The Last Chance Saloon For Steve Bruce?

Early in his career, Steve Bruce was known for very quickly spotting some greener grass, but Daniel Storey reckons his latest spell at Hull could be crucial for him...

Last Updated: 21/08/12 at 14:58 Post Comment

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One of my bugbears with football is the clear presence of an 'old boys club' brigade in English club management. Put simply, a few managers seem to be in the frame for all of the jobs (and therefore get more than their fair share), haphazardly thrust to the front of the queue despite repeated underachievement at the expense of the hardworking, intelligent and often younger option. All of this is administered through a torpid unimagination often so demonstrably required to run one of our clubs. Hull City are the latest to take the predictable punt, by appointing Steve Bruce.

The formative period of Bruce's fourteen year managerial career was typified by short spells ended with a sacking or, more usually, with the man just assuming the grass would be greener (his statement at Sunderland that he wouldn't be resigning as "I have never walked away from anything" was deliciously ironic). Bruce lasted ten months at Sheffield United, fifteen at Huddersfield, fewer than two at Wigan and four at Crystal Palace - four league clubs crammed into three-and-a-half seasons. Leaving Palace to join Birmingham City in 2001, Bruce had gained a significant reputation as a manager who could certainly not be relied on to display loyalty.

Even in his last three jobs (at Birmingham, Wigan and Sunderland), Bruce's CV doesn't warrant particular respect. He achieved two promotions at Birmingham, but on both occasions was provided with the largest budget in the division, and these were pierced by an intermediate relegation. In his last full season at the club (before inevitably jumping ship to Wigan), Birmingham spent over £17million in the second tier. Players such as Rowan Vine (£2.5m), Garry O'Connor (£2.6m), Olivier Kapo (£3m) and Gary McSheffrey (£4m) all failed to justify their fees.

Such a splurge is the defining characteristic of Bruce's managerial career to date. In his first transfer window at Wigan he recruited six players in four weeks. Six more would arrive the following season before Bruce chose to leave the North West for a move to Wearside. Whilst at Sunderland, his transfer policy became almost comical. In his 19 months at the club a total of 61 players went through the revolving door. Sunderland fans must be consoled by the thankful presence of restrictive transfer windows.

Quite how Bruce envisaged that the retention of an cohesive playing style, system, team spirit or philosophy could be possible with such a wholesale degree of upheaval is unclear, but we can conclude that he failed to succeed in his plan. When sacked from Sunderland, the club were two points and two places clear of the relegation zone, and the manager had won less than three of every ten games in charge. Aside from his 18-game spell at Selhurst Park, Bruce has never bettered a 40% win percentage during any of his appointments.

Whilst an exuberant transfer policy is not necessarily a stick with which to beat Bruce, his tactical naivety may be. When asked about the potential for the utilisation of differing formations at a press conference shortly after taking over at Sunderland, Bruce's reply of "I'm not that into tactics" measured somewhere between laughable and heart-breaking. At the Stadium of Light, the manager's undoing was Sunderland's consistent inability to shift style or formation to match the opponent, both pre and mid match. There is nothing inherently negative about a back-to-basics approach to football management, and it would be snobbery to think otherwise, but during his tenure on Wearside Sunderland lost 48 league points from winning positions. They gained just 15 points from the reverse. Whilst other managers adapted to evolving situations, Bruce demonstrated that he was often incapable of doing so.

Perhaps I am being harsh, and Bruce's win percentage merely reflects his appointments at clubs where there is a ceiling to potential achievement. Maybe Bruce simply hasn't found his 'perfect fit', and possibly all he wanted to do was manage Newcastle United, a hometown job he showed interest in on at least three separate occasions? Is his 'Championship Manager' managerial style (buy, buy, buy, sell, sell, sell, let the assistant sort out tactics and training) simply a refreshing alternative to the status quo? (I believe the answer to be a resounding 'no', by the way.)

One thing is certain. Less than a year ago Steve Bruce was manager of a mid-table Premier League side, and now he is in the Championship, one of European football's toughest stages for managerial redemption. More often than not, bosses have slipped out of Premier League management with the hope of finding their feet in the second tier in order to gain sustainable atonement, only to the find the league ladder worryingly greased. Gary Megson, Micky Adams, Danny Wilson, Paul Jewell, Phil Brown and Aidy Boothroyd all dreamt of a quick Premier League return, and all are still elusively searching.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of expectation at Hull City, Bruce's new managerial abode. Despite just two seasons of Premier League experience, the town is expectant that promotion can again be achieved. After local hero Nick Barmby was appallingly treated and sacked last season, the fans will not demonstrate significant patience towards an underachiever, particularly not one with a Premier League ego and a penchant for moving on swiftly. After finishing eighth last season, a little improvement takes Hull into the play-offs.

Clearly there has been the inevitable 'Brucey bonus', five players signed in the eight weeks since his appointment including Hull's second highest ever transfer fee, Nick Proschwitz, from the German club SC Padeborn 07, and Bruce has also bought his son Alex. I'm biting my tongue on that last one.

Then, after a tight opening home game was settled through a late Jay Simpson goal, Bruce admitted that his assistant manager Steve Agnew had fancied Simpson to score, and so Bruce kept him on. "I think he's a psychic," Bruce said post-game. "Maybe that's the rub of the green we needed." All the hallmarks of luck and plucky guesswork. I'm biting my tongue there too.

Despite previous criticisms and the man's evident recent failings, I hope that Steve Bruce succeeds at Hull City, because the only way that can be achieved is if he alters his footballing psyche. He cannot bring ten players in in January and hope to retain unity, and he must be able to utilise tactical plans B and C. For the first time in his managerial career, Bruce may be more dependent on his club than they are on him. His progress will be of significant interest.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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