"They are the kind of words, the kind of sentiments that Newcastle United supporters long to hear. They crave it; they crave being the kind of football club that people take notice of for reasons unconnected to crisis, disillusion, anger and frayed relationships. How would it feel to be “brilliant”, and “fantastic”, again? To be praised for the “goals they’ve scored and the performances they’ve delivered”, over the course of “a wonderful season?”
Well, we have the answer now. It feels like you’ve been tonked 5-0 at Manchester City, with 26 per cent possession and one shot on target. It feels like 13th in the table. It feels like 10,000 free part-season tickets, in the days when anyone was counting human bodies shuffling through turnstiles. It feels like scoring 18 league goals at home (only two teams have managed less). It feels like conceding 35 away (no teams have managed more).
It feels like this fetid state of limbo; three months of frustration as the Premier League have deliberated over the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, teetering on top of 13 years of truncated ambition, institutionalised mediocrity, an acceptance of ticking over. It feels a lot like Mike Ashley. It feels a lot like “the best league in the world”, where existing is the only thing that matters. To be brutally honest, it feels pretty fucking miserable.
This is not a hatchet job on Steve McManaman who, in the course of his co-commentary of Newcastle’s miserable performance at the Etihad Stadium, uttered the phrases listed above. Broadcasting is full of perils, just like writing (and if I ever file a report free of error, it will be the first time, trust me), and being a general “expert” on every team cannot be easy, but this was just so catastrophically wrong and cock-eyed that it almost sucked the breath from your lungs.
In the interests of balance, BT Sport also delivered an alternative point of view; Jake Humphreys, their presenter, donned his spacesuit, entered this parallel universe of McManaman’s and dragged the conversation back to planet Earth. “Survival can’t count as success for Newcastle,” he said on Twitter. Lynsey Hipgrave, a BT colleague and Newcastle fan, would have had something to say about it, too.
But it is instructive to consider why or how McManaman could have said what he did and then double down on it. How can this skewed version of reality even be a thing? Perhaps he was reflecting on the recent form of Allan Saint-Maximin and Newcastle’s uptick in results since returning from lockdown. Perhaps he was by swayed by the 4-1 dismantling of Bournemouth and that beguiling glimpse of football. Perhaps he just hasn’t been paying attention.
Perhaps, to be really generous, it was a reflection of the peculiar, heightened circumstances that have engulfed Newcastle this season and there was a hint of that in his praise for the “absolutely amazing” job Steve Bruce has done. There is merit in that argument if you compare how untethered the club was last summer and their position of relative comfort now, although the hyperbolic nature of the language makes people hunker down in opposing trenches.
A short pre-season, a record £40 million centre-forward who is allergic to scoring, losing the majority of your goals, having the sense to discard your tactics, twice, in search of positive results, finding a way to win, insulating players from the madness of Newcastle; for all of these things, Bruce deserves credit. He has come home to Tyneside, navigated a treacherous stretch of water and kept his humanity and sense of perspective intact.
When the takeover finally happens, Bruce will merit gratitude because this could have played out to a very different backdrop. With his own position being speculated over, his team have shrugged off excuses and maintained order. But he has also been honest. He knows as well as anybody that his team have been awful to watch for much of the season (and they truly have). It’s not what he wants. It’s not even close.
What has been really peculiar is how Bruce has become a battleground for Newcastle fans and the wider world; every defeat and he’s the worst manager in the world and every victory he’s doing better than Rafa Benitez, as if the two men are somehow competing with each other rather than with rival clubs during different seasons. Lack of empathy from other supporters is fine, because that’s football and it’s what we all do, but from pundits it is both idle and mired in ignorance.
Bruce arrived at St James’ Park at a dreadful, disheartening moment (wakey wakey, those free season tickets were not a coincidence). Some of the language which coincided with his appointment was raw and loaded, but the context was important. For some supporters, Benitez leaving was the final straw, the point at which any pretence of ambition under Ashley was gone. Was that unfair on Bruce as an individual? Yes, but again, it was also understandable.
Will Bruce have changed some minds? Probably, and good on him. For all the stress and tribulations, he has relished being home and he is proud to be manager of the club he supported as a kid. He has proved some people wrong and has definitely done better than many of us feared a few months ago. He is not a saviour and he is not a fraud. He is a decent manager and a decent man doing a decent job.
With all of this – Bruce, the football, the takeover, this season, Ashley, everything – it can feel like there’s something the world sees and a different reality that Newcastle fans confront. The involvement of Saudi Arabian money in the takeover has thrown responsibility on supporters when they have no power, no responsibility at all. OK, we’ll listen about piracy. OK, we’ll educate ourselves about human rights. But why do so few people hear them in return? Where have they been for the last decade and more?
This has not been a brilliant or fantastic season for Newcastle. It has been dreadful in large parts, certainly in terms of quality. There have been some fine results and brilliant moments but great performances over 90 minutes can be reduced to a solitary finger on a solitary hand. It has been a season of people deciding to walk away, long before they were kept out anyway, where a limping FA Cup run brought replays against Rochdale and Oxford United.
This has not been wonderful, because Newcastle are completely stripped of wonder and have been for years; if you don’t recognise that, you have simply not kept up. You have not listened. You have not been watching. Thirteenth and safe is not something to celebrate, not something to be proud of, particularly in the aftermath of a hammering which Bruce acknowledged was “painful”.
There will always be people who look at Newcastle’s history and claim that supporters are deluded for expecting more; that aside from a brief, blissful spasm from the early 1990s onwards, irrelevance is their birthright. For all we might argue that Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson illustrated what the club can be when it really tries or point out there’s nothing wrong with wanting better, none of that really matters. It is all up for debate.
What does matter is reality. What matters is the truth. And words like McManaman’s bend it, serving to perpetuate this myth of chugging along in the Premier League being something to be thankful for, or of Newcastle fans being ungrateful or ungracious or misty-eyed. The only good thing about this season is that it is nearly over and that the clock is ticking on Ashley’s ownership. Because there is nothing wonderful about being shit."