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Feature - The Trials & Tribulations of Newcastle United ...

Can Steve Bruce possibly come out of this one with reputation enhanced?

Premier League Asia Trophy
Steve Bruce, the new Newcastle United manager, pictured this morning in Shanghai during the Premier League Asia Trophy match in which Newcastle defeated West Ham United 1-0.
Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images

It’s hard to stand by and watch a good man walk voluntarily and enthusiastically to the gallows.

The Newcastle job. The poisoned chalice of the Premier League. One wonders why anyone would contemplate going there while owner Mike Ashley remains at the helm. Rafa Benitez, who over-achieved in the past three years, felt he could stay no longer. Off to China he went.

The club’s top three players from last season have each left; Ayoze Perez (to Leicester City), Salomon Rondon (to join his old boss at Dalian Yifang) and Mohamed Diame (Al Ahly). No-one new has come in, nor does anyone know if the money realized from the transfer of Ayoze to Leicester will be re-cycled back into the club for strengthening.

Why then did Steve Bruce up-sticks after a promising half-season at Sheffield Wednesday to inherit a bundle of trouble?

The answer can be unravelled in three words: passion, heart, love. And there you have it. The chance to manage his iboyhood club was a lure too strong to resist. He was brought up there. He knows the fans, he knows the landscape, and he’s about to find out if he really knows the club any more.

“There is a huge challenge ahead of us, but it’s one that my staff and I are ready for,” said Bruce. “This is my boyhood club and it was my dad’s club, so this is a very special moment for me and my family.”

For Impact fans familiar with the Remi Garde experience at Aston Villa, I would liken Bruce’s challenge at Newcastle to be of similar proportions. It’s not exactly the same, but in each situation there’s an owner who’s fallen out of love with soccer and who wants to sell their club; businessmen wanting to get the best price they can.

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United - Premier League
Mike Ashley, Newcastle owner (left), pictured back in February at Wembley for Newcastle’s away game v Tottenham.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Mike Ashley has been Newcastle United owner for twelve years, astounding when you consider he’s been trying to sell the club from as far back as 2008, when Kevin Keegan resigned as manager.

“I have listened to you. You want me out. That is what I am now trying to do.” Ashley told the fans back then.

By the end of the year the club was back off the market, Ashley having failed to attract a buyer. But halfway through 2009, he was back at it again. Anyone who could meet the asking price of 100 million pounds, the club was their’s. A few months later a familiar scenario unfolded; the club was taken back off the market.

In October 2017, Ashley put the club up for sale for a third time, reporting he hoped a deal could be reached with a new owner by Christmas that year. Ashley is still there.

Former Newcastle captain Kevin Nolan (talking to the BBC) -

“Listen Mike is Mike and he hasn’t changed. Everyone knows that he’s actively trying to sell the club and he sticks to what he knows and what he thinks is best for the buisness. He is a businessman. And Steve Bruce will go in and know exactly what to expect from him.

“You know, we had our own issues with him as players, in terms of bonuses. We were the first club ever, not to have a bonus sheet for the season, because he wasn’t willing to negotiate, and we had to just take it and suck it up.

“I think it got resolved a year or two later, we tried to dig our heels in, but he wasn’t having any of it. So we quickly knew who was boss around there!”

Consequently Ashley is the most despised man in Newcastle, an area famed for its passion for the game and for its club in particular. No club in England is more fervently supported than the Magpies. Others can equal the passion, none can better it. It remains so, to this day. Amazing when you consider they haven’t won a trophy since 1969, the old European Fairs’ Cup.

Soccer - Newcastle United Parade The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
Long-suffering Newcastle United fans are fiercely passionate and loyal. They’ve not won a trophy since 1969, the European Fairs’ Cup, paraded here by then captain, Bobby Moncur.
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Ashley is in a delicate position. He needs the club to stay in the Premier League to maintain its value for sale. Yet he’s loathe to invest in players that could potentially guarantee survival or achieve better. Some have even suggested he’s taken on Bruce - considered adept at winning promotion to the EPL - to ensure promotion next season should they go down this. But that’s an unlikely scenario if he’s serious about selling the club.

Bruce says, “Let me tell you, if I thought I couldn’t have control of transfers, then I wouldn’t be doing the job. We’ve talked about budgets and it was pretty straightforward. Mike has always been pretty straight about that – whatever the club brings in and whatever we generate by getting players out, we’ve got [that] to spend.

“Our transfer policy is like most other clubs. Identifying the players and making sure we fit in. I am under no illusions about this job. I have come into it with my eyes wide open.”

It looked like things were moving in the right direction towards a sale a couple of months ago. Negotiations were at an advanced stage with Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the billionaire cousin of Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour.

The take-over, cited at 350-million pounds, however fell through. Back to square one!

The fact that Steve Bruce once managed Newcastle’s local rivals Sunderland does not go down well with the ‘Toon Army’, but what convinces Geordie fans even less is that someone from the region is prepared to take the job. Many see it as the vindication of the Ashley regime, by one of their own.

Whether bringing someone in without ties to the area would have made more sense remains to be seen.

Newcastle legend Alan Shearer urged Bruce to reject the Magpies’ overtures.

But born-and-bred Geordie, Bruce, insisted it was an offer he couldn’t refuse after rejecting the chance to succeed Tyneside legend Sir Bobby Robson 15 years ago (because at the time, he didn’t want to walk out on Blackburn).

Bruce said: “Alan is a big friend of mine and he is welcome to his opinion – but I am my own man and I understand the challenge of what lies ahead. I’ve not been in Newcastle to monitor what’s being said and I don’t read it.

“If you read and scrutinised everything thrown your way, you’d end up in a madhouse.

Newcastle United v Manchester United - Premier League
Newcastle legend, Alan Shearer had urged Bruce to reject Ashley’s overtures ...
Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Supporters’ groups have had enough, but you wonder if their orchestrated plan is something that will ignite across the club’s complete fanbase. Newcastle attract over 50,000 to every home game. But what they are asking fans to do is hurt Ashley, by staying away from the club they love. An incredibly difficult paradox to contemplate for committed fans who see the club as their daily escape.

Nine fan groups have released a joint statement declaring plans to boycott St James’s Park, their goal, ‘to starve Mike Ashley of the thing he desires most: money.’

Members of the campaign are focusing their initial efforts on boycotting the Arsenal game on August 11 but are also expanding their efforts to a broader range.

”We collectively will not be putting another penny in Mike Ashley’s hands and so we have effectively banned ourselves from entering St James’s Park, Nine bar, the club shop or any Sports Direct store nationwide,” the statement says.

Steve Bruce, is a good and genuine football man, like so many of his fellow ‘Geordie nation subjects’. He loves Newcastle United and if anyone wants to safeguard the club and take it in the right direction, it’s him. He deserves this opportunity, but surely under different circumstances, because you can’t but help think failure is destined.

Newcastle United always seem to be shooting themselves in the foot, to the extent that newly promoted clubs like Norwich City and Sheffield United must be rubbing their hands with glee at the current predicament in the North-East.

Bruce is under no illusions: “Is this the biggest challenge of my career? Yes, but it’s one that I couldn’t refuse. I regretted turning it down years ago and I suffered with that for 18 months, kicking myself and asking myself why I didn’t do it.

“I’m like every Geordie and now I am living that dream. How lucky am I? I’ll have to put up with some nonsense, but I’m determined to grasp the opportunity and have a go.”

Whether Steve Bruce is lucky or not remains to be seen.

If honesty and hard-work are pre-requisites for survival, then you feel there’s a puncher’s chance of staying up. But if the club, or it’s owner, cannot generate funds for strengthening a squad that looks more Championship than Premier League, the punches may have to be delivered with broken knuckles.