With two wins on the bounce in the Premier League, things are beginning to look up for Newcastle United fans. A battling comeback against Bournemouth secured a 2-1 victory at St. James’ Park after the Magpies beat West Ham at the London Stadium a week earlier. These important results have lifted the club clear of the relegation zone – for the time being.
It’s a strange time to be a Newcastle supporter. Since owner Mike Ashley announced his wishes to sell the club in 2017, there has been a sense that significant improvement is unlikely to take place until a sale goes through.
Survival is once again the main goal for the club this season under the leadership of Steve Bruce. The former Sunderland manager was not exactly a popular choice among the Toon Army after Rafael Benítez departed at the end of last season, and it feels as though the club is going through the motions until the ownership situation is sorted out.
Is Bruce the right man?
It seemed something of a coup when Rafael Benítez was appointed manager towards the end of the 2015-16 season. The team could not avoid relegation that season, but the Spaniard endeared himself to Newcastle fans by guiding them to the Championship title the following season before overseeing two seasons in the top flight. He did all this with a limited budget to spend on players and the constant uncertainty over the club’s ownership lingering overhead like a dark cloud.
Benítez is one of the game’s great tacticians and has managed at the highest level of football, winning the Champions League with Liverpool and the Europa League with Valencia and Chelsea. To go from Benítez to Steve Bruce, a coach who has never managed at an elite level, represented quite a come-down, and it was difficult for fans to reconcile such a drop in managerial class.
That said, Bruce has performed better than most expected, and the two recent wins have shown that this Newcastle team are fighting hard for their manager. Whether he has the ability to mastermind a rise up the league positions is up for debate, but you can’t fault him for effort.
Premier League ambitions
The question is how far Bruce can take Newcastle? It almost feels like he’s a placeholder manager, simply there until the club can be sold and a new regime can take effect and bring Newcastle to another level.
Given Newcastle’s history and status as one of the biggest and most-supported clubs in the country, it seems a shame that greater ambition has not been shown by the owner in recent seasons. With a top-class manager like Benítez at the helm, the club could have challenged for European qualification if greater investment had been made.
As it is, the club seems to be stuck in limbo. This recent patch of good form will no doubt be followed by another run of bad results sooner or later. Newcastle should be a club fighting to finish as high up the Premier League table as possible and challenging for domestic trophies. Sadly, none of that seems likely to happen under Bruce.
More fun in the Championship?
The two seasons spent in the Championship, in 2009-10 and 2016-17, at least offered Newcastle fans the chance to see the team winning most weeks. While relegation is to be avoided at all costs for a club of Newcastle’s size, those two Championship title-winning campaigns were a throwback to the days when the club were used to winning week in, week out.
It is a difficult division to get out of, but on both occasions Newcastle enjoyed fine seasons, living up to their status as favourites in the Championship odds. Many big clubs continue to struggle to escape the second tier, including the likes of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. For Newcastle to be relegated twice but come straight back up is impressive, even if it was not the level fans would like the club to be playing at.
The Championship season under Benítez, in particular, was enjoyable as there were signs that a project was being built. Further investment from Ashley after gaining promotion would have undoubtedly helped Newcastle go from strength to strength as a Premier League force. No such investment was forthcoming, and the ultimate result has been that Benítez has left and Bruce put in charge of a club that sadly seems to be going nowhere fast.