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15th Jul 2019

Steve Bruce, another fiver’s worth of petrol pumped into the desperate Newcastle United banger

Kyle Picknell

The appointment of Steve Bruce is the surest sign yet that even a 17th place finish this season would be beyond Mike Ashley’s wildest dreams

In his debut season in charge of that other giant football club in Tyne and Wear, Steve Bruce went on a run of 14 games without a victory. Following a 1-0 home win against Arsenal on the 21st of November, until a 4-0 defeat of Bolton Wanderers again at the Stadium of the Light in March, Sunderland didn’t win a single Premier League game.

They finished the campaign in a respectable 13th position, largely thanks to the singular efforts of Darren Bent, who notched a ridiculous 24 goals in 38 games playing in a team whose only creative impetus came from Steed Malbranque, Andy Reid and… no. Just them. Literally just them.

Nobody else in Sunderland’s squad reached double figures in the league. Kenwyne Jones scored nine, whilst Fraizer Campbell finished as their third-highest scorer for the campaign, with, er, four.

There wasn’t a single other player who found the back of the net more than twice in the league.

That summer, Bruce signed 10 players and released or sold 13. By the end of the January transfer window, that amount had increased to 13 signed and 15 sold. Sunderland, however, found themselves in the rather cushy position of sixth in the league table and Bruce ended up signing a contract extension the following month – right in the midst of another apocalyptic run of form that saw the Black Cats go nine games without a win, drawing once and losing eight times during February, March and the first half of April.

The team rallied to win three of their last five during an easy run-in and ended up in the deceptively lofty position of 10th, but still only one point ahead of the 14th-placed Bolton Wanderers, and eight points away from relegation.

Once again, there was a mass overhaul in the summer as 11 new faces arrived and 11 were shown the door. Wiping down the shit-covered wall just to fling a fresh batch at it. Bruce won only two of his first 13 league fixtures and was sacked before December. The Guardian’s Louise Taylor wrote this rather damning piece about him being a manager completely out of touch with modern coaching methods – things as basic as hiring a sports psychologist and things even more basic than that, like sending an email or logging into an iPad.

And this happened in 2011. This was over seven years ago. That Steve Bruce is now being appointed as the new Newcastle United manager, to replace Rafa Benitez no less, at a team with the 19th highest revenue in Europe, is beyond an oddity, or even an aberration.

If Newcastle fans already thought that Mike Ashley doesn’t care about the fate of Newcastle United football club – after two relegations, a single Premier League finish higher than ninth, no cup runs past the fifth round and an average annual net spend of £2.6 million – this will be the point of no return for many.

It is clear why Steve Bruce is such an attractive prospect for Ashley even just ten months on from his dismissal at Aston Villa, a decision that followed another typically hopeless run of form (one win in nine games) and led to the appointment of Dean Smith, an end of the season winning streak that broke a 109-year-old club record, and ultimately, promotion.

In Bruce, he is getting a manager who doesn’t evolve, nor deviate, nor adapt, but instead relies solely on the same, turgid, two-banks-of-four, direct football philosophy he has utilised throughout his career to date. He will happily trade in much of the current squad, however talented, for the perennial safety net of ‘experience’.

Experience, there, being the code-word for cheap or better yet, free agent, 30+, predominantly British players he has worked with before. Experience, there, being the code-word for uninspiring, unambitious cloggers to play his own uninspiring, unambitious, clogger brand of football. Your Glenn Whelans and Craig Gardners and Shane Longs.

And obviously Albert Elmohamady comes as part of the package deal. Don’t be surprised to see him brought in for £2 million to very politely rampage up and down the right-hand side of Sports Direct Arena, Toon fans.

More than that, Bruce is a manager who, if this all goes to plan, which includes the players initially falling for that soft Geordie whisper and playing out of their skins for a substantial part of the season, will get this Newcastle team to 17th in the Premier League. Possibly 16th on goal difference. The prospect of this, with little to no net spend in the transfer window, is the reason he’s being appointed in the first place.

Even with the reported £5 million release clause that he will have to pay to free Bruce from his Sheffield Wednesday contract (where he has done a perfectly fine job, it must be said, albeit within a tiny sample size and by drawing more games than he wins), the profit margins are there for all to see if Ashley can, once again, commit to spending very little, if any of the £30m fee for Ayoze Perez, and finish marginally above the relegation places.

That’s the grand design at play here. Spend as little as possible, stay in the Premier League. With Sam Allardyce having rejected the job offer, Steve Bruce is the perfect fit for that particular job description – one that doesn’t account for the standard of football, development of players, the enjoyment of the fans or even the long-term project in place (which, by virtue of hiring Bruce, simply doesn’t, and now cannot, exist).

He will arrive, talk the talk about being a boyhood fan, temporarily invigorate half the playing squad and maybe, just maybe, make it to January. If he does, he’ll make some noise about money for new signings and it being an impossible job. Obviously, Ashley won’t listen and he won’t get it. If you don’t back a manager of the calibre of Rafa Benitez you certainly don’t start throwing money Steve Bruce’s way. And that will be that.

Newcastle will either go down for the third time under Mike Ashley’s ownership, or Bruce will once again be fired ‘after a poor run of results’, or they will just about cling to the Premier League like a wet pair of jeans. There is no scenario that sees him last more than a season and a half.

Of course, Ashley knows this. The short-termism of the appointment is intentional. It’s another fiver’s worth of petrol in the banger, another wooden board nailed over the front window, the last stretch of duct tape over a boat’s leaking hull.