If you’d been told at the start of the season that six Premier League managers had left their posts come January 2020, you would no doubt have assumed that Steve Bruce was one of the victims.
After all, reaction to Newcastle’s decision to appoint Bruce as Rafa Benitez’s replacement in the summer was lukewarm at best, and toxic at worst. He certainly wasn’t the glamour name many fans had hoped for.
A number of bookmakers even swiftly installed the Englishman as the one of the early favourites for the chop - he's now out at 40/1 - while Newcastle’s odds for relegation were subsequently whittled down.
Yet, while it certainly can’t be said that Bruce has been an absolute revelation at St James’ Park, the man-manager has been somewhat of a steady success, especially from a results perspective.
A return of 30 points from 24 league matches is six points better off than at the same stage last season, and seven more than the 2017/18 campaign.
At the time of writing Bruce’s troops are only four points off Man Utd in 5th, a club he orchestrated a home win over, while he’s also toppled the London duo of Tottenham and Chelsea - last season Newcastle registered zero points from six games against the three clubs.
It’s not out of the question that under Bruce, Newcastle could record their highest Premier League finish since Alan Pardew led the club to 5th in 2012.
And while Newcastle will be disappointed at their failure to beat Oxford over the weekend, Bruce will still fancy his chances of becoming the first Newcastle manager to feature in the FA Cup fifth round since Glenn Roeder back in 2006 when Alan Shearer was still playing for the Magpies.
Now, we’re by no means suggesting that Bruce is a superior manager to Benitez, but he does deserve credit for the way he has conducted himself in difficult circumstances. And while injuries are inevitable, he has been somewhat unlucky with the amount of absentees this season.
But Bruce does have reason to be anxious, as Benitez is now being linked with a shock return to his former stomping ground...
Rafa Benitez is being linked with a shock return to the Toon
The Sun reports that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is interested in buying Newcastle for £340m, and if successful, he wants to bring Benitez back to the Toon.
Benitez quit his post last summer after three years in charge. The Spaniard swiftly ventured over to China to take charge of Dalian Yifang, who have since finished the 2019 season 9th in the table, with Rafa winning seven and losing seven of his 17 league and cup fixtures.
The reason Benitez left Newcastle was clear: Mike Ashley.
He’s since been linked with a return to the Premier League with the likes of Arsenal, Everton and West Ham. "Obviously in the future I would like to come back to Premier League, but at the moment I must be very clear, there is no chance I will come back now,” he revealed to Monday Night Football last month.
With Newcastle’s takeover talks on-going and Benitez preparing for next month’s new Chinese Super League season, a move back to Newcastle before the close of the summer appears somewhat remote.
However, it will be interesting to see how the takeover situation has developed come the summer. Although even then a move could be out of the question given that Benitez pockets £12m-a-year in China, so his buyout clause would be colossal - last month the Mail quoted a figure of £20m, which would be a world record fee for a manager.
But should an approach materialise the chance to return to Newcastle, who by this point may have cash to splash, could prove very tempting for the Spaniard, who is adored on Tyneside.
Paddy Power have quoted us a price of 12/1 for Benitez to replace Bruce at Newcastle before the end of the 2020/21 season.
For the time being Bruce should be applauded for his efforts to date, and with the Premier League more unpredictable than ever this season the Geordie has an ideal chance to lead his side to a rare top-half of the season finish, while a voyage through to the latter stages of the FA Cup could well be on the cards. Should he continue to swat away the critics, a departure would be incredibly unjust.