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Opinion

Steve Bruce and the winners of the Puskas award – Magic Moments

2 months ago
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My finest moment on a football pitch occurred over 30 years ago somewhere in the south of England during a forgettable game in an obscure league.

I don’t know what the football dictionary defines as ‘lower league’, but I do know it was much lower than that.

I ought to make it clear that I was an extremely poor footballer. My only asset was a good engine. I could run all day, and when you spend half of the season playing in four inches of mud, as we did then, that can be useful.

But I had no pace, no skill, no vision and no left foot. My right was a textbook example of mediocrity, and my left leg was strictly for standing on. Frequently, it wasn’t particularly good at that.

In this particular fixture, a colleague of mine – Gordon – was in goal for the opposition. We’d had a bit of banter at work about the game, but my role as either right back or defensive midfielder – and my lack of talent – meant that I couldn’t legitimately tease him about my chances of scoring past him.

After 80 minutes of a dour fixture, the ball arrived at my feet. I probably didn’t want it to, and as usual I didn’t know what to do with it. I was 30 yards from Gordon’s goal, with my back to it. I have no idea to this day what I was trying to do, but what I did do – almost certainly by accident – was flick the ball up over my head. As I turned – out of curiosity as much as anything – to see where it was going, I heard a familiar voice from their goal shouting “go on, Dave – hit it!”.

I was no doubt tired, expecting to be clattered (this all took place when tackling from behind was encouraged, and you needed to break someone’s leg to get a yellow card) and somewhat irked by Gordon’s mocking tone, so I swung my left peg at the ball as it dropped. Someone with a physics degree from one of the better universities will have to explain what happened next, but I have never hit a ball as hard and as true in my life. Not even with my ‘good’ foot. It pinged off the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net before my tormentor could move.

It was the last thing I, or anybody else was expecting. I don’t recall much celebrating, just a stunned silence. Everybody there – my team, the opposition, coaches, officials and the three men and two dogs that were watching – knew they had witnessed something so miraculous that it would never be repeated if I played eight hours a day for the rest of my life.

I knew it too, of course, and so it proved to be. The remainder of my footballing life was spent demonstrating the range of mistimed tackles, miscued shots and misplaced passes that came to typify what absolutely no one refers to as the Hat Trick years. But I’d had my moment, and that made everything alright.

I’d like to think that everyone gets a magic moment or two in their lives – something so exceptional that they’ll remember it until the day they die. We don’t get many – I got one – and those that happen in football don’t always go to the best players.

The proof of that can be found in the list of winners of the Puskás Award, which is given to the player who has scored the most aesthetically significant, or “most beautiful”, goal of the calendar year.

Sure, you will find Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Zlatan and James Rodriguez on the list, but also players such as Dániel Zsóri, Mohd Faiz Subri and Hamid Altintop. I might be doing all those players a disservice, but I doubt I’d find their names on any other lists of footballing achievements.

Which brings me to Steve Bruce.

He has been blessed with more exceptional moments in his tenure as Newcastle manager than his meagre talents merit.

He won at Spurs early on, when the unlikely combination of Atsu and Joelinton did the damage, then a teenager who’d never kicked a ball in the Premier League before, got him a win against manure. But his luck didn’t run out then.

Isaac Hayden’s nose and chin got him a 94th minute winner against a dominant Chelsea, then three days later, his fifth-choice centre half scored twice deep into extra time to get a draw against an equally dominant Everton. And one of those goals was an overhead kick!

It’s the sort of thing that would be rejected as too fanciful if you wrote it into a TV drama about football.

He has even had more than his fair share of help from VAR.

The win at Southampton last season came against a team reduced to 10 men by technology, and we got a point at Spurs – who were all over us for 89 minutes – when we were awarded a penalty for handball. The decision – correct at the time – was so contentious they changed the rule the following week. And who can forget Shelvey’s goal at Sheffield United? Pre-VAR, Newcastle get none of those decisions.

On top of all that, there have been enough decent results to have the pundits singing in unison about the great job he is doing. That’s not something I get upset about; Bruce has been in professional football for over 40 years. Most of the pundits will know him and like him. He is an affable fellow, he is always positive when he talks and he doesn’t disrespect anyone. So of course people are kind to him, and that isn’t a crime. I suspect if he were a foreign coach with whom the pundits were not familiar, the knives would be out for him.

But our immediate problem is that he may never get another ‘moment’ as Newcastle manager. I didn’t, and I suspect Messrs Zsóri, Subri and Altintop didn’t either. The true reflection of Steve Bruce’s talents may well be found in the abject performances we witnessed recently against Southampton and Chelsea. They are hardly atypical. For every lucky result and every decent performance there are three or four that are abysmal.

If the football gods really do even things up, as we are told they do, then VAR will surely deal Steve Bruce a few blows before May and opposition teams will get last minute goals from unlikely sources. Other managers will get their moments.

We’ll complain about how unfair it is, and we’ll forget the luck that we’ve had in the past. But it won’t make Steve Bruce a good manager. He isn’t. He has had his moments, he may even get one or two more, but we can’t wait around and hope he does. That would be too risky. We need to replace him with someone who doesn’t rely on miracles.

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