In 28 days, the Premier League season starts. Newcastle United have no manager, no new signings, have lost their two top scorers, have not spoken once this summer and their die-hard fans are fermenting a plan to withdraw support from St James’ Park.
Even by the subterranean standards of the Mike Ashley era at Newcastle, this summer represents a genuine low. Having identified a manager whose credentials are far from convincing for the Premier League in 2019, they now appear to have no plan to wrestle him from a club demanding compensation that represents a significant chunk of the annual wage Rafa Benitez would have been due had he stayed.
If there is a logic to United’s planning to bring Steve Bruce into St James’ Park , their approach to actually coming up with the funds to complete the deal is perplexing. Did they not know the compensation figure before talks began? And if they did, how do they justify any delay given the unrelenting march of time towards the start of the Premier League season? They are right that Wednesday’s demands are steep for a manager like Bruce and a club that prides itself on looking after the bottom line. But what did they expect? The Owls to roll over given how close we are to the start of the season? What on earth are they doing?
This slovenly progress follows a well-worn pattern at a club where getting deals “over the line” was a major bone of contention for Benitez. But this summer, inaction is threatening the club’s most precious asset: it’s Premier League status, and the guaranteed £100million simply for being part of it.
Steve Bruce's record as manager
Surely they realise that they are going up against opponents who have the benefit of weeks of preparation? Opponents spending money and striving to improve while they try simply to keep their heads above water? Every day of the three weeks since Benitez’s departure was revealed has been another day wasted in a summer where United have reverted, depressingly, to type.
None of this is normal for a Premier League club. In a multi-million pound industry, they are a ploughing a lone furrow. The only club yet to recruit and the only side without leadership in the dug out. Whatever plan Lee Charnley and Ashley have cooked up for the post-Benitez era, it appears woefully short of the gargantuan challenge that losing Benitez represented.
And worst of all, they have once again turned supporters into opponents. Having lost the hugely popular Benitez – and the club continue to contend there is more than one side to the story, even if they’ve resisted the temptation to reveal theirs – the onus was on them to communicate the plan from here to fans upset at the loss of an elite coach.
But instead they have opted to stay quiet and their choice to replace Benitez is a man who hasn’t worked in the Premier League since 2015 and faces an almost impossible job to turn around fan perceptions. Add in the £30million sale of Ayoze Perez and the failure to address thudding questions about a takeover process that has stalled once again and there are all of the conditions to make the planned boycott a real lightning rod for discontent against the Ashley regime.
Is it that much of a surprise that even previously moderate fans are now talking of deserting the club? That season tickets are not being renewed? Newcastle’s supporters are their greatest asset: but the club haven’t acted like by failing to explain or acknowledge the hurt in their choice of replacement.
First things first, from conversations with his former players, the appeal of Bruce is because his CV has the following things on it: an ability to man manage and get on well with players, diplomatic skills to work against the backdrop of unrest (as he did at Hull), and a track record of signing and developing young players (Andrew Robertson and Harry Maguire from his time at Hull are key players here).
They say he is no mug. That the players will enjoy playing for him and that having being cornered by their own failings this summer, he is probably the best man for the salvage job that is required. He’ll be backed by signings and we shouldn’t write him off, at least not in the short-term.
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But I’m cynical and the questions about the appointment lie at every turn. This is a Premier League that has leapt forward in the last couple of years – Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Manchester City under Pep Guardiola have dragged the sport into a different arena. Benitez was keeping Newcastle in their slipstream. Can a man who hasn’t been in this league for four years do that?
And can he do it with a squad built by Benitez which was made so much better than the sum of its parts by his tactical acumen?
Try as he might Bruce won’t be able to escape the tag of being Ashley’s man. Scepticism will stalk him as it did his predecessors and it will be his greatest opponent. Steve McClaren, Alan Pardew and John Carver were always portrayed as men grateful for the chance at such a big job and that knowledge meant they wouldn’t question the constraints of the role. Can Bruce honestly, hand on heart, say that he isn’t in the same boat?
Bruce is a decent man and will count on the support of many high-profile figures at the club who will speak on his behalf. He will say the lure of managing Newcastle is the reason, that the squad isn't too bad if you add a couple of strikers. But he should know this before he walks through the door: fans see this as Mike Ashley’s Newcastle, not the club they know and love. If he doesn’t understand that now, he will do soon enough.
Like everyone else who took the job, he’ll back his coaching ability and he’ll know Ashley’s Newcastle do not, as a rule, fire bosses. Sam Allardyce went early on and McClaren was fired when it became impossible to ignore how far out of his depth he was but Pardew was insulated through horrendous results. Even Benitez had a horrible start to last season but was never under threat. He’ll get time even when he’s facing the abyss.
And I’d love to be able to say that if he starts winning games, he can turn it around. But we know from Pardew’s experience that even over-achieving at Ashley’s Newcastle doesn’t buy you the right to start managing on your own terms. A fifth-placed finish in 2012 saw investment frozen; a chance bypassed. Within a year Joe Kinnear was back. McClaren came in with the right intentions but after he was sacked, he admitted that their approach – the one he’d signed up for, that he did not have control over recruitment , did not help him. He said the experience left him "out of love" with the football.
All the while, those managers were the ones who had to answer the questions while Ashley and others – the real architects of the philosophy – stay mute. Bruce may get time and support, but he’ll be the man in the firing line.
This is the job Bruce is accepting: it is not a set of circumstances that I can see ever being conducive to long-term success at Newcastle under Ashley.
Bruce will attempt to manage upwards and try to get more from Ashley but this is an owner who doesn’t understand football and doesn’t really want to. If he did, he would understand why this summer has been so damaging and why anger is so high. If he did understand Newcastle, he'd understand why it is sorry state of affairs for the 19th richest club in the world.
Most of all, he’d understand why he needs to heed the calls of those fans and sell up.