Steve Bruce walked into a maelstrom on and off the pitch when he accepted Newcastle’s overtures to become their new head coach.
Rafael Benitez’s replacement faces a battle for hearts and minds as well as the task of rebuilding a squad which has been severely depleted since finishing 13th in last season’s Premier League.
Here, PA stakes a look at the challenges he faces as he walks through the door at St James’ Park.
Almost to a man, the players in the Magpies squad were desperate for Benitez to stay, having seen him improve them as individuals and as a team over his three years or so at the helm. Many spoke publicly about the importance of retaining the Spaniard’s services and his departure will have done little to strengthen the sense of togetherness he fostered during his reign, with Ayoze Perez having already decided the grass at Leicester may well be greener. Bruce needs to persuade the players he has inherited that there is life after Rafa and that they can prosper under his charge.
Perez’s £30million move to the King Power Stadium and Joselu’s switch to Alaves, coupled with the return of loan signings Salomon Rondon, Kenedy and Antonio Barreca to their parent clubs and Mohamed Diame’s release have not only weakened the squad, but the team, with Perez and Rondon having contributed 23 of the club’s 42 Premier League goals last season. Benitez turned his back on a relatively modest summer transfer kitty of around £50million plus whatever else he could generate through sales, and insiders insist the Perez money comes into that category. However, finding two proven strikers will not be cheap and, with only four weeks of the transfer window remaining, Newcastle cannot afford to indulge in the kind of brinkmanship which has characterised recent windows if they are to get the men they want and need.
Benitez remarked pointedly after his first week as manager of Chinese side Dalian Yifang that he had had “more meetings with the chairman, the president and the general manager this week than I had in three years at Newcastle”. Mike Ashley largely delegates the running of his club to others, but his at times frosty relationship with the Spaniard did little to help. Ashley’s desire to sell the business is long-standing, but with no takeover apparently imminent, he needs to give his new manager the wherewithal to protect his investment and a shared clarity over the objectives is key.
Perhaps the biggest early challenge. News of Bruce’s impending appointment was greeted with a blend of fury and disbelief on Tyneside. Whoever got the job was unlikely to be welcomed with open arms given the man he was replacing, and as the likes of Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Roberto Martinez, Patrick Vieira and Steven Gerrard distanced themselves from the vacancy, the pressure increased. Bruce is a Geordie and a boyhood Magpies fan and, while much of the ire will be directed at Ashley and not him, he will need broad shoulders with supporters in militant mood.
Bruce made his name as a manager largely by guiding Birmingham and Hull twice into the top flight and keeping both, as well as Wigan, there for extended periods. However, his spell at Aston Villa proved less profitable – he was sacked in October last year with the club sitting in 12th place in the Sky Bet Championship table and saw successor Dean Smith take up the reins and drag Villa into the Premier League via the play-off final. He lost only three of the 18 games for which he was in charge at Sheffield Wednesday, winning seven and drawing eight, but is it four years since he worked in the top division and has never operated in the top half of it on a consistent basis.