Under-fire Newcastle United boss Steve Bruce says he 'never walks away from a challenge' - he'll be wondering what might have been at Sheffield Wednesday
You could smell the optimism. Fried onions and burger meat, too. But the optimism was strong.
As 15,000 people strolled Hillsborough Park on June 30 2019, the only football debate to be had was whether it was fair for Sheffield Wednesday supporters to expect a tilt at the top two, or whether playoff qualification would do.
Because after the demise of Carlos, after the nightmare of Jos, the messiah had arrived. Steve Bruce had injected optimism into the Owls’ fanbase once more and speaking at a sun-baked Owls in the Park event, he spoke of promotion.
His new signings, Moses Odubajo, Kadeem Harris and Julian Börner, wandered the grounds taken aback by the club’s level of support. Everything, it seemed, was heading in the right direction.
“A few years ago when we unfortunately lost to Hull,” Bruce said, playing ‘the game’ in front of a crowd of thousands, “the support that day was quite remarkable, and when you can see it now, it’s the making of a bigger club.
“To be a big club you need big support, and for that we are extremely grateful.
“We have that huge support and hopefully we can give them what they want, which is a crack at the big league. That’s got to be our aim, when you’re a big club like us, that has to be on the agenda.”
A fortnight later he resigned.
Last night, some 562 days after that Owls in the Park engagement, cold and wet, Steve Bruce was back in Sheffield again, answering questions in a very different tone.
His team had just become the first side to lose to Sheffield United in 21 matches, with Bruce having drawn major criticism for selecting what was perceived to be an ultra-negative XI against a team that had scored only eight goals in their 18 matches.
“I'll never, ever walk away from a challenge," he said having once again been asked about his future as manager of Newcastle.
You could feel the irritated nervous twitch of several fanbases, not only that of Newcastle, but of the Blades, from where he resigned in 1999, of Wigan and Crystal Palace, from where he resigned inside in May and November 2001 respectively.
Bruce ended a second spell at Wigan in 2009 to join Sunderland and resigned as manager of Hull City after promotion in 2016. And then there was Wednesday. Steve Bruce is an excellent manager and by all accounts a thoroughly decent man, but ‘walking away from a challenge’ is something, actually, that does sit on his record.
Despite the romance attached to the role for Bruce, a Geordie who grew up supporting Newcastle, the fact is that the whole football world was screaming at him not to take the job all those months ago.
Caught between a heartbroken fanbase, an average squad and a questionable owner, it was always going to be a hellish task. He had a good thing going at Hillsborough, which has been a little bit broken ever since. The stocks of both manager and club have fallen dramatically.
You can’t help but wonder, from both sides of the argument, what might have been.
As it turned out, Steve Bruce was not the messiah. He was a very silly boy.