There’s a certain cycle that usually completes itself during every manager’s time at a club. First, there’s the excitement and optimism that follows an appointment. The true belief that this new man can bring the fortunes no one before him has. Then there’s the inevitable ups and downs that come with being involved in football. And, usually, all this is followed by a swift loss of form that results in pressure building on the gaffer, sometimes from media, sometimes from fans and sometimes from both. This most often ends with the man who once promised so much leaving with his metaphorical tale between his legs, head hung in shame and with the dreams of thousands of fans in tatters, ready to be pieced together by the next poor guy to agree to jump on the merry-go-round.
You’ll notice I said that that this cycle is common to EVERY manager’s time at a club but look a little closer and you’ll find that’s not strictly true. There are special group of managers who seem to evade this last part of the cycle or, at the very least, manage to escape it unscathed and with reputation intact. Such managers manage to find themselves in perennial employment, despite not achieving much at the multitude of clubs at which they take the helm. This is something that rankles somewhat with me, as displayed by the fact I have already referred to this particular group of gaffers briefly in my first piece for The Boot Room back in February, while reviewing Paul Lambert’s disastrous spell in charge at Aston Villa.
So why raise this particular bug bear of mine once again? Well, simply because, like everything in football, it appears history is repeating itself. With two relegation spots from the Premier League secured by Queens Park Rangers and Burnley over the weekend, thoughts have turned to who will fill the final available place in the drop zone. Ask anyone to name the clubs in contention for the spot and, no doubt, one of the first that will come to mind is Newcastle United. The circus that is the Sports Direct Arena has had its’ fair share of coverage in the media of late, with many believing the Toon Army are all but sure to drop down to the Championship for the second time in recent years. Others will name Leicester City and Sunderland as potential candidates for the drop with their names often being included in coverage of the on-going relegation battle. Of course, all three of the clubs mentioned have had off-field issues with their high-profile managers to blame for much of their media coverage but, never-the-less, they remain a part of the conversation and their gaffers have been put under a considerable amount of pressure as a result, with Gus Poyet recently succumbing and losing his post in charge of Sunderland. But who is no one talking about? Who is as embroiled in this battle to stay up as anyone, despite appearing to be in it in such an ‘under the radar’ manner? The answer? Hull City and their number 1 Steve Bruce.
Despite an apparent lack of coverage or interest from the media, Bruce has led Hull City into the heart of the relegation battle. They currently sit in 18th place in the league, two points behind Newcastle United, having lost four of their last 6 matches. What’s more concerning for the Tigers is the fact that their remaining two games are against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, meaning on current form, it’s hard to see where any more points are likely to be won.
Bruce’s reputation as one of the ‘nice guys’ in the game may go some way to explaining why he seems to get such an easy ride. While managers like Leicester City’s Nigel Pearson have had their every move scrutinised all season long, it seems Bruce has escaped such scrutiny. Looking back at his managerial career, which started in 1998 with Sheffield United, it’s hard to find the kind of achievements which would afford him some slack for any current misfortunes. He has notably achieved promotion to the Premier League three times, twice with Birmingham City (2002 and 2007) and Hull City (2013) but such achievements are off-set by events such as relegation with Birmingham in 2006 and conspiring to lose a promotion play-off game as manager of Wigan Athletic in 2001, as they chased promotion from the then Second Division.
Going back to those promotions, it should be noted that these achievements were made with significant financial backing. This is something Bruce is no stranger to and relies on heavily, it would seem. Despite failing to yet provide any notable results, Bruce has spent a staggering £44 million on players this season alone and, having recouped only £18 million in player sales in the same period, he has spent more in terms of net spend than the likes of Chelsea, Stoke, Aston Villa, QPR, Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur, to name but a few. With figures like that, it’s difficult to understand how Bruce has failed to build a squad that can consolidate Hull’s place in the Premier League in the same way the likes of West Brom and West Ham have managed to this season.
Another common misnomer with Bruce is the already-referred-to reputation he has as a ‘nice guy’ of football. Bruce is no stranger to conflict and controversy. His departures from previous clubs have been, if stories are to be believed, messy at best. Disputes with board members and various arguments played out in the public forum are all alleged to have happened and involved Bruce.
I must state at this juncture that I have no personal agenda with Steve Bruce. He remains one of the best defenders in Premier League history, forming a formidable partnership with Gary Pallister during a trophy laden spell at the heart of the Manchester United defence. I simply struggle to find evidence that Bruce is of the managerial quality that seems to somewhat exempt him from the same level of criticism as some of his peers – the kind of quality that has led Hull City to recently extend his contract by 3 years. That kind of contract in this day and age shows a lot of faith in Bruce by the board – faith that I hope, for the sake of Tigers fans, pays off.