Steve Bruce's Sunderland past is being slowly forgotten

Jonathan Woodgate had a bit to say about “keyboard warriors” at the weekend.
Steve Bruce.Steve Bruce.
Steve Bruce.

Woodgate contrasted the online criticism he was facing as Middlesbrough manager with the backing he and his team got from travelling fans away to Queens Park Rangers.

Speaking outside the dressing room at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, Woodgate said: “These are the real fans. How do you know who they are on social media? They could be Newcastle fans, Sunderland fans, Hartlepool fans. We don't know who they are, do we? Keyboard warriors. These are the proper people.”

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Woodgate, however, has got off lightly compared to Steve Bruce, his counterpart at Newcastle United.

Bruce isn’t on social media, though he was aware of the sentiment online following his appointment as Rafa Benitez’s successor at St James’s Park. His previous affiliation with Sunderland didn’t help.

Certainly, his son Alex, now playing for Kilmarnock, has followed some of what has been said about Bruce – and he even hit back at one journalist on Twitter.

Bruce – who riled some Newcastle fans during his time as Sunderland manager – pleaded with supporters to give him a chance in the summer.

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“My message would be ‘yes, I’m no Rafa Benitez, but just give me a chance, and see how we get on’,” said Corbridge-born Bruce, a boyhood United fan who was rejected by the club as a schoolboy. “I’ll always be judged on results, but I’ll do my utmost to try and win them round. I understand that I won’t be, for the vast majority, their cup of tea.”

Did the online vitriol directed at Bruce accurately reflect the mood on Tyneside? Probably not, though Tyneside, unquestionably, was underwhelmed by the appointment of the 58-year-old as Rafa Benitez’s successor in July.

And early-season away defeats to Norwich City and Leicester City didn’t lift the mood among fans.

That said, the club’s supporters didn’t turn on Bruce at the King Power Stadium following what he admitted was an “embarrassing” 5-0 defeat to Leicester, a team which is now second in the Premier League table.

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It was a bad day for the club, and a particularly bad day for Bruce, who, as at Carrow Road, looked shell-shocked by what he had seen from a team which had been so hard to beat under Benitez.

“I can’t defend that unfortunately,” said Bruce, who guided Sunderland to creditable 10th and 13th-placed finishes in the Premier League, like Benitez did with Newcastle, during his time at the Stadium of Light.

“It’s as bad an afternoon as I can remember. The whole team, the whole lot of them, were nowhere near what is required to make a fist of it in the Premier League.”

A lot has happened since that game, and most of it has been good. They’ve started to make a good fist of it. Bruce abandoned his plans for a more attacking style of play and went back to basics, setting his team up to be more defensive and play on the counter-attack.

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It worked, and the result, paradoxically, has been a more entertaining and attacking team than the one Bruce envisaged with two up front early in the season.

Newcastle, driven up the pitch by the pace of Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron, have taken 10 points from a possible team and are 11th in the Premier League table. They’re improving.

But what about Bruce? He knew only results would change things for him. And maybe, just maybe, things are slowly changing for Bruce off the pitch following an improvement on the field.

Speaking ahead of last weekend’s 2-1 win over Bournemouth, Bruce said: “I’ve said from day one that the only thing that gives you space is the results and performance. The more results you get, the more the fight becomes a bit easier. The supporters can see the direction we’re trying to go in. We have to keep it going.”

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Bruce has a little bit more breathing space, but will his name ever be sung at St James’s Park?

Asked if he hoped to hear his name sung by fans back in July, Bruce said: “Maybe one day, although that’s not so important to me. What’s important is them getting behind the team like they’ve always done. I think that’ll never change.

“And maybe, if they sing my name one day, that’ll be a sign that we’ve done OK.”

We’re not there yet, and the attendance for the Bournemouth game told its own story. The club’s average home attendance is 5,000 down so far this season, and many fans won’t be back until Mike Ashley has sold up. Ashley, however, is seemingly no nearer to finding a buyer willing to pay £300million for the Premier League club.

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Ashley remains unpopular on Tyneside, and Bruce, wistey, has learned to be more careful with what he says with respect to protests and the club’s owner.

If Saint-Maximin and Almiron can keep getting people off their seats at St James’s Park, then attendances will improve, even with Ashley still as owner.

The keyboard warriors, as Woodgate calls them, have quietened. Bruce has seemingly started to change some fans' minds on Tyneside – and bookmakers have lengthened the odds for him being the next Premier League manager to lose his job to 40/1.

But he’s only as good as his next result – for now.