Try as he might, Steve Bruce is almost certainly never going to be loved as much as Rafael Benitez at Newcastle United. He will be scratching his head this week, having already made reference to the fact he doesn’t get the credit his predecessor did on Tyneside; after beating West Ham 3-2 at the London Stadium, Newcastle now have a four-point gap to the relegation zone, and an opportunity to head into the final international break of 2019 in a very solid position in the Premier League with a win over Bournemouth. Yet, Bruce hasn’t seen a shift in the consensus from supporters who still believe he is the wrong man and, while knowing it will never happen, still want to see Benitez back in the St James’ Park hotseat.
Bruce has said throughout his four-month reign that he has his eyes open; he knows what he let himself in for. On the pitch, that meant a challenge to keep a supposedly limited squad in the top flight; a team recovering from a summer of uncertainty in both the dugout and the boardroom that had been left to pick up the pieces after a very rushed few weeks before the action kicked off. Off it, that meant replacing the man many saw as the people’s champion at Newcastle; Benitez had not only set the bar for Bruce from a tactical standpoint, but also with his management of the fanbase. He pushed the boundaries, looked for better at every turn and made everyone believe he could deliver it, while also being very realistic about the prospects with owner Mike Ashley in charge. Without ever stepping out of line or being unprofessional, Benitez led a movement and gave the city its club back in many ways; like Kevin Keegan, like Sir Bobby Robson.
That is why his level of adulation is pretty much unattainable for Bruce. Alan Shearer told him not to take the job because working for Ashley would prove frustrating and ultimately damaging; having worked for the Allam family at Hull City, Bruce will have known what he was getting himself in to. In any situation, the Newcastle job was the best he could hope for; he hadn’t worked in the Premier League for four years and were it not for Ashley, he wouldn’t ever again. It was the same for Alan Pardew and the same for Steve McClaren; instantly, he was on a different path to Benitez, a man everyone knew they were lucky to have and knew himself he could thrive elsewhere.
For all the negativity and criticism, both of his appointment and performance so far, there is an opportunity for Bruce. He’ll never bite the hand that feeds him, but supporters understand, to a degree, that the bigger issue is Ashley, and all too often the finger of blame has been pointed at the wrong target. Comparing Bruce to Benitez isn’t right because the latter was an anomaly, someone with the supreme talents who actually approached Newcastle and made an offer that even Ashley couldn’t refuse. But when searching for managers, he, or his Managing Director Lee Charnley, will look for someone who will accept the post with minimal fuss; actual credentials are secondary. As a result, there was little to get the fans excited.
Part of the reason Benitez’s name has refused to go away is because Bruce has referenced him; at full time on Saturday, he spoke about getting the same respect as the man he replaced. It is not supporters who won’t move on, it is the club; the reality is that things are different for the pair of them. Benitez offered more than just a team that succeeded, he brought hope of a future without conflict for supporters; Bruce, by extension, is part of that conflict, and the only way he can gain respect is to stop asking for it.
There is a ceiling in place at Newcastle and a ceiling in place for Bruce, but while he was intensely disliked by a majority of supporters by the end of his time, Pardew unearthed the path Bruce must follow. The former West Ham boss played a part in some good times at Newcastle, finishing fifth in the Premier League and guiding them to a quarter final in the Europa League. There was an 18-month spell when the rumblings of discontent which met his arrival and returned before his departure died down; because of results.
So far, good results this season, such as against Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United, have fallen flat in the weeks that followed; they felt like a flash in the pan, while slower, poorer performances appeared to be the norm. Last week was hardly perfect; their were missed chances and a near collapse in the second half that made the afternoon needlessly nervy, but it was the best Newcastle have played under Bruce, as the man himself suggested. Everything was controlled and the first half saw the kind of display that could easily be recreated on Saturday against Eddie Howe’s men, who will leave space to exploit on the counter attack.
If Newcastle can continue to push on in a similar vein and get some good results heading into the winter, Bruce will gain more popularity in the stands. He’ll never galvanise support like his predecessor, but the circumstances are completely separate; even victories have been met with scepticism so far this season, because supporters know what is coming around the corner and all to often have been proven correct. An attacking display at the weekend, with a win to boot, could see a change in how he is perceived; perhaps then will the pressure and conditions that follow results dissipate. Love and adulation may be out of the question, but acceptance certainly isn’t.