Steve Bruce looked to be on borrowed time since Newcastle takeover

Newcastle United v Wolverhampton Wanderers – Premier League – St. James’ Park
(Image credit: Owen Humphreys)

Steve Bruce was finally put out of his misery when Newcastle announced on Wednesday he had left his position as head coach by mutual consent.

The 60-year-old manager had looked to be on borrowed time from the minute Amanda Staveley’s consortium finally got their hands on the keys to St James’ Park following months of speculation as to the big name they might recruit once their eagerly-anticipated takeover was completed.

For Bruce, who had anticipated his likely departure, his exit will have come as a relief as much as a disappointment.

He had taken over the hot seat from predecessor Rafael Benitez admitting he was “not everybody’s cup of tea” in July 2019, in the process finding himself thrust into the eye of a storm of fans’ fury at the Spaniard’s departure.

However, if the ire of supporters was largely directed at then owner Mike Ashley for his failure to give Benitez what he required to continue the rebuilding job he had started, results and performances during Bruce’s testing tenure eased him firmly into the firing line with 94.3 per cent of respondents to a Newcastle United Supporters Trust poll calling for him to jump days before he was pushed.

In many ways, Bruce could never have won. The austerity imposed by Ashley as he attempted to offload the club meant Premier League survival was the only target and that, for supporters who craved a return to the days of regular European football and challenging for, if not winning, trophies was anathema.

As a result, the role of manager – or in the former Manchester United defender’s case, head coach – was essentially attractive to only two types of applicant: those who were desperate to manage Newcastle and those who were simply desperate for a job.

Bruce, then in charge at Sheffield Wednesday, fell into the former category and, despite the warnings of old friend Alan Shearer, whose own brush with Ashley had proved eye-opening, could not resist.

He got the nod as a safe pair of hands who would not rock the boat – Benitez’s inability to bite his tongue had proved a constant source of Boardroom frustration – and asked his critics to judge him on his results.

Unfortunately for him, they did just that.

Born in nearby Corbridge, Bruce was raised in Newcastle, but made his name in football away from his Geordie roots.

He did it the hard way, learning his trade as a no-nonsense central defender during a seven-year spell at Gillingham before getting his big chance with Norwich and an even bigger one at Manchester United.

Bruce was a key member of the United side which, under Sir Alex Ferguson, ended the club’s 26-year wait for a league title in 1993, and he added two more as well as two FA Cups, a League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup before his time at Old Trafford drew to a close.

He slipped almost seamlessly into management, first as player-boss at Sheffield United, and then at Huddersfield, Wigan, Crystal Palace, Birmingham, Sunderland, Hull – whom he guided to the FA Cup final in 2014 – and Aston Villa before his arrival at Hillsborough.

There were times earlier in his managerial career when he might have been regarded as a genuine candidate for the Newcastle job, but by the time his chance came, his star appeared to be on the wane with neither Villa nor Wednesday particularly excelling under his guidance.

Nevertheless, he returned to Tyneside with high hopes and a reasonable start, coupled with his affable personality, muted some of the noises.

Results, if not necessarily performances, in his first season were more than acceptable and at the end of it, he matched Benitez’s 13th-place finish 12 months early with just one point fewer.

However amid the backdrop of a takeover hiatus, Bruce’s second campaign proved much more testing as goals and points became increasingly elusive, failings exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which robbed him of star man Allan Saint-Maximin for two months, any remaining reserves of patience and goodwill were exhausted.

A Carabao Cup quarter-final exit at Sky Bet Championship Brentford was followed by a dismal 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United on January 12, the soon-to-be-relegated Blades’ first league win of the season, after which the head coach admitted his team has been “absolutely s***e” and “fr*****g hopeless”.

The Magpies eventually rallied to stave off relegation comfortably and finish in 12th place, but a summer of relative inactivity – Joe Willock, who had played a significant role in the survival fight on loan from Arsenal, was the only senior signing – set alarm bells ringing once again and a run of eight league games without a win proved the final straw for many.

Bruce, who continued to insist his team’s form was improving until the death, has left the club three days after his 1,000 game as a manager ended in a 3-2 home defeat to Tottenham.

He was never the only problem or even the major one during his tenure, but nor ultimately was he the solution.

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