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The Eldon Square shopping centre looks like any other throughout the country.
Slapped in the heart of Newcastle city centre, rows of high street shops and restaurant chains crowd two levels of its sprawling layout, halogen lighting casting a soft glow over the shiny beige floor tiles that pave its walkways.
- Born in Corbridge, Northumberland, on 31 December 1960
- Made more than 400 appearances for Manchester United
- Won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and a European Cup Winners' Cup as a player
- Coached at Birmingham, Sunderland and Aston Villa
- Finished FA Cup runner-up with Hull in 2014
- Approaching 1000 games in management
But from the multi-storey car park situated atop the building, a cavernous football stadium dominates the horizon, standing proudly as the centrepiece in the city’s skyline.
“I was in the Eldon Square with my good lady, on the top floor,” Steve Bruce replies, after I ask when his appointment at the club had really sunk in.
“We’d parked the car and there in the distance is St James’ Park, which lights up the city, you know? It was her who said to me ‘Can you believe you’re the manager of Newcastle? It’s quite remarkable really’. It’s surreal.”
Bruce, who took charge of the club in February 2019, steered The Owls to a steady 12th-place finish, 10 points shy of the playoffs and 24 shy of relegation.
But over the course of the summer, after Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez departed Tyneside in a dramatic end to his long-running dispute with owner Mike Ashley, Bruce emerged as a surprise successor.
“It transpired so quickly. I think I’ve said it many times now, when my lawyer rang me to see if I’d be interested in going to Newcastle I said, ‘Come on man, are you for real?’” Bruce recalls excitedly.
It’s a great club with a unique support and it’s an honour to be the manager
- Steve Bruce
“It’s fair to say Newcastle must have approached a couple and somehow I was on that list. I’ve said it many times, I’m a Geordie. To be a Newcastle fan and then to manage the club, it doesn’t happen to everyone.”
Bruce’s sudden departure left a sour taste at Hillsborough, who briefly threatened legal action against his new employers before a hefty compensation package was agreed to relinquish the former Manchester United captain from his contract.
“I was totally selfish towards Sheffield Wednesday and I didn’t feel good about it but it was an opportunity which I couldn’t have not taken because I would have regretted it,” Bruce adds.
“I regretted not taking it in 2004 when Sir Bobby [Robson] left, I had the opportunity then and I didn’t take it. I was determined to take it and try and enjoy it if I could.
“I knew it was always going to be difficult. Managing in the North East is always difficult, especially at Newcastle. And of course, replacing Rafa who was so popular. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride but I was determined to grasp it, have a go, get stuck into it and overall try and enjoy it.
“It’s a great club with a unique support and it’s an honour to be the manager.”
The Magpies currently sit 13th in the division; an unremarkable achievement on the face of it but with Bruce having been appointed midway through pre-season training and forced to learn about his side as the campaign progressed, it’s one that deserves recognition.
Things got off to a tricky start for the ex-Sunderland boss with Newcastle picking up just one win from their opening seven Premier League games.
Flirting with relegation throughout the autumn, Bruce reluctantly abandoned plans to move away from his predecessor’s tactical legacy and returned to playing the pragmatic, defensive style of football Newcastle have come to embody since being promoted.
“I didn’t think it was right to ask the nucleus of the team to radically change – and why should they?” he explains.
“You see at Brighton, Graham Potter came in and radically changed everything overnight but after assessing it and taking a look over a few weeks, I didn’t think that was going to be right here.
“It was a case of gently letting them be comfortable in what they were. Of course, people will say it’s the Rafa way or whatever but I just detected that the team was comfortable [in the old ways] so I went along with it and tried not to make huge, wholesale changes.
“The players to a man have been terrific. Their effort and endeavours, I couldn’t fault them.
“We started to change [tactics] in the last week before we split up. We got into March and we’d gone away from the back five or the back three or whatever you want to call it, to play four [at the back] and that enabled me to play two at the top end of the pitch which I’ve always tried to achieve.
“Slowly but surely we’ve introduced it and that’s the way forward that we will go. We had a great week that week [beating Southampton 1-0] but unfortunately the season came to an abrupt halt.”
True to his word, Newcastle lined up with four defenders in a 4-2-3-1 against Sheffield United last time out and found himself handsomely rewarded with an emphatic 3-0 win against the newly-promoted high-flyers.
Under-fire record signing Joelinton even managed to break his lengthy Premier League goalscoring drought and looked a handful as he played a part in Blades defender John Egan's second-half dismissal.
But Newcastle fans know the next crisis is never too far away on Tyneside - a fact illustrated by the extremes in performances at times during this season.
Maulings at the hands of Leicester, twice, Arsenal and defeats to newly-promoted Aston Villa and Norwich stung sharply – yet there were moments of ecstasy in wins against Manchester United, Chelsea and a jaw-dropping draw at Everton.
“It is an emotional rollercoaster, Newcastle,” Bruce admits.
“Every day you have five pages of sport and journalists clamouring for a bit of news. Unfortunately in this world today, especially in football, the news that travels fast is bad news so people want to have a go.
“But I have to say the supporters in the stadium have been terrific towards me. Of course, social media, I can’t control that. Some of them have been a bit distasteful and one or two journalists, I’m not their cup of tea but I think you accept that along the way.
“But it is Newcastle, it always has been like this and it will continue to be so. I take a bit of advice from the great Graeme Souness who’s managed Liverpool, Glasgow Rangers, Galatasaray, big, big clubs in their own right and he found Newcastle the most difficult.
“I can understand, after being in the hot seat now, where he’s come from. But as I said it’s a great job, a difficult job but a great job.”
For all they lack in quality – and even Bruce admits their style is not for the purists – this Newcastle side have drawn fans back in time and again with their doggedness and determination, characteristics Bruce puts down to a “ healthy dressing room” spearheaded by the team’s leaders.
“There’s been a core of them at the club since the Championship days. All of those people, your Jamaals [Lascelles], your Matt Ritchies, your Jonjo Shelveys, Isaac Hayden, who all make that group and they’re very, very strong in it.
“They’ve got a good work ethic. They’ve got a determination to succeed. Yes, we understand we might not be the greatest football team however, we’ve got a great spirit and that takes you a long way in this world - especially in football and it is a great privilege to manage them I have to tell you.”
Eleven points now separate Newcastle from the drop zone and with eight games to go, it appears all but certain the Magpies will be playing Premier League football once again next season.
With the weekend's victory over Sheffield United having provided further breathing room from the drop zone, Bruce believes now could be the right time experimenting with a new way of playing.
“Newcastle two or three years ago were in the Championship,” he reminds me.
“They’re not an established Premier League team who’ve been there for the last however many years. They’ve been in and around the division of course but I just felt they were comfortable [playing deep].
“Always in my mind I was thinking ‘okay, when is the right time to change?’ We just gently eased it in. I said from day one, eventually I want the ability to play two at the top end of the pitch.
“To play one up and one off or have two out-and-out centre forwards and that’s the way we’re going to go.”
The football season is now well back underway and with it, Newcastle will be granted the chance to compete in an FA Cup quarter-final for the first time since 2006, taking on Man City on Sunday afternoon – an achievement that did not go unnoticed by fans who have been starved of success for so long.
“I think there comes a time when the fans trust me. I hope that’s the case,” Bruce says.
“I think they understand that I’m a Geordie and I want the club to do well. I only want what’s best for Newcastle. I knew it was going to be difficult because to be fair, they’ve lost a world class manager in Rafa. I understood that.
“But I hope that I’ve won a few people over and a lot of supporters who I bump into say ‘you’re doing a good job so carry on son, keep your chin up’ – and I’ll always try to.”
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