Eight days after getting their club back, it was the statement the Toon Army did not want to see. A post on Newcastle United’s website on Friday afternoon announced a landmark event: Steve Bruce’s 1,000th game in football management.
Bruce, the Newcastle manager and symbol for so many supporters of the worst lows of the Mike Ashley era, was to stay in his job for at least one more match, Sunday’s Premier League face‑off with Spurs. This was not what fans had been hoping for. Indeed, it was not what they had been led to expect.
In the second paragraph of the club statement, there were words from Amanda Staveley, the PCP Capital Partners financier who now holds a 10% stake in the club, a seat on the board and a currently untitled role which will give her a “very hands-on” (her own words) role in its running.
“We had an extremely busy week reviewing the business and getting to know people and it is imperative that we continue to be patient and considered in our approach,” she told the fans in a style reminiscent of a chairman addressing activist shareholders. “Change does not always happen overnight, it demands time and that we follow a carefully considered plan and strategy.”
The implication was that the carefully considered plan and strategy had not involved immediately sacking Bruce and replacing him with everyone from Ralf Rangnick and Brendan Rodgers to Paulo Fonseca, Frank Lampard and Lucien Favre. But that was somehow the message that had got out, via pretty much every national newspaper, to pretty much every Newcastle fan.
Pity Steve Bruce in that situation, a dead man walking still. But then, maybe do not, as the old warrior would not have been so naive as to have failed to see the writing on the wall as soon as talk of a revived takeover bid from the consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bubbled up again.
Bruce is not loved by the Newcastle fans and is certainly not the sort of glamorous face (that broken nose alone …) that may come to symbolise the PIF project. He will leave at some point. But he enjoyed his moment in the pre-Spurs press conference, on Friday showing how unflappable he was, how professional and how gullible the media must have been to believe he would have been out of the door already.
“I hope you guys are getting a slap now from your bosses,” was how he put it. “Whoever it was who was feeding you didn’t get it right.”
So who had been doing the feeding? And were they the same people who, days after reports that Bruce was already walking the plank, had been telling journalists that, actually, PIF thought it a not entirely sensible idea to sack your manager and his backroom staff without having a replacement lined up first?
It seems likely the club’s fans will never know. But whoever was responsible, the flip-flop was an eyebrow-raising piece of miscommunication on week one of a project that has had the eyes of the sporting world upon it.
Expectation management is likely to be a continuing concern for PIF, Staveley and the third party in the deal, Jamie Reuben, a property mogul and former Boris Johnson campaign manager. It will not simply extend to Bruce’s future.
Hopes have been raised by the £300m takeover and those hopes are many and varied. From something as specific as investment in the academy to something as nebulous as restoring local pride, the new owners are seen as a solution to many a problem. They will have to work out how to respond to that.
After the scenes of raucous celebration and Arab cosplay that greeted confirmation of the deal on 7 October, the Newcastle United Supporters Trust wholeheartedly welcomed the new owners. They also presented them with a six-point vision for the Toon. One asked the owners to respect “the traditions and history” of the club. Another that they act in an “open and transparent” fashion. Finally, there was a call to value the club’s supporters “regardless of their age, income, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality or religion”.
If, as many observers imagine, part of the motivation behind this takeover is about changing the image of Saudi Arabia abroad, the supporters’ requests show people already have their own ideas about how that will work in practice. This was also apparent away from the north-east, where Amnesty International continued its campaign to make the Premier League acknowledge human rights concerns as part of its owners and directors test.
Top-flight clubs also convened a meeting with the Premier League to discuss the takeover (it turned out ethical concerns came lower down the agenda than worries over Newcastle sewing up a Champions League spot, according to reports).
Staveley’s busy week will surely be repeated in the next seven days and those that come after it. Lest anyone forget, there is the immediate matter of sorting out a struggling team to take into account. Before January arrives and the prospect of signing Philippe Coutinho on a free can truly become manifest, there are 13 league fixtures to navigate and a relegation battle to avoid.
When Spurs arrive at St James’ Park, however, they will enter a copper-bottomed cauldron of noise. For the first time in two years the “Wor Flags” community will return to the stands, bringing pomp and circumstance and a demand that all wear black and white. The storied old ground will be full and the atmosphere will be quite something. How to keep that going is the £300m question.