It might be a party at St James’ Park on Sunday, but it was never going to be a celebration of Steve Bruce.
In a world without a takeover, where Mike Ashley’s unloved ally plodded on, Tottenham’s visit would have been his 1,000th game in management. Perhaps he will limp on until then, the unwanted milestone man. Perhaps that landmark will instead come six months or a year down the line, at Bruce’s debut elsewhere.
There are few tributes to Bruce right now, but his is a worthy feat of longevity. He has been English football’s great constant, the man who has figured in the last 43 seasons as either player or manager. He played 926 games and has managed 999. Endurance is an achievement in itself and Bruce has been the resourceful survivor, forever finding new clubs.
He can seem a man out of time now, as well – cruelly for a lifelong Newcastle fan – as one in the wrong place. He has straddled great divides, managing Aston Villa and Birmingham, Newcastle and Sunderland, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. He has kept coming back for more.
He has experienced indignities to get to the brink of a thousand, whether having a cabbage thrown at him by Villa supporters or becoming persona non grata with his fellow Geordies. Some of his distinctions are bittersweet: no one else has managed as many games in the Premier League (475) with such a low win percentage (28). He has never finished higher than 10th in the top flight.
Perhaps, though, he has had few realistic chances to do much better. Some of his bottom-half finishes may have been overachievement. Few were underachievement. Newcastle and Villa may be the two biggest clubs he has managed, but each were in troubled times. Bruce has not touched the heights of some of his peers, but a key to his staying power is that he has rarely actually failed. It is a reason why he has remained employable. Perhaps it sums him up that in three of his jobs he has won exactly as many games as he lost.
He was Sir Alex Ferguson’s skipper at Manchester United but the managerial magic may not have rubbed off. Instead, Bruce is no genius, but (and despite some fractious moments on Tyneside) a largely likeable figure. He is not defined by any one philosophy, system or style of play, though he has often sustained by an often impressive record in the transfer market which, like his man-management, feels in part a product of his personality; people within the game tend to like Bruce and that has helped him acquire and deal with players.
Yet there are few suggestions he is an outstanding coach or a particularly original thinker; in a Premier League with Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, the idea of the charismatic captain turned manager can seem a throwback.
If many of the thousand club are either the greats or the managers who embarked on a marathon stint in one post, Bruce belongs in neither category. Not after 11 jobs at 10 clubs, none lasting more than 270 games, only two over 102. Ambition has driven him to walk out of some but amiability has made him amenable to others. He has been the ultimate journeyman. The greatest highlights of a two-decade journey may have fallen in the second tier: winning four promotions to the Premier League is a joint record.
Two each came at Birmingham and Hull. If Bruce the manager is not indelibly associated with any one club, he may rank as Hull’s greatest ever manager (partly because he steered them to their only FA Cup final) and Birmingham’s best in half a century, though he was also relegated with each and quit both clubs. If the dying embers of his reign at Newcastle have seemed a wait for a pay-off more than a quest to bring up his thousand and if Bruce may have to wait to be admitted to a select club, he will deserve his place there.
One thousand games represents a managerial lifetime’s work and, while others have crowning glories to show for their decades in the dugouts, Bruce has endured some grim times. When he finally hangs up his collection of club tracksuits, it should at least be in the knowledge that while some may have managed better than him, few have managed more.
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