Managers will always divide supporters. Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce and Valérien Ismaël were three of the most divisive characters to take charge of Albion in recent years, but even the generally popular Darren Moore and Slaven Bilić had plenty of detractors. The latest incumbent, Steve Bruce, is another that attracts both positive and negative opinions, although those who are against him are unsurprisingly the loudest on social media.
For Bruce, however, it is not just the “Twitterati” who are his critics, with George and Ali from the Not The Top 20 podcast (NTT20) predicting the Baggies to finish sixth this season, but that they would see them finishing higher were he not in charge.
For the NTT20, their lack of belief stems from Bruce’s spell at Aston Villa, although they do accept that his record in the second tier was very good up to that point. His time at Newcastle United has tainted others’ views, although I would contest that their performance during that period was reasonable given the financial constraints under which the club was operating for most of his time in charge, albeit the football was evidently not to the fans’ liking. Nevertheless, whatever the situation, the personal vitriol he and his family received from some Newcastle fans was unacceptable.
Furthermore, his failure to turn around Albion’s fortunes last season is another reason to be dissatisfied, but some seem to be hoping for him to fail, and that his failure would be the only way that the Baggies could ultimately succeed. This is a view that I find difficult to understand.
In no way do I think that Bruce’s tenure should be long term but I fully understood and supported the decision to keep him in place at the end of the campaign. I outlined my reasoning in my opinion piece in April, with my main arguments being his record of four promotions to the Premier League and that, with a major rebuild required this summer, any new manager would need time to assess the squad, something that Bruce had already done.
Furthermore, an incoming boss would have expected to sign off on any new players and John Swift, unable to play for Reading due to injury, was at the Hawthorns watching Albion beat Barnsley on the last day of last season having already agreed in principle to make the move. Would he have done that if the identity of the new manager was unknown?
With the rebuild under way, none of his critics are giving him any credit for the new additions to the squad this summer, and maybe it was all just about the money that Albion could offer for Jed Wallace and John Swift. However, they were the club’s top targets, that Bruce will have had a part in identifying, and that they have been integrated into the squad quickly and made an obvious difference to the team’s attacking prowess in pre-season is entirely down to Bruce and his coaching team.
Let’s also not forget that the squad rebuild remains a work in progress with several weeks remaining until the window closes – I would expect to see one or two more additions, probably on loan, and possible one or two on their way out as well. Perhaps it is to best to judge what Bruce, Gourlay and the recruitment team have done once the window is closed.
At that point, we will have an early idea of what this team, with a Bruce-inspired pre-season, is capable of as we will be seven games into the new campaign. The good early moves in the window mean that Swift and Wallace will have had time to show what they can do. Of course, had Bruce not been kept on, the odds are that neither of those players would have joined, and certainly not as early in the window.
There is no doubt in my mind that Albion’s decision to stick with Bruce at the end of last season has enabled them to steal a march on their rivals in the summer window, but the most compelling reason to give him a chance this season is his record in the second tier across his management career.
Since he was appointed as Birmingham City manager in December 2001, he has had four full seasons in the second tier, and been promoted in three of those seasons. The only campaign in which he failed to get his team promoted having been in charge for a full season was in 2017/18 when he guided Aston Villa to the play-off final. His other promotion came in that first season at St Andrew’s when he took Blues from mid-table into the play-off positions. Furthermore, on each occasion that he has taken a club down from the Premier League (once each with Birmingham City and Hull City), he has taken them back up the following season.
I’m not saying that Steve Bruce is a tactical genius, or that he hasn’t made mistakes (he has himself admitted to mistakes in his early days at the Hawthorns), but nor can I accept that his failure at Villa Park will necessarily be repeated at Albion.
Every decision about appointing, dismissing or persisting with a manager has an element of risk, and it could be that Steve Bruce’s day is done and he may not succeed, but he is still a manager with a record of four promotions and a succession of solid mid-table finishes in the Premier League with a number of clubs.
Bruce has attracted derision from some supporters at his two previous clubs, and perhaps my views would have been different had I been closer to the situations at either one, but I believe he should be given a chance to prove what he can do with his own squad and a full pre-season. I suspect that, should things not go well from the off, he will soon become the victim of criticism from the stands, but I, for one, will give him a chance and my full support.
Although pre-season should always be taken with a pinch of salt, I’m bullish having seen that the new additions have had a positive impact and that many of the other players also seem to have stepped up. When the real action starts, we’ll get a better idea, but at this point, there is nothing to suggest that the decision the club took to keep Bruce was the wrong one – indeed, it seems like a good call.
Only time will tell if that continues to be the case.