Injuries, fan unrest, media relations & academy issues: Problems stacking up for under-fire Newcastle United boss Steve Bruce
The season is a month old, and Newcastle United’s campaign is already unravelling.
Steve Bruce’s side, beaten 4-1 by Manchester United at Old Trafford last weekend, is yet to win a game – and the club is 19th in the Premier League.
Problems are mounting up for Bruce, who angered fans by taking a short holiday during the international break.
Here, we look at some of the issues facing Bruce, set to face the media tomorrow, ahead of Friday night’s home game against Leeds United.
Injuries are the most pressing problem for Bruce, who could be without No.9 Callum Wilson for another month.
“We’re not going to put a timescale on it,” said Bruce. “It’s really frustrating for Callum and for us."
Jonjo Shelvey and Ryan Fraser are also sidelined, while Martin Dubravka, the club’s first-choice goalkeeper, is not expected back from foot surgery until late this year.
A number of players, including goalscorer Javier Manquillo, left the field at Old Trafford with what Bruce described as “knocks”.
Bruce said in pre-season that he had “adequate cover” for Wilson, but, in truth, his options up front are inadequate.
Speaking in July, Bruce said: "We’ve got Allan (Saint-Maximin), Joe (Joelinton), (Miguel) Almiron. We’ve got Dwight (Gayle). We’ve got five. How many do you have in a squad of 22 outfield players? When everybody’s right, then I think we’ve got adequate cover up there.”
Most fans, however, always felt that Bruce needed another striker this summer. As it was, he was only allowed to sign one player (Joe Willock) in the last window due to financial constraints.
There have been chants for Bruce to go from fans during the club’s last two games.
Newcastle counter-attacked well for 45 minutes at Old Trafford, but, once the game went away from Bruce’s side, supporters turned on him.
There were more chants of “we want Brucie out” from the 3,000 travelling fans, and those calls will only intensify unless the team can find some form – and start winning games.
Speaking after last month’s 2-2 draw against Southampton, Bruce said: “They’re entitled to their opinion. I find the whole thing very, very disappointing, as anybody would.”
Bruce was spared dissent inside St James’s Park for all but one game last season due to Covid-19 and enforced behind-closed-doors football.
The return of fans this season following the easing of coronavirus restrictions has changed the dynamic – and increased the pressure on Bruce.
Relations between Bruce and the media soured midway through last season during an 11-game winless run.
The club’s head coach – who was unhappy with what he felt was “disrespectful” criticism” – has since taken far fewer questions from written journalists.
Bruce has repeatedly taken aim at reporters, and he hit back at one journalist at Old Trafford after being asked about his brief break in Portugal.
The 60-year-old said: "Do you think I really have to answer that? That's what the fans are asking, are they? We have trained all week, and we were in every day. The preparation was meticulous, let me tell you.”
If Bruce is being given scripts for his press conferences, he isn’t sticking to them.
Bruce has spoken well when he’s been humble, but we haven't heard much humility so far this season. Respect goes both ways.
Bruce has a decision to make on his goalkeeper for the Leeds game, as Karl Darlow is now close to full fitness following his summer hospitalisation with Covid-19.
That said, Bruce may already have made a decision on Freddie Woodman, who hadn’t done much wrong until the weekend’s game. The Mirror yesterday reported that Woodman – who held his hands up after making two errors at Old Trafford – would make way for Darlow.
The dressing room reacted badly last season when news leaked that Darlow would be dropped in favour of No.1 Martin Dubravka after making a mistake in February’s defeat at Old Trafford.
If Woodman is to be dropped, the 24-year-old deserves to hear the news from Bruce first.
Tactics and team selection
Bruce and Graeme Jones, his assistant, found a way to win in the final two months of last season. The club, driven on by loan signing Willock, finished 12th after pulling away from relegation trouble in the final weeks of the campaign.
However, many supporters have questioned the tactics and team selection this term.
Newcastle, hit by injuries, have conceded 12 league goals so far this season. and Bruce was disappointed by the goals his team conceded at Old Trafford.
“We had more than one or two opportunities,” said Bruce. “But I’m disappointed we have given away some poor goals and that has cost us.
The loss of Wilson to a thigh problem, unquestionably, has blunted the team’s attack. Attacking players have been fielded out of position, and defenders have been in an out of the team.
There are also issues at the Academy, which lost 16-year-old midfielder Bobby Clark, one of its brightest talents, to Liverpool this summer.
"We’re disappointed that we lost him, because nobody wants to lose a good player,” said Bruce. "I think, in the end, it was best for all parties to part company.”
The club is yet to recruit a permanent successor for Under-23 Chris Hogg, who left his position last month to become assistant to new MK Dons manager Liam Manning. Gary Caldwell, appointed as Under-23 coach on an interim basis last month, left the club last seek. The former Newcastle and Celtic defender is set to take up a position with Manchester City.
Meanwhile, the club has made no comment on a claim that a group of Academy players were involved in a bar brawl in the city last week.
Former United goalkeeper Steve Harper was appointed as permanent Academy manager in July following a spell in interim charge.