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Opinion

Heads-Down, No-Nonsense, Mindless Football

4 weeks ago
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I have always loved football and I have always loved music.

I played both badly but that never stopped me loving them.

Let me try and describe Newcastle United as if they made music.

If Steve Bruce was a musician, he’d play heads-down, no-nonsense mindless boogie (to quote some old friends of mine). Three chords, 12 bars, verse, verse chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, repeat. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Status Quo have been doing it for fifty years, and have thousands of fans. I can take a bit of the Quo myself. Most of us can.

But if you want Status Quo to play jazz, you are unlikely to get it. Fifty years of muscle memory, habit, and being surrounded by fellow boogie-rockers mean they are always likely to give you what they always have.

Consider what Newcastle United got when they employed Steve Bruce. They hired a man who was given his first management job in 1998, and has been in near-continuous employment since. Now look at who he has managed: Sheff U and Sheff Wed, Huddersfield, Wigan (twice), Palace, Birmingham, Hull, Villa and the mackems.

He has spent 22 years managing teams in the Championship (as it’s now called), or teams anxiously peering over their shoulders in the Premier League.

He has never – to the best of my knowledge – managed a team that had ambitions beyond Premier League survival.

You could argue about how good he has been at it but that’s the job he has done for nearly a quarter of a century. He manages workmanlike teams that look to grind out results and do just enough to keep their heads above water. It’s his stock-in-trade. It’s what he has always done and it’s what he is doing now.

He has never been expected to impose a style of play or a personality on a team, and if you give him a job at this stage in his career, you are – by definition – comfortable with that.

You employ Steve Bruce to play heads-down, no-nonsense mindless football, and Steve Bruce could argue he is doing that well enough at Newcastle United. He is the Status Quo of football management.

Newcastle United fans would like a bit of jazz. Some improvisation. A chord we haven’t heard before. A change of tempo. An unanticipated modulation. A bit of virtuosity. The occasional musical flourish. A moment of genuine flair.

Not all the time, of course. We are not stupid. We know that a musical diet of jazz alone is as tedious as a constant diet of boogie. But we are fed up of the tune we are hearing. It never changes. We crave something different to what we are playing now. Even a few bars of something fresh would be music to our ears.

Steve Bruce can’t play a single note of jazz. Not only that, he’s knocked the music out of the players who can. Almirón, Saint-Maximin, Shelvey and both of the Longstaffs look like they have been asked to play more safely, less adventurously and less like themselves this season.

Bobby Robson could play jazz. Rafa Benitez could play jazz. They’d worked with some of the most talented players in the world, at some of the most prestigious clubs, and they’d won things. Kevin Keegan didn’t know he could play jazz but turned out to be a natural. Robson and Keegan were employed to take the club forward. Benitez wanted to but was told to stick to the 12-bar.

Mike Ashley doesn’t like jazz and sometimes I think he doesn’t care for music at all. He certainly doesn’t want Newcastle United to play anything interesting.

Ashley hired Steve Bruce knowing exactly what he’d play: heads-down, no-nonsense mindless football. And it’s not good enough.

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