Is Steve Bruce now just Mike Ashley’s human shield?

Date published: Saturday 4th September 2021 8:23 - Ian King

Steve Bruce Newcastle

Steve Bruce has only been the manager of Newcastle United for just over two years, but he might be forgiven for thinking it’s been considerably longer. St James’ Park has been simmering with revolt for years over the ownership of Mike Ashley, and over the last couple of seasons that anger has started flying in every direction, especially after the Premier League blocked the sale of the club to a Saudi Arabia-funded consortium over concerns regarding its legal separation from the Saudi Arabian government.

It certainly hasn’t been a happy time to be a Newcastle United supporter. It’s now been ten years since they finished above halfway up the Premier League and they haven’t got past the quarter-finals of a domestic cup since 2005. But in the infernal maelstrom that this club has become, to what extent has Bruce been a cause and to what extent has he been a symptom of the club’s woes?

He certainly had a tough act to follow. Rafael Benitez couldn’t keep Newcastle in the Premier League in 2016, but he did take them straight back up and kept them there without too many concerns about relegation. After he left the club over disagreements with Ashley in July 2019, Bruce was always going to face an uphill battle as his successor. His appointment was widely considered to be yet another example of the club treading water, and his playing style already considered negative and reductive. Bruce spoke about growing up as a fan of the club upon his appointment, but this alone has been insufficient to placate angry fans, many of whom viewed him as ‘Ashley’s man’ from the outset.

Fast-forward two years, and few opinions on Bruce seem to have changed very much. The new season has started badly for Newcastle, with just a point from their first three league games and elimination from the Carabao Cup against Burnley. Protests against Bruce started after 25 minutes of their second home game against Southampton, and Newcastle’s failure to sign either of their targets – Hamza Choudhury or Boubacar Kamara – on transfer deadline day proved an unsatisfactory finale to a lethargic transfer window. The manager’s deteriorating relationship with Ashley can now be added to a growing list of reasons why this promises to be another winter of discontent on Tyneside.

A large part of the problem Bruce faces with supporters is that he is not Rafael Benitez, whose popularity with fans meant that Ashley became the focal point of the supporters’ unhappiness. But while Bruce wasn’t a popular appointment in the first place, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been useful to Ashley. Since 2019 he has acted as something of a human shield for the owner, absorbing a fair proportion of abuse that might otherwise have been targeted elsewhere.

Having said that, it was Ashley rather than Bruce who was being parsimonious with the club’s purse-strings this summer. Newcastle needed strengthening in key positions but only ended up with Joe Willock making his loan from Arsenal permanent, along with a handful of academy players. As Willock was at St James’ Park last season, it doesn’t look as though much changed at all at the club during the close season.

All of this leaves the whole club in a quandary. Should Bruce leave, it seems unlikely that he’ll be offered another position in the Premier League, and at 60 years of age this may turn out to be his final opportunity at this level. If he leaves of his own accord, he wouldn’t be paid up for the rest of his contract in the same way that he would if sacked.

Mike Ashley also finds himself at a crossroads. Newcastle face Manchester United and Leeds in their next two matches, but their home match against Watford on Sptember 25 is already starting to assume the look of a relegation six-pointer. Should Newcastle be near the relegation places by the end of the month, even the most modest interpretation of Ashley’s tenure at the club – to stay in the Premier League, even if no higher than in 17th place – will start to look at risk.

On Friday afternoon, Newcastle issued a lengthy screed of a statement about their recent transfer window inactivity. On one level, this was surprising for a club that is usually less than communicative with its supporters. But the statement didn’t tell fans anything they didn’t know and was so heavily-laden with buzzwords – sustainability, viability and ambition all make an appearance in the first paragraph alone – as to be essentially meaningless, and crowing about a net spend of £120m since 2019 isn’t quite the win the club presumes, when everyone has seen how ineffectively that money has been spent.

None of this looks like good news for the club’s supporters, of course. The proposed Saudi-funded takeover is nowhere nearer to being approved by the Premier League than it was a year ago, despite heavy protestation from both fans and the club. Ashley remains in place. If Bruce stays, there’s little sign of anything substantial changing at St James’ Park, but if he leaves, there are no guarantees that Ashley will replace him with anyone that fans might actually want.

The result of all of this is that Mike Ashley, Steve Bruce and Newcastle United’s supporters are now stuck in something approaching a Mexican stand-off as they approach their post-break return, and their first opponents back are Manchester United, on what’s anticipated to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s home debut for his new club. Any shots fired – and there will be many – will likely find the battered body of Bruce rather then the man he is is being forced to protect.

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