There’s no need to ask Steve Bruce how his break has gone this summer. (No, Steve, nobody mentioned bacon.) Again, it has been an underwhelming time to be a Newcastle United fan.
His memorable gaffe after mishearing a reporter in February 2020 remains just about the high point of his Newcastle reign for the majority of Magpies supporters. On the pitch his side have steered just clear enough of the relegation danger so as to be safe with a bit to spare over the past couple of years. But the football itself has bordered on the unwatchable at times.
On Sunday Newcastle begin their 2021-22 Premier League campaign by hosting a West Ham United side who, to the outside world, bear many of the same hallmarks. Their fans are distrusting of the club’s owners. They generally are among the clubs we neutrals just chuck into the mid-table positions as an afterthought when compiling our predicted league table. Nothing much is expected of either.
Even their managers have similar reputations. They are Premier League journeymen, not to be trusted with the big jobs. Since Moyes’ difficult year at Manchester United he has struggled at Real Sociedad, Sunderland and West Ham before returning to the London Stadium for his current spell in charge. Bruce, meanwhile, has largely bounced around mid-to-lower-table outfits such as Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, Sunderland and Hull City, taking in a promotion or two and a relegation here and there before joining his hometown club in 2019.
The difference last year was that Moyes was able to rise above the noise and Bruce really wasn’t. After finishing 16th in 2019-20 in a season which saw Moyes replace Manuel Pellegrini midway through, the Hammers were the surprise package of the division last time around as Moyes led them to sixth place having even threatened to finish in the top four at one point.
Bruce, ideally, needs a similar sort of success story at Newcastle if he is to become respected by both the fanbase and the regular football public. Another season of doing just about enough simply won’t cut it with the north-east supporters. For all the lack of support he gets from Mike Ashley in terms of transfer resources, he gets more than enough grace from the owner thanks to his ability to get on with the job with little feedback. It suits Ashley to have a manager like Bruce, but what is Bruce getting out of it other than time?
Joe Willock’s £25m transfer was confirmed on Friday, but even that was done under duress. Ashley wanted to extend the Arsenal youngster’s loan rather than splash the cash, but the Gunners backed Newcastle into a corner.
“We knew that if Joe was going to become available then we would try to secure him,” Bruce told the press shortly before the announcement that Willock had signed. “Obviously, we explored the loan situation to begin with, because I think that would have suited Joe and it would have certainly suited us. But when that wasn’t possible with Arsenal we’ve had to go and buy him, which is great for us.”
So Newcastle’s marquee summer signing, and the second most expensive recruit in the club’s history, is somebody they ideally only wanted to loan. It says much about the malaise the Magpies are in at the moment amid annual supposed takeovers and constant underachievement on the field.
West Ham might not be the exact blueprint to follow. David Gold and David Sullivan remain troublesome figures in the eyes of the Hammers faithful. But on the pitch under Moyes last term they showed what can be achieved despite the background noise. Additions like Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal proved that positive transfer activity doesn’t have to involve breaking the bank.
A repeat dose this season from the east London side would be an overachievement, and if Newcastle can emulate those returns then Steve Bruce might finally start to win over a few fans. Bottom-half finishes for both appear more likely in truth, and for the Geordies in particular that would be yet another year of everyone’s time and money wasted.