Steve Bruce has orchestrated some pretty impressive results this season.
The Newcastle manager has beaten the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Chris Wilder in the Premier League, with his side currently eight points clear of the drop zone and challenging for a top-10 finish. The Geordie has also secured a first appearance in the FA Cup quarter-finals since 2006.
Yet Bruce has come in for criticism for his tactics, style of play and the club’s struggle for goals.
Below we take a look at whether the 59-year-old deserves credit for the job he’s doing in the North East...
It was always going to be tough replacing Uncle Rafa
The good times at Newcastle United faded years ago, in truth; gone are the days of Champions League football, Alan Shearer and Sir Bobby Robson. The last decade has yielded little but disappointment for the Magpies - including two brief stints in the Championship in 2009-10 and 2016-17 - and regular bottom-half finishes in the Premier League.
A string of underwhelming managers in Tyneside left the club’s diehard support deflated, but when Rafa Benitez surprised the footballing world by answering Mike Ashley’s call to take charge of first-team duties back in March 2016, things started to look up for Newcastle.
Benitez’s CV included some of European football’s heaviest hitters - Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid to name just three - so it came as somewhat of a shock when he was announced as manager at St. James’ Park exactly four years ago to the day.
It was a case of damaged limitations for the Spaniard up in the North East. Drafted in with just a third of the campaign left to play with the club facing relegation, Benitez had his work cut out. Despite drastically improving things on the pitch and overseeing a six-match unbeaten run during the club’s final six games of the 2016-17 season, he could not steer them clear of the drop, and the Magpies were relegated to the second-tier.
Bruce has secured Newcastle a first appearance in the FA Cup fifth round since 2006
Benitez stuck around when nobody really expected him to, and Newcastle bounced straight back up to the top-flight a season later, pipping Brighton to the Championship title on 94 points.
Dwight Gayle scored 23 goals and Sunderland finished bottom of the Premier League; life was good for Newcastle fans after a lengthy period of darkness. Following promotion, a 10th-place finish in the Premier League preceded a 13th-place finish - Benitez had well and truly steadied a rapidly-submerging ship at Newcastle.
The ex-Liverpool boss departed the club last summer upon the expiry of his contract, leaving as a hero to the Magpies’ faithful, with most left frustrated by owner Mike Ashley for not offering him a new deal at all costs. Ashley stated that Benitez had made ‘unfair demands’ with regards to a potential new contract, which left it ‘impossible’ for him to remain in charge of the club. Make of that what you will.
From Benitez to Bruce
So, managerless and deflated (again), Newcastle were on the hunt for a new leader. Uncle Rafa had left for China and he wasn’t looking back, leaving the managerial role at St. James’ Park up in the air once more.
Enter Steve Bruce, greeted with little but a collective sigh from the club’s gallery and widespread football community.
At first, it felt as though Newcastle had replaced a luxurious Italian sports car with a Ford Focus.
Rafa was a proven success at the very top level - his previous two roles prior to taking charge of Newcastle were at Napoli and Real Madrid.
Bruce has had a long career in both the Premier League and Championship but had previously been sacked from three different clubs and relegated twice from the Premier League with Birmingham City and Hull in 2006 and 2015 respectively. His previous club was Sheffield Wednesday, where he spent only 18 games at the helm before leaving to join boyhood club Newcastle.
Fans feared that Bruce was out of touch when it came to the Premier League. After all, his last stint in the top-flight came four years prior and ended in relegation.
The Good and The Bad
On the face of it, Bruce did not seem like the man who would continue Benitez’s legacy and steer Newcastle towards the top-half of the Premier League, more so the man who would resign the club back to the Championship for the third time in eleven years.
Indeed, it is now March and there are just nine league matches left to play before the season is out. Newcastle lie 13th in the table and are just five points shy of achieving that elusive 40 points total, which typically signifies guaranteed survival.
The Magpies also find themselves in the quarter-final of the FA Cup for the first time in 14 years, where they’ll battle Manchester City for a spot in April’s semi-finals at Wembley.
From the outside looking in, everything seems A1 in NE1. When you scratch beneath the surface, though, something still seems a little off; Bruce still hasn’t won over a lot of the club’s support.
It’s easy to understand why - a Ford Focus does not drive like an Italian sports car, despite it still taking you from one destination to the next. Newcastle may be moving forward, trugging ever closer to mid-table security while leaving the bottom-three in their wake, but they’re not doing it in much style.
The Magpies have scored the fewest goals out of any side in the entire division this term (aside from bottom club Norwich, who have also scored just 25).
They spent £40m on a striker last summer - smashing their transfer record in the process - and he’s been a complete letdown. Joelinton’s less-than-impressive one-goal haul from 29 league outings this season has ensured that the goalscoring duties have fallen to other, more unassuming characters in the current Newcastle squad.
Midfielder JonJo Shelvey is the club’s leading goalscorer in the Premier League with only five goals to his name, while defenders Ciaran Clark, Federico Fernandez, Florian Lejune, Fabian Schar and Jetro Williams are all tied on two goals each.
The only attackers to have scored more are Miguel Almiron (six goals) and Allan Saint-Maximum (three goals), but only four of those combined nine goals have fallen in the league, with the remaining five coming in the FA Cup.
Bruce vs Benitez
Aside from all this, though, Newcastle are performing well on the whole and it looks as if Steve Bruce will keep them in the Premier League for another season.
Remarkably, the 59-year-old actually has a better record than his predecessor, Rafa Benitez, at this stage of the campaign.
After 29 games in 2017-18 Benitez had taken 31 points from a possible 87, and the season before his Newcastle side sat in 16th-place on 29 points.
Bruce’s side have taken 35 points from the 87 on offer and lie 13th in the table, just four points behind the top-10, which can be viewed as an extremely positive step in the right direction.
It was always going to take some time, adjusting to life after Rafa Benitez. Many Newcastle fans spent large parts of the Spaniards’ tenure in slight awe that he actually chose to manage their beloved club and, more importantly, decided to stick by them when things got tough. But he’s gone now, and in charge is a man whose name may not carry with it the same weight as what has gone before at St. James’ Park.
Bruce is a local lad, though; this is his dream job and it shows.
He cares for the club and its fans and knows the Premier League better than many. The football on offer may not yet be pulsating, but it’s still early days and things can change quickly in this fascinating game we all love so dearly.
Bruce is one of football’s nice guys, a pragmatic coach whose traditional methods may leave eyebrows raised and jury’s out, but at the moment he is getting the job done and providing Newcastle supporters with some overdue happiness in the form of a desirable league position and a rarely-seen journey in the FA Cup.
Benitez may have set the bar high, but Bruce is proving that he is worthy of carrying the baton forward. There’s nothing wrong with a Ford Focus anyway, is there?