Steve Bruce is the one man who should be a source of unity at Mike Ashley’s fractured club. Right now, he is the greatest cause of division.
Bruce is at loggerheads with supporters, the press and even the club hierarchy, who took aim at him in a barbed statement after he dared to demand more signings on deadline day.
But even more damning for Bruce is that a significant number of his players are angered and frustrated by his management. The club, not for the first time, is hurtling towards crisis. Ashley wants out but cannot sell amid the stalled Saudi takeover.
The mood at Steve Bruce’s (above) Newcastle is toxic after a series of major rows at the club
The Magpies are 19th in the Premier League table and fans are plotting protests at the club
With protests planned and the team 19th in the Premier League table, St James’ Park is in danger of becoming toxic during this evening’s match against Leeds, much like it did when fans turned on Bruce in the 2-2 draw with Southampton last month.
One saving grace for the head coach is that a lot of his most ardent objectors have already walked away.
Club legend Alan Shearer spoke forcefully on last Saturday’s Match of the Day about the problems at Newcastle. Everything he said carried weight. ‘I hate what my club has become,’ he said. ‘It’s been a long time now, it’s a hollow and empty football club. There’s no hope or ambition.’
What Shearer noted was the wider problem, Ashley. What he did not address was the immediate one, Bruce.
Newcastle’s players are said to be ‘p***ed off’ with the training schedule done by Bruce
The relationship with the Newcastle players is said to be tight despite issues with the manager
For while Ashley’s ownership is limiting and neglectful of a club that should be so much more, it does not give Bruce a free pass, especially given a squad not short on talent and good characters.
That is the feeling of many in the camp, who believe a change of manager would be the quickest way to mend relations, inside and outside the club.
A source said: ‘The players, as a group, are tight. They have been together a lot of years.
‘They are good professionals and are determined to turn things around, despite issues with the manager. That could end up keeping him in a job.’
Just this week, the squad turned up expecting to train on Tuesday morning, only for Bruce to call a meeting during which he addressed running statistics. However, some players were not impressed when he cited other teams in the bottom half of the table as good examples.
A source said: ‘The lads couldn’t believe it. They were like, “What is he talking about?” It did not go down well with some.’
For balance, some players felt Bruce spoke the truth.
A feisty training session followed — two senior stars were told to calm down by Bruce — and there was a bad-tempered showdown between assistant manager Graeme Jones and striker Dwight Gayle, with captain Jamaal Lascelles forced to step in.
A source said: ‘There was a head-to-head after a disagreement. Jones said, “It’s always about you, Gayley”. Dwight wasn’t having it and said, “It’s been all about you since you’ve been with England”.
‘This can happen between players, but when management are involved it’s never a good sign. There are some p***ed off players.’
Jones was a popular and much-needed addition last season, but some are now wondering why he has not intervened and changed a 3-5-2 system they feel uses too many players out of position.
There was also a heated inquest in the dressing room following Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Manchester United, with Bruce telling midfielder Isaac Hayden — playing at centre back — that he should have done more to prevent Cristiano Ronaldo running off him to score his second goal.
A source said: ‘Isaac was like, “He’s the fastest player in the country”. He also made the point he’s not a defender. The lads thought the manager’s comments were unfair.’ On top of that, Sportsmail has been told there is resentment at the lack of structure in the training schedule, much like the concerns raised last season over what some felt were excessive days off, leading to an internal investigation.
Striker Dwight Gayle (left) got in a training row with assistant manager Graeme Jones (right)
Bruce was not happy with Isaac Hayden’s (left) performance against Cristiano Ronaldo (right)
Bruce spent four nights in Portugal during the international break and returned last Monday. Sportsmail understands some players reported for training that day expecting a morning session, only to be told Bruce was not arriving back from holiday until the afternoon. The club say this was always the plan.
But a source said: ‘You’ve got players waiting hours at the training ground and some staff didn’t even know what was going on. They also turned up at training the previous Thursday only to be told Bruce had gone on holiday. They just did a gym session. They weren’t impressed.
‘Then on Monday of this week they did not train until tea-time. Players like structure, routine. But they feel like the team’s schedule is designed to suit the manager, not them.’
A source told Sportsmail the players think the training schedule is suited to Bruce not the team
Some also noted a press report this week that goalkeeper Freddie Woodman would be dropped for Friday’s game.
The players know which journalists are close to Bruce and some suspected this had come from the manager before he had told them, much like they did last season when a report stating Karl Darlow would be dropped caused huge irritation behind the scenes.
Bruce, for the record, strongly denies leaking the Darlow information and said on Thursday he was undecided on Friday’s team.
It was during that period in February that Bruce publicly blamed substitute Matt Ritchie for not passing on his instructions before Wolves’ equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
Sportsmail revealed the subsequent training-ground confrontation between the pair after Ritchie had called his manager a coward. Again, the players felt Ritchie had been treated unfairly.
During the row, Bruce said, ‘What you going to do? Tell Lee Charnley (managing director)?’ That was apparently a reference to the coaching staff being suspicious of a senior player (not Ritchie) complaining about them to the hierarchy, including during a ride on Ashley’s helicopter. Relations, then, have been bumpy for a while.
In March, the team thought Bruce would be sacked following a pitiful 3-0 defeat at Brighton. However, reporters were woken at 8am the following day to be told the manager was going nowhere.
Mike Ashley wants to sell the club but cannot find a buyer for the club plunging into crisis
It was, in reality, a message to the players and, on reflection, a rare stroke of genius by Newcastle — you lot can get us out of this mess. They did, winning five of their final eight matches to climb from 17th to 12th in the table.
Bruce had ridden the storm and it was a chance to build a connection with fans and the press. He did not take it. At Old Trafford last weekend he turned on the local newspaper, blaming them for chants from the away end of ‘We want Brucie out’.
His behaviour did not go down well inside the club or with fans who continue to feel antagonised by his weekly comments.
For now, Bruce is protected by two things — a multi-million pound pay-off and Ashley’s indifference. Anyone who keeps the team in the Premier League is good enough for him.
Newcastle are investigating after several Under-23s players were involved in a bar-room brawl
James Harper, the son of academy manager Steve Harper (pictured) was present but was not one of the aggressors
However, the recent club statement suggests annoyance from Ashley and his lieutenant Justin Barnes, both in the wording of it — reminding Bruce he has spent £160million on players — and in that the manager, it is thought, was only told of its existence hours before its release while on holiday in Portugal.
Sportsmail’s story this week of several Under 23s players fighting in a city centre bar with friends of academy manager Steve Harper’s son is not, of course, Bruce’s chief concern.
But the reaction to it among fans is one of embarrassment that their club continues to be caught up in negative headlines.
As long as Ashley and Bruce remain, that shows no sign of changing.