Steve Bruce limbered up for Saturday night’s Premier League game at Aston Villa by claiming he has equalled Rafael Benítez’s achievements on Tyneside. “Rafa was a world-class manager,” the Newcastle manager said. “But we matched the mighty Rafa last year.”
Benítez’s successor is under intense pressure after nine games without a win, and so could not resist an opportunity to remind the critics that his record is almost identical to that of the much-adored Spaniard.
“Rafa, who I have obviously heard a lot about, where did he finish?” said Bruce, who led Newcastle to 13th place in the top tier last season, the same position achieved by his predecessor in 2018-19. “We’ll try to keep edging towards where I want to take us, which is the top 10. At this particular moment we’re on a bad run and we’re four or five points off it.”
With Newcastle 15th and stuck on 19 points, there seems little hope of his emulating Benítez’s achievement in securing 10th place in 2017-18. But at least Allan Saint-Maximin is fit after two months sidelined by Covid.
“I’m sure Allan will give us all a lift,” said Bruce, who has missed the French winger’s gamechanging creativity and pace. “Especially when you’re a counterattacking team, he’s the one that can take you up the pitch quickly. We’ve missed the flair he gives the team going forward.”
There was considerable talk that relations had deteriorated between Saint-Maximin and Bruce before the former was struck down by coronavirus in November. “It’s fake news,” the Newcastle manager said. “I can honestly tell you I’ve had no real fallout with Allan.”
A week ago Bruce told his players “the gloves are off” and “we’ll do it my way from now on”, but on Friday he proved more emollient, suggesting “my way” involved “playing 20 or 30 yards higher up the pitch” and he would alternate between his preferred back four and the back three favoured by Benítez.
“I’ve managed nearly 500 Premier League games so it’s no fluke I’m still here,” said Bruce. “I’ve the equipment to handle whatever comes my way. I’m quietly confident we’ll stay up. We did it quite comfortably last year so we know this group of players are capable. We’ve had a difficult spell but a lot of that’s been to do with illness and injury over the last six weeks.
“We’ve had it particularly tough – and if you’re on a tough run you have to put up with the criticism. It’s a demanding league but the one thing you must do is keep that little bit of dignity and do the best you can to get yourself through it.”