession. They camped deep in their own half, defending in numbers. They showed spirit and organisation but, with the honourable exception of Allan Saint-Maximin, offered precious little excitement.
With their strikers, personified by the impotent Joelinton, who Bruce was lumbered with, scoring a solitary goal, he got the defence to become more prolific than the forwards.
It was admirable, a resourceful example of how to get the most from limited personnel, but not always watchable.
And now the rules of the game will change. Newcastle’s crippling lack of ambition under Mike Ashley necessitated negative football. Grim survival was all that mattered. No longer.
Rejuvenating the club involves reinventing the team, playing a more attacking style of play that was once their hallmark.
In time, it will entail replacing some of the worthy triers who have ground their way to safety in three successive seasons and bringing in some more gifted individuals who offer echoes of Newcastle’s past.
In a quarter of century, they went from the entertainers to the ugly but effective. They will be expected to make the reverse journey, and at some speed.
Committing more men forward, showing greater creativity and intent will require a radically different game plan. Bruce merits the chance to implement one, but his history is largely at clubs with a need to be pragmatic.
Bruce is more amiable man-manager than one of football’s philosophers.
He has rarely been a byword for attacking excellence – in 421 Premier League games, his sides have scored just 427 goals – but that is in part the product of circumstances.
Even his promotion-winning Championship sides have tended to be outscored.
In two decades of management, his highest top-flight finish is 10th; given the resources he has had, that is not underachievement.
Yet now the parameters are changing and one of the most experienced managers in the business has few qualifications for the new job description.
Bruce can point to a capacity to unearth players – Andrew Robertson and Harry Maguire at Hull, John McGinn at Aston Villa – but with a bigger budget, that bargain-hunting may not be necessary.
Nor is he a statement appointment in his own right, a likeable man who has largely been unloved by the Newcastle fans, despite being one himself. He lacks the constituency of support his predecessor Rafa Benitez possessed.
He is not the glamorous option, and not merely because his nose is battered from 900 games of being elbowed by centre-forwards.
That image problem may mean Bruce can be underestimated; it could be an issue again. But having done a fine job, keeping his post may require proof he can play a brand of football that he has never done before.
Updated: April 21, 2020 03:32 PM