Steve Bruce: The Jury Will Remain Out

We all predicted Hull would go down and - even with them sitting in 11th - that could still happen. Is that why everybody is so reluctant to laud Steve Bruce? Or is it his nose?

Last Updated: 23/01/14 at 10:00 Post Comment

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When it comes to football, consensus is a rare thing. Rare like those animals that were last sighted in 1876, through the sights of a Winchester, and now only exist in museums and the imaginations of the most optimistic biologists. And this is no bad thing: having opinions is a game of opinions, after all, and agreement is dull, dull, dull. I think this. So do I. What shall we talk about then? No idea. This isn't working, I want a divorce. So do I. For God's sake, stop it.

So to note that, when it comes to Hull City, the general consensus before the season was that they would swiftly return to the Championship from whence they came, is not to suggest that everybody said so. A few bold prognosticators thought they might scrape 17th. A couple thought that Norwich, or Stoke, or some other poor sods might find themselves floundering. But having said that, if there's one person out there who thought Hull would be 11th after 22 games, then Profile365 will happily devour any hat you care to submit.

The point is not to mock those who were so sure. As it happens, this column made the same assumption, and doubled-down by confidently predicting that Roberto Soldado would amble off with the Golden Boot. Again, nothing's decided, but if any friendly referees are reading: more Tottenham penalties, please.

The point is that Hull, not for the first time, have confounded post-promotion expectations. But unlike last time there's been no pell-mell charge to the top of the table. No Geovanni, no Sloop John B. No preposterously magnificent and magnificently preposterous Phil Brown. Instead, there's Curtis Davies, defending calmly. There's Allan MacGregor, goalkeeping stoutly. And there's Steve Bruce, managing competently.

Or more than competently. Given that most wise (ahem) and insightful (double-ahem) folks were expecting them to land in the Premier League like a brick in a swimming pool, what Bruce has done so far is fairly impressive, tending towards admirable. A thoroughly amusing home win over Liverpool, an entertaining away win over Newcastle, and a visit to Manchester City that may have ended in defeat but not - unlike plenty others - in humiliation.

So given the disparity between how things were supposed to go, and how things have gone so far, why hasn't Bruce been lauded to the heavens? Where are the Manager of the Month trophies, the lengthy tactical investigations, the plaudits and trumpets and hysterical opinion pieces calling for his immediate installation as manager of England, monarch of England, and governor of the bank of England? Well, there are perhaps five reasons, of which you are welcome to choose your favourite.

One! Competence is a bit dull. As noted above, there's no Geovanni to stir the loins, and no Phil Brown to stiffen the backbone. This is a team built not on moments of surprising invention but on solidity, on stopping the other lot from scoring. Which is obviously perfectly valid and even likely quite wise, but doesn't really lead to LONDON 0-4 HULL headlines. On the plus side, Bruce is replacing non-scoring striker Danny Graham with superior non-scoring striker Nikica Jelavic, so at least the lack of goals will be slightly more expensive. On the down-side, the most exciting thing involving Hull this season was a haircut.

Two! The triumphs of the small are inevitably subsumed by the crises of the large. When Hull beat Norwich at home, nobody cares; one of the top six will have lost or won in hilarious fashion. When Hull beat Liverpool at home, by contrast, everybody cares. Everybody cares about Liverpool. What does it mean for them? Their transfer plans? Their squad? Their owners? Is Suarez going to leave, dammit? Oh, and well done Bruce. Nice one. Pat on the head for you.

Three! Bruce, like a lot of managers who have spent their careers pootling around in the bottom half of the Premier League and the top half of the Championship, suffers from a certain image problem. One doesn't have to accept the Allardici Proposal in full to feel that some managers - particularly those that foolishly decide to be both a bit funny-looking and a bit northern - are unfairly presumed to be a bit traditional, a bit prehistoric, a bit unfashionable. So Bruce, a man who led a pioneering scouting arrangement while at Wigan, who has played an fashionably retro back three for much of this season, and who has written three - yes, three! - novels, is still viewed as a bit of a relic, by simple virtue of his flat vowels, flatter Sunderland, and flattened nose. People are so quick to disregard that which seems plain or unengaging. People are silly.

Four! The whole Tigers business, which has been at the forefront of any Hull-related coverage. Quite why Assam Allam is desperate to change the name like this is something of a mystery: yes, they're cool animals, and yes, Shere Khan has an excellent baritone, but ultimately, this is an animal that has been hunted to the edge of extinction by the rapacious forces of unchecked and thoughtless expansion. Maybe the shorter name will help leverage the brand, but still, that's not a good metaphor for anybody looking to engage with the Premier League. Maybe Tom Huddlestone has aphrodisiac qualities. But every question Bruce is asked about big cats is a question he's not being asked about Ahmed Elmohamedy, which is a bit of a shame. There's only one of him left, after all.

And, five and finally! While they're doing well, and doing better than anybody expected, this is a weird Premier League. It's far too early to call anything. This time last season, the team in 11th were 12 points from the bottom; this season, Hull are a mere five. What feels like a good season - in terms of the sense of many of Hull's performances, and in terms of their actual position in the table - is still a hugely precarious thing. The shape of the pear still looms large on the horizon.

But as for one, so for all. When it comes to places 10 through 20 of the Premier League: things literally could not be closer. (Except if there was a five-point gap (Or four (Or three (Or two (Or one (Of if everybody had the same number of points.).).).).).) Rene Meulensteen and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still have a roughly even chance of ending the season as either inspired appointments or gargantuan follies; Paul Lambert's Aston Villa could still finish top half or 20th; and if anybody knows what the hell to make of League Cup finalists and 19th place Sunderland, then please share your insight with the group.

All of which means that Bruce is caught in the unenviable position of being entirely unable to relax, even for a moment. He could well exceed expectations for almost the entire season, then lose three games on the spin and plummet all the way down into ignominy. And if that happens? Well, presumably the doomsayers who predicted the relegation will acknowledge the peculiar circumstances, and pay due regard to the early promise and encouraging performances, and...nah. We'll nod, and smile, and say we were right all along. We knew, Brucie. Oh, we knew.

Andi Thomas - you can follow him on Twitter, you know, and you can read more of his work at SBNation

I have a framed painting in our spare room of Bruce and Robbo jointly lifting the first premiership trophy. I can confirm that Bruce looks no better in watercolours.
- GVMUFC

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