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A final reflection on Steve Bruce’s time at Aston Villa

For some reason - Steve Bruce is off to Newcastle United. Toon fans should be wary.

Lincoln City v Sheffield Wednesday - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Yesterday Steve Bruce handed in his resignation letter to his employers, Sheffield Wednesday, after only taking charge of his first game for the club in February of this year.

It’s looking like, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he’ll be the next manager of Newcastle United, a story that has not gone down well with the Geordie faithful. Some outlets are even speculating that the Toon are paying the Owls up to £4 million for his services. Bruce is a man who was sacked by Aston Villa after failing to guide us to the promised land then started the following campaign poorly. He steadied the ship at Hillsborough upon his appointment there but they finished in an unremarkable position of 12th.

So does he deserve the Newcastle job? A man that has been loved and criticised in equal measure throughout his managerial career. Let’s take a look back at his time at Villa Park.

Sky Sports News recently reported that there were riots outside of Villa Park when he was appointed. This is simply not true and such comments have since been rescinded by the reporter in question. In truth, most supporters were happy with Bruce coming in. He had a proven track record, was respected by nearly all in the game and had been promoted more than any other manager before him. This was nothing like the Alex McLeish appointment - a man who’d just relegated our arch-rivals (and we were stupid enough to pay them £3m to take him off their hands). A man who once finished 3rd in a two horse race in Scotland! That decision still angers and baffles Villa fans to this day. Anyway, I digress.

Bruce was given the role of Villa manager on the 12th October 2016 after Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking, which was the consequence of a dreadful start to life in the Championship. Bruce inherited a squad that was more than capable of getting out of this division, some genuine Premier League quality on the books mixed in with expensive signings. As any manager will testify, it takes an entire season and a transfer window to get what they want; total command of the job in hand.

Things started well; a run of seven games unbeaten, including four wins - one of which was our first away win in 14 months - propelled Villa up the table. We stood a real chance of hunting down the teams holding the playoff positions. But things started to unravel in the new year, picking up just the solitary point from 24 possible, a truly shocking return. Even the expensive acquisition of Scott Hogan from Brentford couldn’t change our fortunes. There were even murmurs then of whether he was up to the task. Villa picked up form again in February but it was too late by then to muster up any sort of challenge, leaving us finishing in a very disappointing 13th position in our inaugural Championship season. That season was a write-off, give Bruce a full year and see what he could do was the mantra echoed by most.

The following transfer window saw us take a far more pragmatic approach. Perhaps it was an effort to comply with Financial Fair Play after Di Matteo’s senseless spending. Bringing in the likes of Glenn Whelan, John Terry, Chris Samba and Ahmed El Mohamady for a combined £3m provided experience and proven quality. Add to that loaning Sam Johnstone, Josh Onomah and Robert Snodgrass from Premier League clubs, we’d improved on paper. Bruce oversaw the departures of some of the dead-wood too with the likes of Libor Kozak, Carlos Sanchez and Leandro Bacuna all departing. A sensible summer overall, we simply couldn’t afford to splash the cash with no guarantee of promotion twice in a row.

Things didn’t go to plan from the off that season, picking up one point in our opening three games. A dreadful performance at Cardiff underlined just how quickly this new team had to galvanize. Conor Hourihane went some way to helping kick-start our season with a blistering hat-trick to sweep Norwich aside. That win launched an eight game unbeaten streak, supplying plenty of hope for a more fruitful promotion push this time around. A stumbling block appeared in the shape of a trip to Molineux; they totally outclassed us that day and showed that there was still a gulf that we had to somehow abridge. Following that lesson, only one more loss until the start of December kept us on track in the race.

I’m not sure how but we had a mini collapse which would cost us dearly. A run of five winless games saw us fall off the leading pack, meaning we had to put a hot streak together… and quickly! That’s exactly what we did just before the turn of 2018 as Robert Snodgrass fired in the winner away to Middlesbrough to commence seven wins on the spin. We were in attack formation bagging goals galore. A pivotal game, came at Craven Cottage as we fell to a superior Fulham team 2-0 which really knocked us. We stuttered unconvincingly towards the finish line but managed to secure 4th place and, more importantly, a playoff berth.

Another trip to the Riverside was on the cards in our playoff semi-final. Confidence was hardly at an all time high after a defeat at Millwall on the final day of the regular season. But a resolute and resilient display saw us run out 1-0 victors to take home an advantage. A rather dour affair on the field followed in the second leg as we played out a 0-0 stalemate, but this result sparked scenes of jubilation from the fans. A pitch invasion saw Jack Grealish and John Terry mobbed by the elated supporters fuelled by the prospect of a Wembley trip. I remember shaking my head in the stands thinking “We’re not promoted yet”.

The day that Villa fans were craving had finally arrived. 90 minutes from a glorious return to the promised land, where many felt we belong. The bookmakers made us underdogs and rightly so, Fulham were on an incredible spell in 2018. Villa’s age and wisdom versus Fulham’s youth and dynamism proved an interesting affair. The Whites, however, broke claret and blue hearts that day and resigned us to another season us Championship football. Many saw that as a failure on Steve Bruce’s part but it could’ve been oh so different had a stamp on Jack Grealish been spotted - we may well have been lauding Bruce as the saviour of Aston Villa.

Mere days after the final, financial crisis was looming as our owner at the time couldn’t access funds in Hong Kong and we were paying staggering running costs. To be fair to Bruce, he told the media as it was: that we had to sell our star players and administration was a real threat. The melee lasted months until new wealthy owners arrived and purchased majority shares in the club, relieving us of fiscal difficulties. All of those distractions meant that Bruce didn’t have long to secure any new signings, but managed to scout out a diamond in John McGinn for the snip price of £2.5m. Luring Tammy Abraham to Aston also proved vital for the upcoming campaign.

After back to back wins to open the new campaign, things started to spiral out of control. One win from our next nine matches saw Bruce lose his job, pleasing many fans who were calling for his head. What summed up Bruce’s tenure at Villa was his final game in charge: a 3-3 home draw with Preston which saw us 2-0 up, 3-2 down and even included Glenn Whelan missing a stoppage time penalty to win 4-3. Plenty of ups and downs. A rollercoaster.

At this point I have to mention that during the 2017/18 season, Steve Bruce lost both of his parents in what I can only imagine would’ve been excruciating painful and the most difficult period of his life. Football really is secondary to the more important things in life but he continued with his job with such courage and bravery, putting on a strong face for the sake of others. A truly selfless act that shouldn’t be forgotten. We owe him a debt of gratitude and should all respect him for that.

Back to the football, people have very mixed opinions of Bruce’s playing style. I vividly remember rolling my eyes in unison with my friend, whom I often go to away games with, as we saw the team sheet at Derby and that Bruce had lined us up to play a genuine 4-6-0 formation. If you recall Spain mastering this at Euro 2012, you’ll know it can be done. But not by Steve Bruce team. In fact, not by Aston Villa. Countless severely unhappy travellers in the away end that day as we went down 2-0 at Pride Park. Boos rung around as we almost accepted defeat from kickoff. It’s not the only time I was baffled by a Bruce selection either; Rotherham away and Wigan away consecutively back in 2017 saw us line up with four full-backs on the pitch, as well as two centre backs. With all due respect, these teams were near the foot of the division and we were positioned as if it were a trip to Bayern Munich. Now, I know what Bruce was thinking - stay in the game and keep it scoreless until late so we can snatch the win - which we did, in fact, in both games. But many exasperated fans expect better of this team. We should be taking the game to teams of that ilk, not shutting up shop, begging off scraps. One of the many frustrations the ex-United defender provided.

Maybe I’m just a typical modern fan whose eyes light up when watching Pep Guardiola’s creative training sessions in the Amazon docu-series All or Nothing, but I want to see my team play attractive football. Don’t we pay our money to be entertained? I get that at 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge is a success for so called smaller clubs, but there are progressive managers out there who aim to outscore the opposition, rather than the sole aim being to keep a clean sheet. Thankfully, Dean Smith fell into our lap at just the right time and we’ve been royally embracing match days since.

A word of warning to Newcastle fans: don’t get your hopes up for scintillating displays any time soon. That simply isn’t Bruce’s way. He has his positives and can keep you in a game for most of the tie but it won’t be easy on the eyes. A lovely guy yet his defensive mind-set is outdated.