Friday 23 August 2019

This is hardly the Newcastle homecoming Steve Bruce imagined

Newcastle United boss Steve Bruce will be keen to get off to a winning start against Arsenal today. Photo: Getty
Newcastle United boss Steve Bruce will be keen to get off to a winning start against Arsenal today. Photo: Getty

Jonathan Wilson

Once upon a time, perhaps many years ago when he was still a teenager living in Walker, east of the centre of Newcastle, Steve Bruce found a mysterious old lamp. It was dusty and so he gave it a polish and, as he rubbed it, there was a flash and a bang and a puff of smoke. A great figure billowed up, looming over the young midfielder - as he then was. "Steve," the spirit intoned, "you have freed me from the lamp and for this I will grant you whatever you desire."

"Well," said the young Bruce, his delivery folksy even then, "what I'd really like is a contract with Newcastle United."

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"And so shall it be," the genie said and, with that, he was gone.

The genie has had to work hard to fulfil his promise. This afternoon against Arsenal, at the age of 58, Bruce will finally be involved with Newcastle in a competitive fixture. The conditions, though, are extraordinarily difficult, with the fans in near revolt, with many pining for his predecessor and the centre-forward who has followed him to China, threatening boycotts and regarding Bruce in some way as an agent of Mike Ashley's despised ownership.

For a long time, Newcastle have been less Aladdin than Allardyce.

Bruce played for Wallsend Boys, the famous club that produced players such as Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer. As many others found, though, St James's Park may have been only six miles away, but the road there was circuitous.

Bruce had trials at Newcastle but was turned down. Sunderland, Derby and Southport also said no and he was about to sign on as an apprentice at the Swan Hunter shipyard when Gillingham offered him a final chance. Within a year he had been converted into a centre-back and yet still finished the 1978 79 season as the reserve team's top scorer.

Two composed performances in 0-0 draws against Everton in the FA Cup in 1984 confirmed Bruce's talent. Arthur Cox, the Newcastle manager, rang his Gillingham counterpart, Keith Peacock, to ask if Bruce might be interested in a return home. Peacock didn't pass on the call. Perhaps Cox would have pushed his interest further but that summer he stood down and Bruce went to Norwich.

Three years later Bruce had a meeting with the Newcastle manager Willie McFaul. Again, though, the move to Tyneside never came to pass and Bruce ended up going to Manchester United.

As a manager, Bruce quickly gained a reputation for not being shy of walking out on a job but still, although he was repeatedly linked to the Newcastle role, the opportunity never quite came at the right time.

When he did return to the north east it was with Sunderland in 2009, a spell that ended dismally two years later, something he blamed on his Newcastle affiliations.

This time, when the offer came, there was no saying no, even though his name was far from top of the list. Sheffield Wednesday, understandably, feel aggrieved at Bruce abandoning them.

But of more immediate concern to Bruce is the fact that, for all he is a local hero returning home, a favourite trope of Geordie myth from Shearer to Jimmy Nail in Spender, he feels not just an underwhelming appointment but an appeaser. The mood of the 16,000 at last weekend's friendly win over Saint-Étienne was largely benign and the signings of Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin have soothed frustration to an extent, but nobody should think that will long endure if performances are poor or results bad. Localness will afford him some sympathy, but only some.

In that regard, Bruce is part of a surprising trend. After years of encroaching technocracy, Newcastle join Manchester United and Chelsea in beginning the season with a manager whose chief qualification appears to be that he 'knows the club' - albeit that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard's knowledge comes from having contributed to periods of extraordinary success as players, while Bruce's is limited to ducking under the Gallowgate turnstiles as a lad. When all else fails, perhaps what remains for boards after cycling though a catalogue of managers, is a base appeal to football's love of narrative, with at least the short-term benefit that fans won't turn immediately on one of their own.

Who knows how Bruce dreamed of his homecoming. Perhaps he saw a rapturous St James's saluting the returning hero, Mark Knopfler playing in the background, as he prepared to lead an eager squad of untapped talent to Newcastle's first trophy in half a century. But presumably not like this, with a hostile fanbase at odds with the club's owner. And even then, just as the limelight has fallen on him, he's been barged out of it, a ponytail flapping across his face, by the return of Andy Carroll, who actually played for the club. It feels the genie has rather let Bruce down.

Or perhaps this is the way it was always meant to be: as Brendan Fraser found in Bedazzled, wish-granting spirits can have a cruelly mischievous streak.

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