Steve Bruce – Newcastle’s accidental hero?
The man literally no-one wanted is proving to be an inspired choice so far, and there are no major signs of momentum stopping.
Newcastle fans have gone through more than most in the past decade – two relegations to the Championship, two immediate promotions back to the Premier League, six managers, a Europa League quarter-final, a plethora of French talent, and the self-confessed “best coach in the Premier League” in John Carver.
For a club that promised so much in the 90s and early noughties, they have descended into also-rans – rarely do they ever look like challenging for honours, major or minor.
Most of that coincides with their notoriously parsimonious owner in Mike Ashley – fans have been begging for him to sell the club due to a lack of investment in the playing squad and his ambivalence towards ownership of the club.
Things threatened to get very ugly in the summer – Rafa Benitez, who fans adored after pledging to get them back into the Premier League at the first attempt in 2017 and succeeding, walked away from the club with the two parties unable to agree terms on a contract extension.
Fans would have been raging with Ashley even if he’d have appointed a big-time boss to replace him, but they were apoplectic when the arrival of Steve Bruce was confirmed.
Bruce was an immediately unpopular choice given his previous connections to arch-rival Sunderland, but his appointment was also greeted with dismay – a man who had recently been sacked by Aston Villa despite a huge budget in the Championship and someone who walked away from Sheffield Wednesday did not scream ambition.
Yet somehow, six months later, things finally might be looking rosier in the North East.
Despite his appointment being ridiculed, despite barely a single note of positivity from the Geordie faithful, despite threats of boycotts, Bruce has guided them to tenth in the table, following Sunday’s 2-1 win at home to Southampton.
Steve Bruce has praised supporters for their backing since his arrival in the summer.
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) December 9, 2019
How has he done it? Improving players who weren’t performing under Benitez for one.
Take Jonjo Shelvey – despite all his obvious talent, Rafa Benítez never fully trusted him even though he is comfortably their best midfielder.
Under Bruce, he has scored five in 11 Premier League games, including three in three, and talk of an England recall is not out of the question.
Solid professionals such as Federico Fernandez, Ciaran Clark, and Isaac Hayden have all raised their game, while Bruce identified a maverick matchwinner in Allan Saint-Maximin who has dazzled St James’ Park with his performances.
There are things that still need to be worked on – Joelinton hasn’t looked remotely close to a £40million player, having scored just one goal in their 1-0 win at Tottenham in August.
However, for the most part, things are looking promising at Newcastle.
Most people picked them out to be relegation candidates at the start of the season but now they don’t look like they’ll come close to falling through the trap door – in fact, given their current form (and the form of others around them), a tilt at the top ten looks more likely.
Newcastle could win the Premier League and they would still want Mike Ashley out – the ship sailed on that years ago.
There is a growing sense however that Bruce might be starting to turn opinions around at St James’ Park, and that could represent one of football’s unlikeliest u-turns.