I cannot express my love for tournament football strongly enough. The sheer joy of watching several games in a day or even the challenge of trying to keep up with the events of a 2pm kick off while you’re still at work; I’m not sure it can be beaten. Whether it can or it can’t – seriously, it can’t – here’s my latest Euro 2020 Diary and some observations I’ve made over the last week or so.
England v Scotland was as frustrating as ever. So much ground to cover here. Let’s start with the fact that it was an awful game and that much of the blame here lies with England. We were truly awful, although if you’re looking for plus points, we gave a masterclass in sideways passing. So if UEFA can tweak the laws of the game to include two new goals at either side of the pitch, we’re in business and that long wait for success might just be over.
Other observations? Harry Kane might be pregnant; certainly his movement is that of someone not far off giving birth. England fans seem incapable of providing an atmosphere unless it’s via social media and Gareth Southgate’s coat was horrendous. In fact his whole sense of style suggests he’s discovered a time portal that allows him to visit C&A back in about 1985. (C&A was a fashion retailer way back when, notorious for terrible clothes). I never imagined I’d long for the return of the World Cup waistcoat.
2. The Fourth Official in the England v Scotland game had a look of Alan Shearer about him. Except no one in our house agreed. And we still couldn’t win. Look at him though…definitely a hint of Shearer.
3. I love the concept of different host cities across Europe. I’ll be honest, when I first heard of this I thought it was a terrible idea dreamed up by an idiot. The kind of thing that gets dreamed up in education while I sit there thinking, that’s awful, who’s going to go for that before hearing that everyone else loves it. However – unlike in education – it works. Who knew Baku was such a great place and had such an ace stadium? Seeing the Allianz Arena in Munich on TV gave me a real kick as I’d been there myself. And did you know that there’s a railway in Budapest that – apart from the train driver – is run by children? I mean, apart from the fact that the stadium there has been full for games and it’s looked and sounded incredible, it’s got a railway run by kids!
Then you’ve got Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, London, Rome, St. Petersburg and Seville – an incredibly diverse selection of European cities. And let’s face it, this could be done every four years for the tournament with a fresh selection of cities each time, without it ever becoming dull. Covid allowing, this is definitely one to add to my ‘To-Do’ list; even if it meant experiencing the inevitable disappointment of following England, I think it’d be quite something to do in a few different cities. In fact, it’d possibly be even better just going to games that didn’t involve England, just to enjoy the cities!
4. I’ve started writing Euro Poetry! As anyone who puts themselves through the chore of reading my blog regularly will know, I write a bit of poetry as well, usually publishing it as a blog. Well, I’ve just started writing some poems inspired by the Euros. It started because the whole Denmark story just felt very inspirational, so I wrote a poem about what they’d gone through – players, staff and nation – and the somewhat glorious outcome. After that things just spiraled and I wrote more and more. So I’ll be putting them on the site soon and hopefully I’ll be able to write some more as well.
5. I wonder if other nations cheer so much for the underdog. In the UK, it’s well documented that we love an underdog story. In football, every year produces several underdog stories as David meets Goliath (if you’re reading outside of the UK, neither David or Goliath are actual teams) in the FA Cup and we adore it. At the Wimbledon tennis championship, where British success has depended on Andy Murray for far too long, we’re used to cheering for our underdogs.
At any major football tournament smaller nations have a habit of capturing our imagination. But it has made me wonder if other nations do the same. Are the Germans willing Finland on? Do the Spanish cheer for plucky Wales? Are there Argentinians watching Rwanda in the World Cup, desperate for them to do well? And are the Italians hungry for Hungary?
The obvious underdog story during this tournament has been Denmark and it’s reduced me to tears as well as having me jumping around my front room, fists pumping and cheering like a lunatic. It’s not my nation and I have no known connection. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Similarly, I’ve been desperate for North Macedonia to do well. Again, no connection, just a need to see the underdog give the big boys a tough time.
Tournament football always produces underdogs. Indeed this very tournament has been won by underdogs over the years with Denmark and Greece springing to mind. They are part of the fabric of the sport and I don’t think I’ll ever stop taking an interest.
As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article. As the group stages end we move on to the knockout stages of the Euros. I can’t wait and I’ll look forward to finding more to write about.
It’s safe to say that us football fans have waited too long for the return of tournament football. A year too long in fact, as of course this tournament should have been over and done with last summer.
We’re a few days in now and I thought I’d quite like to write a diary about the whole thing. I’ll be watching as much as I can on television, but also keeping up with things via social media too. Being abundantly English, I’ll be following England, but I’ll have an eye on various other teams and players too. I can’t pretend I’ll see every last minute of the tournament as I have a family and a life, but I’ll do the best I can.
So far, we’ve had an exciting start to the whole thing. The Euros kicked off on Friday night and even the build up to the game prompted an observation.
Don’t the Italians look good in a suit? I mean, it’s kind of the home of style isn’t it? And Italian kits are always good. Without fail. But, as a man who wears a suit every day for work, I was taken with the tailoring on show, especially on the touchline. I hope I look as good in my suits as Roberto Mancini and his pal look when I get to their age.
And then, like a bolt from the blue, there was one of those moments of unexpected drama that will stay with us forever.
2. The incident on the pitch with Christian Erikson should teach everyone something. I didn’t see the game. As the drama unfolded I was working around the house and in the garden. Only when I checked my phone did I get a hint of something going on. The details were emotional to say the least. Not to make this all about me, but what happened brought back memories of my own heart failing a few years ago and it was a struggle to hold back tears. I came away from it all and checked back in later that evening.
The actions of everyone involved were admirable. The respect shown, the teamwork, professionalism, the dignity, the spirit, the diligence and the emotion; all incredible evidence of what we’re capable of as humans without even a moments thought. It was a timely reminder of the fleeting nature and fragility of human life. And in the days since, it’s been brilliant to see pictures of Erikson sat up and smiling in his hospital bed.
Sunday meant it was time for England and…
3. England won their opening game for the first time ever in a Euros! That’s it really. We we far from scintillating. We were solid. We got off to a decent start. Let’s see if we can build from this point. But remember; this is England, a team and a nation primed and ready to break your heart just when you decide to get carried away.
It wouldn’t be a tournament unless you go the whole hog, so…
4. I’m getting one of those sticker books. You know the one I mean…sounds like a posh sandwich. I’m not putting stickers in though. Far too costly and the kind of thing that will obsess me all too easily. So I’ll do it my way. I’ll keep you updated.
The sights and the sounds are as good as ever. Better in fact…
5. It’s incredible to see fans back in stadiums. I thought I’d be a bit ‘whatever’ about this, but actually it’s brilliant. The sight of the full stadium for the Hungary game stopped me in my tracks. On the same evening I saw a Facebook post from someone saying that watching 22 millionaires chasing a ball around was a waste of 2 hours of life. I rolled my eyes and swore under my breath. In Hungary a stadium full of fans reminded me of the sheer joy that football can bring. Trivializing it is like saying admiring fine art is a waste of time because it’s just a bit of paint and water or that the opera is a waste of 3 hours of your life listening to someone singing funny.
There are weeks left of this tournament, so I’ll keep it all diarised. It won’t be particularly serious, I’m sure. But let’s see what I can spot and let you know my thoughts on. In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you thought of the blog.
As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!
A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.
The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.
So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.
When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.
So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.
Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.
The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.
Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.
At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!
The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.
That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!
If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.
A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.
A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!
Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.
We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.
So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!
So after two training sessions in a week, numerous messages over WhatsApp and several pep talks with my players, we were finally, properly back on the grass today. An actual game with points at stake. Some competition and the adrenalin of a serious game of football, albeit at Under 12 level.
Sunday 11th April marked our return to competitive football and the sun was smiling on the Garforth Junior Football League as teams re-started the season once again. We woke up to an absolutely glorious day, if a little chilly, and frankly perfect conditions for football.
As stated in the first part of this blog, my team restart their season with more than a few worries. We play in Division 7 of 8 and at present are third bottom of the league. It’s safe to say that wins have been hard to come by this season, Indeed one of our wins was actually expunged from the records as the team we beat decided to drop out of the division after lockdown. Not because we beat them, by the way. I think it was down to the availability of players, but it still cost us valuable points.
We were playing the team beneath us in the league and so the importance of the game had been stressed by myself all week. And as we arrived at the venue for the match, I felt confident that we’d give a decent showing of ourselves.
Speaking of the venue, it was the kind of place where I always feel my lads and me might look a bit out of place. We’re a team from Morley, a market town on the outskirts of Leeds and let’s just say that there are areas that we visit for away games where the locals are a bit more refined than ourselves. Sometimes, as we park up outside a row of enormous houses with Range Rovers and Aston Martins in the driveways, I feel like we might be in danger of having our collective collars felt by the local constabulary. It certainly makes me conscious of my Mazda and the scruffy bags that carry the team’s equipment!
Today was one of those days. The area was relatively rural, with some rather plush houses around. We were also playing at a quite splendid private school where they even had a steward to make sure you drove round the car park the right way! The pitches were like bowling greens and the facilities clearly nicer than ours, where only last week two teenagers drove a motorbike over our pitch at speed as we trained. So walking through the grounds of the place made me feel slightly inferior at the very least! We’re the kind of team that my dad would refer to as ‘Raggy Arse Rovers’ and it’s exactly how I felt today.
Once we’d found our pitch we warmed up and went over the basics once again; don’t panic on the ball, don’t just boot it downfield at every opportunity, try to pass and move, use the width of the pitch, take responsibility, encourage each other and anything else that sprung to mind as kick off approached. I was able to take a moment just to have a look around and for a few seconds was mesmerized by the sight before me; the bright green of the pitch and the contrast of those thick, untouched white lines painted in, the bustle of parents, the excitement of the kids taking part in three separate games on the sight and the distinct tension brought about by the fact that we all want a positive outcome this morning. And then, before we knew it we were lining up around the centre circle for a minute’s silence to mark the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. After that, it was over to the boys on the pitch.
It doesn’t take long to remember how helpless you can feel as a coach. In fact, I’d safely say that in the months of being away from football, it’s something that I’ve not missed at all.
We quickly took hold of the game and yet, for every mistake made or chance missed, my mind was ticking over with questions. Why has he done that? Who told him that was OK? What was he thinking there? As I say, as a coach you feel helpless. You’re screaming inside, yet still trying to find the balance between letting your team think and act for themselves and telling them what to do and what or who to look out for.
I don’t want to take you through each and every kick of the game. That’s not the point here. So, I’ll let you know that we lost in the end, because it helps with explaining the process that you slip into so easily despite the amount of time spent away from doing what you love.
We lost with virtually the last kick of the game, having came back from 3-1 down with about 5 minutes to go, to level it at 3-3. As our opposition re-started the game at 3-3 I was prompted to warn my team, “Don’t do anything silly now!” only to watch on in horror as a series of inexplicable mistakes happened across a timespan of about 10 seconds and we conceded the last goal. While it’s pointless playing the blame game, it was more than difficult to paint on a smile and talk to the ref, the opposition, their players and mine about what a great game it had been. Blame lockdown, blame a lack of fitness, blame me, blame whoever or whatever; we were poor. And yet we still should have won. It’s been like this for a large part of our season and again, it’s not something I feel deprived of by lockdown!
After wards we discussed the need to learn from mistakes and the need to stay calm on the ball. We have another important game next weekend and it’s crucial that we’re better. Talking to parents in the car park afterwards, I was adamant that I wouldn’t have time to put on an extra training session this week, partly due to work commitments and partly down to just feeling ridiculously unhappy with our result! Sometimes, even as an adult it’s hard to hide the disappointment and not react a bit like a child! However, as the afternoon wore on I found myself asking my wife if she’d be alright with me being out for another evening in the week so that I could run an extra session. She was just surprised that I hadn’t already sorted it out!
So, we’re back on the grass and living with all that it brings. The highs, the lows, the surprises and the disappointments. Nine more games to go, until barring further lockdown measures, we finish the season in early June. Already, it’s like we’ve never been away. Training sessions are coming thick and fast and we’ll be counting down the days until our next game this weekend. That love that I have for football is being rewarded once again and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I don’t want to write this post. It’s sunny outside, I have things to do. I could go for a lockdown walk, I could spend time with my wife and my kids. I could go and do jobs in the garden and get more pleasure than this is going to give me. Christ, a day trip to sunderland would be preferable! But I have to write this post and I might as well write this post because I’m such poor company today. I’ve gone ‘silent angry’. I dare not speak about my football team for fear of spoiling everyone’s day. So I’m sat at a laptop instead, writing off the top of my head with no notes and no plan. Apologies if you clicked the link expecting something better. This is just the product of frustration. But I hope what I write echoes with some kind of truth for you.
Having supported Newcastle United for four decades and counting now, I thought I’d seen it all. We probably all did. Some of us watched McGarry’s team. Some of us were around to see Jack Charlton’s version, even Jim Smith’s. And in more recent times we’ve toiled our way through Allardyce, Pardew, Kinnear, Carver, MacClaren. None of it, I’d argue has had the same lack of hope or joy as Steve Bruce has been serving up for almost two years. And the worst of it is, apart from a small number of Bruce apologists who would probably give Joe Kinnear another chance, we all said that this would happen. We all said that Steve Bruce was the wrongest of the wrong in terms of people who should manage our football club.
Last night – on top of all that’s gone before under the same man – was utterly unacceptable. It was a disgusting surrender from start to finish against a team that we should have been looking to put under pressure at the very least.
For the record, Graham Potter is a manager I admire. I won’t profess to have watched a lot of his football and don’t have some kind of encyclopedic knowledge of him, but was made aware of him a couple of years ago, having read an article on the progress he was making at Ostersund, a team based near the Arctic Circle in Sweden, if my memory serves me rightly. He appeared to be a bright, young, forward thinking manager. However, Potter’s Brighton team are one place above us in the league and fighting for their lives, making last night’s shambles all the more unpalatable. This wasn’t a team gunning for the title or fighting for a European spot. This was a rival who’ve been poor for a lot of the season. And we made them look like one of the best teams in Europe. In fact, no; scrub that – we didn’t make them look like anything, we simply stood to one side and allowed them to do it.
From minute one, the pattern of the next 90 odd minutes was clear. We weren’t up for this. By the time five minutes had elapsed we could and should have been 2-0 down, with two chances falling to a player I’d never heard of and one that while writing this I can’t recall the name of. He was making his debut and went on to have an excellent game. That’s not meant to be disparaging, by the way. On the contrary; it’s a point I make to try and highlight how far we’ve dropped as a football club. Brighton’s team last night contained several unfamiliar names. These were players unearthed by a scouting system that is clearly light years ahead of ours at a club that is clearly light years ahead of ours. But that’s a subject for another time.
Conceding the first goal was inevitable for Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United. Conceding more after that was predictable too. We’ve become a team that seemingly doesn’t look to win football matches, which for me would question our identity as a team.
In the build up to the game it was billed as our most important game for years/decades. The urgency and the need to win this one were clear for all to see, right? Wrong. If Bruce sent that team out confident that he’d done his job and that we were going to put up a fight, then I’d question not only his ability, but his sanity. However, he clearly didn’t send us out to have a go. Instead, heartbreakingly for fans, he sent us out to contain, to defend, to get to half time and not to lose. But we looked nowhere near good enough to even do that.
Time and time again, Brighton players ran past our players into spaces where they would inevitably cause problems. They wanted the ball, whereas we looked scared of the responsibility that it would bring. We looked scared to do our jobs, unable to compete and unwilling to work for the manager. We lacked the smallest part of what we as fans ask for – desire. The pride in the shirt and the badge was only fleetingly evident in a handful of players. Almiron – rushed back from injury in a desperate throw of the dice – wasn’t himself, tracking and pressing but only ever at 60% of his abilities. Ryan Fraser was our best player, chasing lost causes and trying in vain to cause problems. And all too late in the game, Paul Dummett made a tackle that was late, but at least showed he either his frustration or that he cared. As the old saying goes, we were lucky to get nil.
Last night stunned me into near silence and I sulked like a child. I forced myself to watch Bruce’s post match interview though and felt even more angry that he simply had no answers. In place of anything that might have been right he simply kept telling us that it wasn’t good enough. No shit, Sherlock. Even here, he missed the point. It hasn’t been good enough for a long, long time. Two wins in twenty games tells that story. The performance at Newport away early in the season told us that. That night Bruce was schooled and out thought by a younger manager who had the drive and ambition and pride in his position that Bruce simply lacks. And he coached his League Two team to outplay us and outwork us for large chunks of the game.
Clearly, the trigger should have been pulled months ago. But instead, there’s a vote of confidence and not in the traditional ominous sense either. This is Ashley genuinely thinking that Bruce has got the skill and the know-how to get us out of this. This is complete and utter ignorance and the fact that it’s dressed up as rewarding Bruce’s loyalty is completely unfathomable.
The signs are ominous. How it ends is inevitable. Ashley has failed us. Bruce has failed us. Our club is in freefall and the people that have been trying to point it out for longer than I care to remember are being ignored because we simply don’t matter.
Another day, another 90 minutes, another desperately poor performance and another defeat. Newcastle United are, without doubt, hurtling towards disaster.
You might think that’s hyperbole in the extreme, but I’d disagree. It might well be next stop the Championship, but I’d join a growing band of supporters who believe that it won’t end there. If – and at the moment, when – we get relegated there will be no quick fix, no fun of a year spent invading small towns, beating teams left, right and centre and then celebrating as we win the league. In my opinion, and the opinion of lots of others that I’ve spoken to, going down will signal a much longer spell away from the Premier League. Relegation will be nothing short of a disaster.
Whether we ‘do a sunderland’ I don’t know. At the moment League One seems light years away and I feel that we’d have enough to compete in the Cahmpionship, but you never know.
We’ve been here before. In fact, take away winning the Championship twice and a fifth place finish in the Premier League a while back and the mindset’s been much the same at this time of year during the whole of our boot-leg jean wearing owner’s tenure. (It’s a sidenote, but please buy some clothes that fit, Mike). Mediocrity reigns, penny-pinching overpowers and any sense of optimism is squashed before it’s had even a chance of spreading. Joy, is a four letter word while hope isn’t even recognised as a word or a concept.
In the long term, Ashley must sell the club. But I for one am sick and tired of reading about that. I’ve had enough of people tracking helicopters, insiders on social media, informed journalists or the fact that Derek from Killingworth reckons he’s in a WhatsApp group with Amanda Stavely.
In the short term, Steve Bruce must go. He’s needed to go for around 18 months, but that’s besides the point. Getting him, Agnew and Clemence out of the club is the only chance we have of avoiding relegation and seeing the club saved from something more horrendous than Ashley and his lack of vision or ambition. If there’s not another viable option – and I mean not another serial failure currently on the managerial conveyor belt – give the job to Graeme Jones and let him have a go at getting the team organised enough to stave off the might of Fulham. Anyone but Bruce.
For me, I think that sacking Bruce is unnecessary. But this is only because I think anyone in his circumstances with any shred of dignity left would resign. I understand that he should be sacked, but it doesn’t look like happening any time soon.
I think it’s healthy to admit your failings. And Bruce has been failing for years and years. Look at the great Kevin Keegan when he managed England. It didn’t take him long to realise that he didn’t have the knowledge needed to make England successful. He couldn’t transmit what he did at club level to the step up and he admitted as much and resigned from the job. He told the press, “I’m not up to it. I can’t get the extra bit out of these players that I need.” Some called it cowardly. I call it honest, dignified. So if Keegan was honest and self aware about his capabilities in a job, it beggars belief that our present incumbent can’t be.
All Steve Bruce has to do is look at his record as a manager. When I looked, out of managers who had taken 200 or more league games his win percentage was 28.1%. From what I can see he’s won two trophies in his time as a manager; that’s two in over 20 years. Only once in that time has his win percentage exceeded 45%. I could go on. There’s no need. At the time of writing we’ve won 7 of 25 games this season. We’ve lost 14. The football has been generally awful. It isn’t working Steve. Any fool can see that. Oh, wait…
It’s easy to write about what we see on the pitch though. It’s far too simple to Google statistics, however much they prove your point. So let’s look at some other reasons why Steve Bruce should simply face facts, do the decent thing and walk away.
The Longstaffs. Prior to Bruce’s arrival we had, in Sean Longstaff, an academy graduate who looked like an England midfielder of the future. Better still, he looked likely to be a major part of our future. I wrote a blog about him as he broke through and the link’s below. We looked to have a player with a little bit of everything and one who was on a par with any other young English midfielder at that time. Under Bruce, he has gone backwards and his lack of form has been alarming to watch. He has looked nervy, ponderous and lacking in ideas. He has looked out of his depth and during the last transfer window he looked to be on his way out of the club. Any manager with any talent or skill would have been able to address such an alarming slide, yet Sean Longstaff is currently nowhere near the first team of a relegation threatened team.
Matty Longstaff actually broke through under Bruce and so his virtual disappearance from the group is unfathomable. Rumours of a falling out are rife, but again, any manager worth his salt could handle that. And I’m not saying that Matty Longstaff is some kind of world class answer to all of our problems. I just believe he’d do a better job than at least one of those currently filling the role. As it stands though, you or I have as much chance of lining up in that team as young Matty. And I don’t know about you, but both my knees are shot and my best days are so far behind me you’d need a telescope to see them.
For a moment though, let’s leave Steve’s failings alone. Let’s attempt some balance and try to see this from a human angle. A couple of weeks ago there were allegations of death threats from fans against our coach. The outrage was palpable and in many ways understandable too. It can’t be pleasant to know that people actively want you dead. And social media can be horrible sometimes, despite the fact that Bruce doesn’t have it and doesn’t read it. That said, as a father, he probably doesn’t want his family subjected to the bile and vitriol that comes with an anonymous online death threat. So, we can all hopefully empathise here and feel his pain, so to speak. There is one way out of it though. Resign. And I hope that doesn’t feel harsh or in any way that I’m justifying the threats; I’m not. What I am doing is saying that it’s understandable to walk away. It’s not weak.
And this leads me on to my next point. If he resigns, he not only frees himself from such hatred and stress, but as a man who has been richly rewarded during his years in the game, he can live a happy and comfortable life. I understand the competitive nature of professional sportsmen and women and the idea that they all have enormous self belief, but no one says you have to live like this continually. People in professional sport are still human; they can still make human decisions, like admitting to failure and walking away. Steve Bruce just has to look at the league table to see that he’s failing and if he really cares about his ‘boyhood club’ then he’d want better than this.
As for the notion that Newcastle United is his team, I simply don’t believe it. I never have. As far as I know, he’s never applied for the job. But I do know he’s turned it down before and some would say turned it down until it became too good to be true that at the back end of a less than average career in management, it was being offered to him again. This is not the dream job, Steve. You’re fooling no one. Something about Bruce just doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t hear or see the evidence of his support for my team. I recently watched a video from the half time analysis of a game between Newcastle and Manchester United and he was unerring in his bias towards his team. Only his team wasn’t Newcastle. When quizzing him about what the result would be, the interviewer even hinted at his background. Steve’s response? “Well, I’ve got to think about the family…” before tipping Man Utd to win. Nothing about his boyhood team. We’re not your team, we’re not your people and this isn’t your dream job. Walk away, Steve.
The team he’s produced almost defies belief. Bruce has overseen incoming transfers that other managers could only have dreamed about under the present regime and yet, here we are, 17th in the table and with the third worst goal difference in the league. Players like Fraser, Saint Maximin, Lewis, both Longstaffs, Schar, Gayle, even Wilson are underperforming and the manager doesn’t have the answer. Or if he has, it seems to be to persist with people like Jonjo Shelvey, Jeff Hendrick and Karl Darlow when they have clearly lost confidence, belief and the ability needed to play the game at the highest level. I can’t even bring myself to attempt to discuss Joelinton…but whatever he is, he’s on your watch Steve, so I think you know what I’m going to recommend.
The list goes on. Look at a player like Isaac Hayden; a man who has given everything this season and been one of few stars in the team – when Bruce has picked him. Here is a player schooled by Wenger and Benitez, who is now left jogging on the spot by Bruce.
Players don’t look fit. We can’t defend; there certainly isn’t the organisation created by the previous manager. We don’t score a lot of goals simply because we spend so much of games going backwards or sideways. Amazingly, we seem bewildered by the concept of a throw-in. But then again as Bruce himself once said, “I’m not really into tactics.” This of course explains why we’ve been out-thought at places like Newport, Sheffield Utd, Brentford and Blackburn this season as well as Rochdale and Oxford last year. (Yes, I know we won some of these games, but face facts; we were outplayed in all of them.)
At the moment, I look at Steve Bruce and see Joe Kinnear; just a shambles. None of the inspiration of a Joe Harvey, Keegan, a Robson or a Benitez. There’s not the confidence of even a Carver or Pardew, however misplaced that was. There is none of the quiet dignity and desire that we saw in Chris Hughton, the swagger, bravado or even track record of Allardyce, even the pride and talent (for a short while) of Roeder; just the breathless, thrashing for life and the semi-sane ramblings of a Kinnear, hallmarked by sulking with journalists, talking nonsense about false number 10s and criticising the fans.
Bruce is just a man railing at the modern world because he doesn’t understand it. Any pride or love of our club seems to be very carefully hidden, because there is never any indication of it. Compare Bruce to Sir Bobby Robson and the famous piece of film showing Gary Lineker around the improvements to the Milburn Stand. Bobby glowed with pride about everything NUFC – right down to the doors and the ‘architraves’. Can you imagine Bruce like this? No, of course not. Sir Bobby Robson understood. Steve Bruce does not.
Please, walk away from what you don’t understand, Steve. Resign and walk off into the sunset to enjoy what should be a pleasurable time of your life, enjoying things like your wealth, health and your grandkids. Give yourself and Newcastle United a chance of life.
If you read my blog regularly then you’ll no doubt be aware of my sideline (although I’m sure my wife would call it more of an obsession) as a football coach. If this is a first read, well then you just found out. I volunteer with a local youth team and coach one of their Under 12 teams. It’s the team that my son plays for and I ended up doing it when the original team coach was removed from his post. I’ll be honest; although I knew I’d be able to do a better job, I was also very much the only candidate!
I’ve written about my coaching before on here. It can be an absolute joy and yet can be a right royal pain in the backside too! At the moment it’s definitely on the latter end of the scale and this is largely down to the fact that we’re unable to actually do any training at the moment.
We last played a game on Sunday 6th December of last year. We trained a weekend later and then as January approached we were told that rising Covid cases meant that junior football was being suspended and that no one would be playing or training until further notice. That last training session had been a minimal affair as we tried to deal with low numbers, social distancing and Covid paranoia. It was undoubtedly a sign of things to come. However, we’d had a great session and were still optimistic that there would be a game the following weekend to look forward to. The optimism was short lived.
Well, we’re now half way through February and still waiting for that further notice. There has been a flurry of activity on social media lately, after the chairman of our league asked our opinions about how to move forward and this has led to a whiff of optimism, but still, there’s nothing concrete like a way forward or even a date. I’m not being critical in any way. I can see clearly that running these leagues and keeping everybody happy is a horrendously stressful job that I would not want. But I’m missing football and like lots and lots of other coaches, finding motivating my team a tough old job.
A little bit of background on my team. I think it’s safe to say that not everyone in the 14 strong squad is actually that interested in football. I’d even say that for my own son, who hasn’t kicked a ball for almost 2 months. There are easily five or six others in the squad just like him. I think football is just a means to an ends here; a way of getting lads away from screens and into the fresh air.
My lads are the second team in our age group at the club; often referred to as the development team, but not by ourselves. We play in Division 7 of 8 in the league, so perhaps that tells you something about ability. Please don’t get me wrong, I think we have some brilliant little footballers and excellent athletes, but when you watch some of the teams in the higher divisions it gives some perspective. I’m not hugely interested in ability. I want to develop footballers and help create good people. I love to win, but I realise that it won’t be possible every week. I don’t accept it, I don’t like it, but I realise that there are better teams than us and also better coaches than me. As long as my players are enjoying what they do, that’s enough.
And that fact leads me nicely on to what I wanted to look at with this piece. I think I’m a good coach, who tries to set a good example, tries to have fun and tries really hard to look for areas in a kid’s game that can be improved. I think, over the last few years of coaching the team, I’ve been successful in doing that as well. What worries me though, is how to keep players motivated when I can’t see them, can’t work with them and am juggling a busy work and family life in amongst all of the stress and pain of a global pandemic.
We have a WhatsApp group for coaches and parents in the team. This has been our exclusive avenue of dialogue over the last couple of months, but I feel like it’s failing. I’m failing. I worry that the majority of my team will not have kicked a ball over the whole of lockdown. I worry that they’ll not have worked at all on fitness and that when they return to football they’ll be ridiculously unfit. And I worry that some won’t return at all.
We’ve tried a number of things to keep our squad engaged and motivated during the lockdown. But I don’t think they’ve worked.
During the previous spell of lockdown in the U.K. we started a running challenge, setting up a Strava group for the players with the challenge that they try to run 5kms per week. Over half of the players and their parents signed up and things looked good. I felt optimistic. However, the results were sketchy at best and most of those who signed up simply stopped running or walking after a few weeks. I found it incredibly sad that a group of 11 and 12-year-olds couldn’t bring themselves to walk or run 5000 metres across the course of a week, especially when it could be done in stages and was going to help them represent their team. It was disappointing, but in actual fact, they maintained enough fitness to be able to win the game that was arranged when we came back to football. It was worrying though and a sign of things to come.
Another lockdown was always inevitable given the instability of the times we find ourselves living in. We added a skills challenge as a means of keeping the boys involved while also having a bit of fun. It felt simple. Attempt the skill, film it, post it and we’ll choose a winner each week. Two of the players posted a video of themselves taking on the challenge and then, nothing. One of those players was my son, and I’d be lying if I said his participation wasn’t almost wholly motivated by me! Another failure.
We even introduced the incentive of a prize for both the running challenge and the skills challenge and both fell flat. Clearly mobile phones and X-Box were winning out!
Our club committee, recognising that this could be a terminal problem, then got involved. Unfortunately their first idea was a running challenge and we know how that one had already panned out with my lads! But then Zoom football quizzes were organised and despite having spent the best part of three lockdowns avoiding these things like the they themselves were contagious, I promoted it and duly entered myself and my son. I mean, I had to be the one setting the example, right?
Come the morning of our Zoom quiz and I was full of optimism. The squad would be ‘together’ once again and it would be great to see their faces and to find out how everyone was doing. I was confident that given my own knowledge of the sport, me and my son might even be up for the win. And then, after one or two technical problems, the gallery screen came into view. Apart from me and my son, there were three other players. Two of the three were twins and the other one was the son of my assistant coach. So essentially, one household without a direct club connection had joined in! We’d failed again. In fact, only three players from the other team in our age group joined in as well. Seven players from two squads numbering 28 players. And to top it all, me and my son didn’t even win the quiz!
So we’d tried to embrace technology and a world that 11 and 12-year-olds were familiar with and couldn’t make it work. The whole thing was becoming incredibly frustrating. As a kid – and frankly still as an adult – I was obsessed with football. I wanted to be outside with a ball at my feet as much as possible. In fact, on the day that I was discharged from hospital having undergone open heart surgery, aged 6, I attempted to cry my heart all the way back out again because my parents wouldn’t let me go outside and join in a game that was being played on the patch of grass opposite my house. For a kid not to want to be involved with football was almost beyond my comprehension, especially when said kid was actually part of a football team.
I’m not stupid. I understand that there are a lot of distractions nowadays. I know that football – whether it’s our national sport or not – has a lot to compete with. But I don’t buy the idea that it can’t compete. While I was obsessed with football as a kid, I did other things too. I – don’t judge me – spent hours sitting in the library (the local one, not the one in the east wing of our house or something) reading books. I collected records, I played other sports, I had a PC and played games on it. But football was my ultimate love. There was never any trouble engaging me and I always found time to play. So, I don’t buy into the idea that we should blame other distractions.
All of this makes the lack of engagement of my team all the more puzzling and frankly, upsetting. I’ve questioned myself, my sessions, my relationships with members of the team, my enthusiasm, my manner with the kids. But even as my own harshest critic, I can’t simply blame myself.
So it’s a question of where do we go from here? I must admit that this week we’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. Having re-visited the Strava group and the idea of a fitness challenge, I came up with the 50 Mile Challenge. The simple concept is, can we all walk or run enough in a week to get to 50 miles between us? I was inspired by the Proclaimers song ‘500 Miles’ and then began reducing the mileage when I realised how far I was expecting each of us to run or walk! I’m saving the idea though and might try to turn it into some sort of sponsored event in summer, if Covid allows. I mean, I had plans to make a video and everything!
When I put the idea on the WhatsApp group I had to wait 24 hours before anyone even reacted. Again, I was left feeling down, especially in those first 23 and a bit hours! But then when we recorded our own first run, I scrolled down our club Strava feed. People had been running! Not everyone, not by a long way, but people had been running. Our team were engaged and working on their fitness! By the time a day had elapsed we’d combined to run or walk nearly 16 of our 50 miles. And now, at the time of writing, 8 players, 2 coaches and our referee have recorded a grand total of 56.16 miles in just four days. My response? A congratulations note on the WhatsApp group followed by another challenge! I’ve asked if we can make it to 100 miles by Sunday night! Well, I might as well exploit that momentum!
The next challenge will come with next week. I’m keen to keep these shorter challenges going, so I’ll be posting on Sunday evening and asking if we can at least outdo whatever amount of miles we manage this week. I’ll be challenging those that haven’t joined in as well. I’m tempted to set a challenge of 150 miles, but might stick to 100, just to be on the safe side and step things up gradually. Experience tells me that initial enthusiasm doesn’t always last!
The lack of enthusiasm has really made me think about how to engage the team when we’re finally able to play again. I’m already sketching out ideas for simpler training sessions where we mix the right amount of fitness with a bit of competition and a short sharp game at the end. I’ve tried to cram as many drills as possible into sessions in the past, in order to work on various aspects of the team and players, but I’m definitely going for a leaner, meaner approach. Hopefully, they’ll be sessions that can cut out the messing about and keep every player engaged enough to want to be there every week.
I also have a couple of much grander plans for later on in the year. Firstly, I’ll be trying to get a group of players and coaches together to do some kind of sponsored activity. I’ve a couple of causes I’d like to help, but I’d also like to try and do something to raise money for the club as a whole. Above all of that though, I think doing something like that as a team will help to build some sense of identity and spirit within a squad that is made up of kids from 4 different high schools and that is still very cliquey.
Alongside that, I’d also like to do something that helps within the community. I’d hoped to do something over the Christmas period, but Covid got in the way. It’s still not a very well developed scheme, but I hope that with the involvement of our coaches and parents we can come up with an idea that makes a difference to people in our community and of course, our team. It might just amount to delivering supplies to the elderly or collecting shopping or donations for a foodbank , but I think it’s the kind of thing that young people should do in order to help build a bit of character and just open themselves up to what’s actually happening in their community and the kind of difference that they can make. Whether people will get on board with any such ideas, who knows?
I’ve found it really tough to motivate or engage my team over the last two months. It seems that the default approach at the moment is to take to a screen and that makes me feel really unhappy. And it’s disconcerting – and I won’t lie, a bit of a blow to the ego – when you feel like you’re doing your best and no one seems interested! We might just be getting somewhere though, but if you’ve enjoyed reading and have any suggestions, I’m all ears!
It felt like we’d waited for years. We’d looked on as the predictable happened again and again. Watched the same mistakes being made over and over. And then it happened. That’s right, we got a coach in who wasn’t called Steve. Finally, a difference, a breakthrough! Of course, I’m being daft for the sake of it and as good as it was to see a new coach come into the set-up, the performance and result on Saturday were much better and much, much more important.
Much has been made via social media about the impact of Graeme Jones at the club. But how much of Saturday’s dramatic upturn was down to him and how much – as Steve Bruce has been hinting at – was coming anyway?
The answer of course is that it’s difficult to tell and I’ve found some of the coverage on the likes of Twitter over the weekend a little bit uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still completely anti-Bruce and have been since he was appointed. Whether we gave the bloke a chance or not, I think the trouble we find ourselves in at the moment has been inevitable since day one of his tenure. But can one man, who let’s not forget is working as part of a team of many coaches, make that much of an immediate difference?
It’s a interesting one to ponder. Part of me doesn’t doubt Jones’ impact. The so-called ‘new manager bounce’ is a common factor in top level football. We’ve witnessed it time and again with people like Sam Allardyce being hailed as some sort of hybrid Red Adair/Jesus figure for his work in fighting relegation at various clubs over the years. People seem to happily ignore the influx of players that usually follow his appointment, preferring to think that he has some kind of magical powers. He probably has, but I suspect they’re only relevant in making pies disappear. And pints of wine. All the same, it is possible that bringing in a new face gave the players a bit of a lift. Personally, any face that wasn’t Bruce’s or Agnew’s would probably make me try a bit harder.
So what do we know of Graeme Jones then? Well, his track record is fairly common knowledge and it shows us that he’s worked in some very high profile jobs. And wherever he’s been he’s been part of a coaching set up that has presided over some very good football. Working alongside Roberto Martinez, he worked at Swansea and Wigan, both low profile clubs that achieved amazing success in relative terms. These weren’t clubs where untold millions were spent so you’d have to put it down to excellent coaching as the reason why they performed beyond the sum of their parts. Then when Martinez went to Everton, Jones followed, so there’s experience of working at a high profile, ‘bigger’ club too, depending on your view of Everton.
After Everton came working with the Belgium national team, again as part of Martinez’s set up. That’s Belgium, the number one ranked international team in world football. So, safe to say that Jones has got a bit of pedigree then. After all, it’s not often you get some absolute duffer working with the best players in the world.
So, apart from anything else, Jones is a really good addition to the coaching set up. It was needed too, in my opinion. I can’t shake the opinion that Steve Agnew is not the answer to any positive question that I might have about coaching and I can’t see past a certain ever-present gormlessness when I think of Clemence. I don’t particularly understand Steve Harper’s role, certainly not in terms of the first team and I get the impression that although Ben Dawson has been promoted from the youth set-up and may well be highly regarded, his input won’t be taken on board by our dinosaur of a manager.
A lot has been made of certain images that appeared on social media over the weekend. Jones pointing and shouting while Bruce and Agnew just stand and stare and Clemence, comically, isn’t even looking. But how much can we read into that and the videos that surfaced? I’m torn. Part of me says that we can take quite a lot out of them. I’ve made the point that this type of thing hasn’t been seen this season under Bruce. All I even seem to hear Bruce shouting is the word ‘Up’when we manage to clear a ball, although I can recall a few ‘Go On Jo’ cries to Joelinton. However, social media (again) revealed that this might have just been encouragement to go and get his hair cut rather than anything football related. It certainly hasn’t seemed to inspire if it was meant in a footballing sense. So Jones standing in the technical area seems to me to be a lot more productive and positive than what we’ve witnessed so far this season.
As a coach myself – alright, it’s only Under 12s, but the game’s essentially the same – I’m definitely more an advocate of that style of management than those who stand and watch and tell me it’s better to ‘let them take responsibility’ or ‘let them make their own mistakes’. Even elite footballers need direction. And if Jones having a bit of animation about him made Jonjo Shelvey realise the value of hard work, then he’ll do for me!
Tactically it’s hard to argue that it was solely Graeme Jones that made the difference. But then again, we have a manager who has admitted himself that he’s not a fan of tactics. However, the odds of someone having input into at most a couple of training sessions and that being the sole reason for the performance we saw at Everton on Saturday, have surely got to be low. Jones – as stated previously – seems to have pedigree in terms of being a forward thinking coach, so he’s made something happen, but to what extent is surely anyone’s guess? Unless of course, you’re one of Twitter’s famous insiders with eyes and ears at the training ground…
Then you read Steve Bruce’s post match comments. Firstly, his affirmation that we’ve seen signs of this performance being in the offing. I disagree. Especially when he says the signs were there in the second half at Aston Villa. Sure, we didn’t concede again, but we still couldn’t string passes together, continued to look backwards or at best sideways instead of forwards and were ordinary at best. Against Leeds we toiled again in the first half and it was difficult to see what was keeping Bruce in a job. The second half was better, but the result remained the same – a loss, no points and an inability to put chances away.
After the Everton result Bruce also talked about ‘getting after the ball’ and playing ‘on the front foot’, but if you give those statements a little bit of thought they really just equate to putting effort in. So with his ‘nearly 500 games’ and twenty odd years of experience how had Bruce been unable to coax a bit more running, tackling and attacking out of a squad of professional footballers for such a long time? So you could read into that the fact that, of course, Jones has had an immediate impact. Certainly the signs that Bruce had talked about haven’t been so evident that such a dramatic change in fortunes could be said to have been just around the corner. It certainly adds fuel to the fire.
Talking about his time at Luton, Jones said that he’d wanted to attack teams but realised that they couldn’t beat every team without better players. So certainly no genius there then. But when you dig a little deeper into that it’s possible to see how we might actually be benefitting from his coaching right from the off. The fact is – and suspend your knowledge of what you’ve been watching for the entire season – that he is now undoubtedly working with better players. So is it really too much of a stretch to think that our more ‘front foot’ attacking and snarling approach on Saturday might not be down to the prompting of a certain Mr. Jones, rather than a man who’s coaching has failed to produce such a performance all season? It’s certainly hard to ignore the fact that Bruce has had Wilson, Saint Maximin, Joelinton (I know, I know), Almiron et al at his disposal for some time and produced a relegation battle.
Overall, I must admit, I feel optimistic about Graeme Jones. Is he waiting in line for the big job? I feel it’s possible. Could he do it? I really don’t know. I’m fed up of reading that a coach we’ve brought in is highly rated and then watching as their input makes no difference. Ian Cathro springs to mind here, as well as several who’ve had involvement with the academy over the last few years. But you can’t ignore Jones’ pedigree and experience, can you?
I am fully aware that we’ve won one game during his time in the set up and for all I know it was a moment of coaching genius from Steve Agnew that had the desired effect. But I have to ignore the rational side of my brain there. I had no faith in the management team 18 months ago and still no faith in them when we were getting beat at Villa. And while I laughed at the ‘Graeme Jones is my manager’ brigade on Twitter over the weekend, his arrival could just well have made a big difference.
Perhaps Tuesday night against Palace will change all that and a lot of us will end up with egg on our faces, so to speak. But I for one, can’t ignore the presence of the faint whiff of optimism in the air again. Fingers crossed for Graeme Jones’ Black and White Army and let’s get carried away!
A lot of us will have felt exactly the same yesterday. We’ll have spent the whole day nervous, dreading 8pm rolling around and wishing that we could just avoid it and tell whoever we’d passed the remote control to put a film on. Sadly though, the aforementioned dread will have been punctuated far too regularly by the hope that has you asking, ‘What if’? because that hope is very much all we’ve had for years. And sadly, the majority of us will have sat through every last second of yet another dreadful performance, wishing we hadn’t have bothered..
It should be abundantly clear to anyone with eyes that it’s just not working at Newcastle United. Steve Bruce is failing. And I think I’ve said this before in a previous blog, but we knew that this would happen.
Last night was nothing remarkable. We’ve looked appalingly doomed for a long, long time now. There’s little in the way of ideas and imagination, there’s no heart, no desire, no fight. People might tell you that nobody gets relegated in January, but as far as I can see, we’re down.
We’re now midway through yet another morning after the night before and nothing has happened. No one at the club has taken what would surely be the right action. Steve Bruce remains in a job having overseen 10 games without a win and far too many hours without a goal being scored. He’s still gainfully employed, having failed to inspire any kind of performance from his team for months. Is there another club where this would happen?
So where do we stand? Well, while the pundits point to a seven point gap between us and the bottom three, we have a club that resembles a liner that’s lost all power in the middle of the ocean. And someone’s begun to put holes in the hull. And someone else has removed the rudder. The crew can’t be arsed and are busying themselves sitting on deck gazing out to sea while the captain stands on the bridge telling an empty room that everything’s alright.
Our manager – and I’m praying I’ll have to edit this as news breaks that he’s been sacked as I’m typing, but I don’t believe in God or Lee Charnley – has become a paranoid shell of a man. In recent weeks he’s criticised the fans for their ‘histrionics’, he’s desperately chopped and changed personnel, discovered players that he’d previously ignored and then dumped them within a game (Longstaff, Dummett), had a snide dig at a previous manager (“the mighty Rafa”) and amazingly labelled a performance that he presided over as manager as “absolute shite”. His mismanagement is absolutely astonishing. To put it in context, in recent years we’ve had Pardew headbutting an opposition player, as well as blaming the grass and ‘science’, Carver saying a player got sent of deliberately and Joe Kinnear acting like a homeless drunk in press conferences, yet calling his own players “shite” has to top them all.
Last night though, we reached some notable new lows. The performance on the pitch was dreadful, again. Bruce is picking talented players, but his coaching seems to have rendered many of them as completely ineffective. The £40m striker who he has repeatedly failed to get a tune out of was left on the bench all night. Possibly rightly so as well, but…£40 million and if we’re being informed correctly, rejected by our previous manager as clearly not worth the money! He picked a target man for the second game running and, for the second game running, subbed him just as he brought on two wingers. He picked Jeff Hendrick. He picked Jonjo Shelvey. He put them together in the centre of our midfield, while playing arguably our most effective central midfielder in central defence. And at the end of the game, not only did he tell the media that he was encouraged by the performance, he also said (and forgive me if these aren’t his exact words, but I wrote them down as he said them and still can’t believe them) “Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve got enough (talented players) to attack.” This after 18 months in the job.
The popular view is that he’s ‘lost the dressing room’ and we can’t really know the truth here, as we don’t have access to said dressing room. But how can this not be true? He is openly blaming the players, while occasionally slipping in the fact that he takes responsibility. All the evidence that is needed is surely on the pitch. The lack of desire is alarming. You don’t need to head to social media to view that clip from Leicester away from a couple of seasons ago to see that this is a shell of the team we once had. This is a manager with blood on his hands.
Let’s look at a couple of case studies as evidence, if you will. Firstly, Jamal Lewis. Before he signed for Newcastle and Bruce, he was heralded as an exciting, attacking wing-back, albeit as part of a Norwich side that got relegated. But he was good enough for Liverpool to take an genuine interest and look at signing him. Now, he is a player that I don’t like watching. I find it genuinely quite a painful experience. Here is a young player who had the footballing world at his feet not that long ago. And yet now, he’s a player who looks terrified of the ball. In an age of attacking wing-backs, I watch him move forward and know that he won’t attempt to beat the man and get to the byline. Instead, he will check back, look behind imploringly and then lay the ball off to a safer option. Often this is the beginning of a short chain of events that I like to refer to as ‘passing back to the keeper’ or turning attack into defence. While defending he is regularly caught ball-watching, possibly as a consequence of the kind of eroded confidence that just wants anyone else to deal with the ball. I won’t blame him and I won’t criticise him, even though I’m one of those Newcastle fans with unrealistic expectations. But I will wonder what another manager might have made of him.
Then we have Callum Wilson, our number 9 in all but number. Wilson is a player who should be at the peak of his powers; he certainly arrived in this state, in my opinion. Sharp, energetic, wily, quick; everything we wanted in a centre forward at a club where we worship centre forwards. Fast forward five months or so and he’s another who looks a shadow of the footballer he once was. The service he desires is frustratingly unforthcoming, but this is not the end of his story. For me, the change in Wilson goes beyond that. Remember the smile, the wink, the salute? Remember the guile that had him bullying centre halves? All gone. Playing football looks like a job to him nowadays; a chore. Sadly, he looks a spent force. And again, I’m not blaming him. I rate him as a player and was thrilled when he signed. But last night, while Villa players smiled, encouraged each other and generally pinged the ball about without a care in the world, Wilson looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. And he wasn’t alone by a long way. That’s the fault of one man and his staff.
The final word on Steve Bruce and Newcastle United must go, bizarelly to the two men on pundit duties last night. This is simply because, in terms of the strange and wonderful world of Newcastle United, they made some of the strangest comments I’ve heard, post match. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jamie Redknapp and Darren Bent. Firstly, Redknapp blamed the state of the club on kids in Newcastle. Apparently it’s their fault that the team are so awful because they’re not good enough to play in our academy. Lost yet? Me too. But Jamie actually asked – and admittedly I’m paraphrasing here – “Why aren’t they playing football in the streets?” The incredible assumption seems to be that we should be producing first team ready superstar footballers, year in year out in order to allow us to win a game of football every now and again. He referenced names like Beardsley, Waddle and Gascoigne (two of whom didn’t come through the academy) and claimed that we don’t produce the likes of these players anymore. But who does Jamie, who does?
With his frankly weird claim, Redknapp not only referenced players from decades ago, but also ignored players who have come through the academy to take their place in the first team at the club. Without resorting to Google, I can remember the likes of Dummet, Taylor, Carroll, Clark, Watson, Hughes, Ameobi, Howey, both Longstaffs and Caldwell. Now, I understand that they are by no means world beaters, but they are proof that we can and so produce players. I also understand Redknapp’s frustration at having to sit through what he sat through, but what else can he reach for in order to avoid blaming Steve Bruce? Picking on school kids was a new and incredible low.
Darren Bent meanwhile, brilliantly blamed our strikers, who he said “look like they’ve never played together before” and asked “why aren’t they working on it in training?” I would imagine they are, Darren. And whether they are or they aren’t, whose fault would you say that could be? I’ll give you a clue, looks like an over-baked potato, belongs in the 1990s and his name rhymes with please resign and get out of our club. OK, it doesn’t but you can guess it from the other clues, surely?
We play Leeds on Tuesday night. I live in Leeds. My wife and son both support Leeds, as do friends and colleagues. I work in a school with pupils who are Leeds fans. I’ve never been so grateful for a pandemic and school closures.
It’s the morning after the night before. I could have written this post last night, but thought better of it in what might have been some sort of rare mature, rational moment. Instead, I was up early this morning, trying to write and not rant. What else was there to do when I couldn’t get back to sleep?
I didn’t avoid the keyboard last night because I was angry, although I was angry. I avoided it more because I just felt so sad. So tired. So deflated and almost resigned, ambivalent. I imagine a lot of us feel this way about Newcastle United at the moment. The pride and the passion are still there, but for me, the stuffing has just about been knocked right out of me. I knew that I wanted to write something, but instead I just drifted through the rest of my night until it was time to go to bed. Perhaps somewhere deep down I hoped I’d wake up this morning and find that it had all just been a terrible nightmare.
Well, I woke up this morning – there’s a cue for a song there somewhere – and it turned out that it actually had all been a terrible nightmare. Unfortunately though, it’s not the kind that’s all in your head. This is just ongoing and in real time.
Around 18 months ago, the heirachy at Newcastle United decided that, having allowed a world class manager to slip through their grasp, they’d appoint Steve Bruce as manager. They might as well have ran a competition and drawn the new manager’s name out of a hat. Perhaps they did. When the news broke that he was the target I was struck with the same feeling of terror that I’d got when Alan Pardew’s name entered discussions. And Steve McClaren’s. I have no doubt whatsoever that thousands of us were all struck with the same feeling.
We knew that it was a mistake. We knew it wouldn’t work. But then again, what do we know? We’re only supporters. 50% of the time disgruntled, ranting and raging and the other 50% head in the clouds, ideas above our stations and completely oblivious to our place in the grand footballing scheme of things, apparently. But we knew it wouldn’t work.
There’s little point in banging on about Bruce’s previous record in management, suffice to say that it’s been dominated by the mundane, a lack of vision and tactics, failure and excuses and as we’ve got to know all too well in the last few months, the old boys’ network. But we knew he’d fail here. We didn’t buy him identifying as a Geordie or a fan and we remembered his failure at Sunderland and Villa as well as the lack of loyalty shown to numerous clubs. Bruce had been given chances to come and manage the club on several occasions before the one he finally accepted. He’d turned us down, most likely under the misguided notion that something bigger and better would come along. He accepted our manager’s job when the chips were well and truly down.
Last night was the culmination of 18 months’ worth of short sighted football management. You could say that Bruce’s vision was so short-sighted that it might have been accompanied by a guide dog. This was the management of the late 1970s and early 80s. The man famous for telling the media that he “wasn’t really interested in tactics” has proved the point over and over again throughout his time in charge. He’s looked like he doesn’t know what to do with the players at his disposal and has played people out of position time and time again. He’s failed to motivate or inspire, got rid of talented footballers when he couldn’t get them to play and alienated others. Players, some of whom were initially delighted at the freedom given to them when Bruce was appointed, look uninispired, unwilling to run, frightened and most damningly of all, bored witless with it all.
It’s well documented that Sheffield United hadn’t won a game all season, but it’s worth repeating just to accentuate the inevitability of what went on to happen on Tuesday night. Newcastle have always been good at lending a hand when the going got tough. If your striker hadn’t scored a goal in 25 games, he’d no doubt find his shooting boots against us. Similarly, if you’re on a losing run, we’re happy to get you out of that particular shit.
This was different though. While you knew there was a fair old chance that we’d lose, once you’d taken a look at the team sheet, it was heart sinking stuff. It was as though we were almost happy to lose. Like we were gambling that the ball would drop, we’d snatch an undeserved goal and Sheffield heads would drop at the thought of another defeat. It felt naive at best and naivety is not what we want in a top level football team. The least we can ask for are tactics, but as we know Brucey doesn’t do that. So instead, we got the usual – defend until you can lump it forward for Wilson to chase or better still, just go backwards until you’re forced to give it back or just hump it out of play and reset.
To set up with a five man defence against a team that hadn’t won in 6 months is nothing short of scandalous. Pundits have asked what we expect, called our expectations unrealistic and over the top, told us that we’re always moaning. Our own manager has referred to reaction to our losses as ‘histrionics’. But surely, it’s not too much to ask that we go there and have a go? Even our midfield was subdued, defensive and adopted a safety first approach. Everything was geared towards not losing. And I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. It’s understandable against the top teams (although I think we’d all agree that giving them some sort of game is preferable), but this was simply waving the white flag against an opponent who were there for the taking. This was a team who you could say had forgotten how to win. How long before we’re that team?
Bruce did the usual. He stood on the touchline, gawping. He could be heard giving his usual single instruction, just repeatedly shouting the word “Up!” in the hope of catching the opposition offside. Then there was the face. Bruce stood there, as he always does, looking puzzled and pulling the expression of a man with heartburn who had forgotten his Gaviscon and was repeatedly trying to make himself do a massive burp. It’s truly strange the way that he makes those little ‘o’ shapes with his mouth. I daresay it does nothing at all to inspire his players either.
Bruce and his staff look like they don’t really care. There doesn’t seem to be encouragement, other than shouting names, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything other than a blank stare when we concede. Bruce, Agnew and Clemence aren’t at all animated and there’s no indication that any of this is actually affecting them. I have no doubt that it is. How could it not? No one wants to do a bad job. Unfortunately though, that is exactly the impression that’s being conveyed to supporters.
Team selection is mystifying and without any consistency, apart from putting 11 on the field and defending. Last night, for me, was crying out for the likes of Matty Longstaff, Almiron, Gayle, even Elliot Anderson (regardless of his lack of experience). And yet none of them left the bench. Jacob Murphy has shown that he can open up defences and yet, he didn’t arrive on the pitch until it was far, far too late. Instead, Bruce persisted with players whose confidence looks shot – the likes of Sean Longstaff who has undergone a remarkable transformation in Bruce’s time at the club and now looks a shadow of the player he was – and those who look to have simply had enough like Hayden, Schar. And that’s before we mention Jeff Hendrick, who is a combination of both of the types of player listed above as well as looking simply not good enough.
Against Sheffield United we repeatedly gave the ball away, often when under little or no pressure. We reverted to long balls into corners and channels far too quickly and readily. When we got into good positions we turned round and went backwards with the ball arriving back with a centre-half or Karl Darlow within seconds. We didn’t press, we didn’t snap into challenges (not you, Fraser) and we largely didn’t put ourselves about the place. And as usual – and this is becoming something that will drive me mad eventually – we took an age over every throw in, like a team of darts players with the ‘yips’.
The short answer is that Bruce needs to go. It puzzles me that as the proud Geordie he claims to be, he refuses to walk away. If I was alienating the same people I’d stood on the terraces with all those years ago, as well as all those who’ve done the same since, then I’d leave. It’s the right thing to do. If I was doing such an awful job I’d like to think I’d be self-aware enough to stop doing that job. Not Bruce though.
When we look to those calling the shots it can only serve to inflict more terror on us. Charnley and Ashley are sleepwalking through yet another season, gambling that we’ll stay up and that the club can subsequently be sold. In doing so they fail to heed previous warnings that the likes of Kinnear and McClaren have given. We’re clearly not too good or too big to go down and right now, we’re heading that way fast! I have no doubt in my mind that if things don’t change soon, it’ll be too late. Last night was an opportunity to calm things down by simply attacking a vulnerable opponent, but instead we looked like the vulnerable side and what unfolded in front of us was as inevitable as it was upsetting.
I don’t have any great theories as to who I’d like to see as our next manager. Eddie Howe has been mentioned and maybe he could ignite something at the club. What I do know is that there are managers out there who would want the job, managers out there who would do a better job and managers out there who would be capable of taking us forward. Like the majority I’d like to see Rafa back, but I’m not blind to the possibility that someone else could come in and work much more effectively with these players than Steve Bruce has. Even Jeff Hendrick. What price someone like Joey Barton? And before you dismiss that, remember, up the road in Glasgow, Steven Gerrard is doing an amazing job at a huge club despite a lack of experience.
Like most supporters, I’m angry and like plenty of us I’m losing my faith, falling out of love a little bit with Newcastle United. That’s hard to take after over forty years of obsession, support and loyalty that has more often than not gone unrewarded. The long and short of it is that regardless of results, I’ve always enjoyed watching Newcastle United play and I just don’t enjoy it at all anymore. I know I’m not alone. Like most supporters, I just want hope, ambition and a bit of excitement. Steve Bruce’s reign as manager is taking this all away.
Here’s hoping for a brighter future. Howay the lads and #bruceout.