By his own admission, Steve Bruce is a bang average manager. At the start of this year the former Manchester United defender and author of such highly acclaimed tomes as ‘Striker!’ and ‘Sweeper!’ candidly admitted: “I made a career out of being bang average but worked hard and maybe that’s in management too where I’m not blessed with this, that and the other.”
Regarding his footballing abilities it should be said that Bruce is being self-deprecating here. After all, no player is inducted into a Premier League Team of the Decade when they’re distinctly run-of-the-mill. He was a pivotal and influential figure in his Man United’s rise to dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Concerning his coaching credentials however, it might also be reasoned that he’s being a bit of a big-head. Talking himself up a bit. Bang average? He wishes.
Back in 2009, Bruce was responsible for another startling quote, this one admitting that ‘I’m not really into tactics’. He had recently taken charge at Sunderland and given the dearth of nuanced fare at the Stadium of Light during his tenure it would be entirely understandable if Mackems had responded with: ‘Well dip your toe in at least, pal’.
An extremely well-paid Premier League manager, employed in one of the most coveted positions in English football not being into tactics is, after all equitable to a Formula One mechanic disinterested in what lies under the bonnet.
When researching that quote Google threw up an old Guardian article that covered Bruce’s inevitable sacking and frankly it reads like a murder and obituary rolled into one. The sub-heading certainly pulls no punches – ‘The former Sunderland number one paid little attention to modern coaching methods, technology or tactics and now he looks like a man whose era has passed’.
Therein, examples are given detailing Bruce’s lack of attention to detail. How the club had to buy him an iPad and teach him how to respond to emails in an age where even supposed dinosaurs such as Sam Allardyce were embracing new tech and analysing Prozone statistics.
How he never took training but instead left the coaching to his assistant Eric Black. When the club signed Ahmed Elmohamady, Bruce was completely in the dark as to whether the player observed Ramadan, a holy month that would see him fast in daytime hours for the duration.
It’s worth staying with that article for a brief moment more because its tone is so very, very rare, even unique. So often do we see criticism of managers in the press but there is always a base level of respect implied with only decisions made or character traits disparaged. A signing might be negatively viewed or Mourinho’s habit of alienating a player or two objected to.
Here, Louise Taylor, a very fair and very decent journalist, doesn’t only discredit Bruce to the point of intimating strongly that he is clueless and out of his depth: she works on the assumption that this is already a widely held truth.
Incidentally, that damning article and Bruce’s abject time in the north-east was just shy of ten years ago. Since then, he has been employed by two Premier League outfits and two in the Championship.
It is late March 2021. Brighton are playing their fellow relegation-strugglers Newcastle and it is half-time with the Seagulls a goal up. The visitors have been apathetic and pathetic and by the game’s conclusion – which brings a comprehensive 3-0 home win to make it just two victories in 20 for a spiraling Newcastle – the Magpies can only boast 34% of the possession and precisely one shot on target.
It is a lack of cohesion and an absence of attacking ambition that has been the story of their season and post-match a guessing game begins as to who Bruce will blame for this latest shit-show. The fans for their unrealistic expectation? The players?
Yet astonishingly, Bruce emerges and takes full responsibility. There is indeed a first time for everything.
But back to the break, and on 5Live the presenter is joined by two pundits who are discussing the construction of Newcastle’s midfield. One pundit suggests that it hints at the input of Graeme Jones, the recently appointed assistant coach. The other pundit argues that Bruce might be behind the shape.
At this juncture the presenter scoffs – actually scoffs – and says out loud: “As if Steve Bruce has played a midfield diamond in his life!”
Again, it is worth pausing here to reflect on the rare, almost unique context behind the words. Because the presenter is not trying to be malicious in implying that Steve Bruce is so hapless as a coach that even a basic formational set-up is beyond his capabilities. She assumes it is already a widely held truth.
And what’s more, she is right to think that, because everyone knows that Bruce is a limited coach at best and that number includes Steve Bruce. So why is it then that clubs continue to come calling and then continue to fail miserably as he reveals once more that top-level management is simply not for him? It is pertinent too that these failures usually result in Bruce being ‘rewarded’ with a substantial pay-off with a reported £4m heading his way should he be sacked by Newcastle.
That latter point no doubt explains why he is still in employment despite the fact that the Magpies are hurtling towards the Championship; despite the fact that a recent poll revealed that 95% of the Toon Army want him gone. How he got the big job in the first place however, remains a mystery.
Right now, Newcastle United are bang average and the reason for that is undeniable. He stands on the touchline each game, nursing a 28% win-rate at the club, looking tortured and clueless and preaching banalities to disillusioned players. He is every inch a man whose era has long, long passed.