Calacus Weekly Hit & Miss – Steve Bruce & PIF
Every week we look at the best and worst communicators in the sports world from the previous week.
HIT - STEVE BRUCE
It should have been Steve Bruce’s dream job.
Despite his links to Sunderland, when Bruce was appointed as Newcastle manager in 2019, he made no secret that it was a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled.
He said: “I'm like every Geordie, who is now living that dream, and how lucky am I? I'm determined to grasp the opportunity and have a go.
"The most important thing is to keep the club moving forward. Over the last couple of years it's established itself in the Premier League - that's got to be a given - and my job is to try and follow and keep improving. That's what my aim will be."
Certainly things did not run as smoothly for Bruce as he would have hoped.
In his last 38 games in the Premier League, he won only seven and a lack of flair and frustrated the passionate home fans.
While every club has its clashes, the fact that Matt Ritchie and Bruce had such a public fall-out, with the winger labelling his manager a “coward” did not bode well - and the manager lacked backing from owner Mike Ashley.
Fans had often protested about Ashley’s ownership due to a litany of concerns such as his lack of investment in the team, trying to rename St James’s Park stadium, letting Jonas Gutierrez leave and not paying him a bonus after he had saved the club from relegation following cancer treatment and so many more…
Former Newcastle defender Steve Howey said at the time that he feared for Bruce’s wellbeing: “It can’t be good for somebody’s mental health and well being, you know, under this much stress.
“I think if anything is a positive, which also isn’t a positive, is the fact that there are no fans inside the stadium. I think it would have been even worse and it would have just been absolutely toxic.”
As the fans returned, despite seeming to accept that Ashley was the reason for the club’s struggles, it didn’t stop them jeering at Bruce when he took part in a lap of appreciation at the end of last season.
With the team struggling on the pitch this term, Bruce understandably came out fighting.
He proclaimed: “We want to be up amongst the big boys competing at the other end of the table and, unfortunately, that’s not possible at this moment, is it?
“That’s the frustration. Do you not think I want better players? Do you not think I want a better squad and to have the ability to go out and compete at the top end of the transfer market? I have to accept it and get on with my job as best I can. In these difficult moments I hope my experience can steer us along the right path. The situation’s not great – I understand that – but that’s where we are.
“When it gets tough, I don’t think: ‘Walk away Steve, the noise is too bad.’ My family think I’m a bit sick because, when I’m up against it, I never really think about those things [the abuse].
“It’s a challenge at the minute. It’s always difficult and I’d be sick if I said I enjoyed it but I have to accept that results have not been good enough. The frustration is that, if you don’t get results, the manager bears the brunt. But it’s not in my nature to walk away when we’re in a fight.”
Bruce was been dignified throughout his tenure at Newcastle, amid speculation that he would get sacked when the Saudi Arabia takeover was confirmed.
It meant that the club and its new owners had to confirm that Bruce would indeed reach the 1000-game milestone and guide the team against Tottenham Hotspur, a match they lost 3-1 after going ahead.
Within days, Bruce was sacked.
It says a great deal for the departed manager that he remained so dignified despite the abuse and criticism he suffered, the lack of support from his Board and ultimately the very real threat of dismissal.
It was left to Alan Shearer, the club’s leading goalscorer and a legend to all fans, to pay tribute to the job Bruce has done: “I know how tough it was for any manager at Newcastle for the last 14 years.
“I also know how badly Steve & his family wanted it to work. In difficult circumstances for everybody, he kept #NUFC up for two seasons. It’s a new era now, but thank you, Steve, for your effort & commitment.”
Allan Saint-Maximin, arguably one of Tyneside’s great best players at present, also praised Bruce: “You are, without a doubt, one of the most gentle people that I have ever met in the world of football.
“You have been a man of your word, a caring man and a fair man who never hesitated to protect us. I will never forget how you treated me, for that I will be forever grateful.”
In a heartfelt interview with the Daily Telegraph, Bruce laid out why he remained at Newcastle and the toll it had taken on him and his family but still resisting the temptation to directly lash out at those who had made it so difficult for him in one way or the other.
He explained: “By the time I got to Newcastle, I thought I could handle everything thrown at me but it has been very, very tough. To never really be wanted, to feel that people wanted me to fail, to read people constantly saying I would fail, that I was useless, a fat waste of space, a stupid, tactically inept cabbage-head or whatever. And it was from day one.
“When we were doing ok results wise, it was ‘yeah but the style of football is rubbish’ or I was just ‘lucky.’ It was ridiculous and persistent, even when the results were good.
“The best one was to be told we were a relegation team in all but points…this was all in the first season. We finished 13th. It [the criticism and abuse] got even worse in the second year. We finished 12th, 17 points clear of the bottom three.
“I tried to enjoy it and, you know, I did. I’ve always enjoyed the fight, proving people wrong, but that’s all it ever seemed to be. A fight, a battle. It does take its toll because even when you win a game, you don’t feel like you are winning over the supporters."
“I wanted so badly to make it work. I was so proud to be manager of Newcastle United, even in the dark times, I was determined to keep going and to keep this club in the Premier League.
“The takeover rumours were rumbling on in the background but they would not have bought the club if it had been relegated. Everyone knew that.
“The only task I was given was to keep the club up. There wasn’t the money to overhaul the squad. Covid drained the club of money, there was virtually nothing to spend this summer, but I wouldn’t walk away from it.
“People told me to quit and if it hadn’t been Newcastle… I refused to give up. I just felt who could come in who was going to be better equipped to keep them up again than me?
"I’m really happy for the fans, the city, everyone associated with this great club. This takeover had to happen for the club to improve. It had to happen for Newcastle to have a chance to be the club we all think it should be.
“I did my best, I will leave it to other people to judge whether I did ok or not. I wish the new owners, the players, and fans nothing but the best. I’m excited about the club’s future. That is the most important thing.”
MISS – PIF
The takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) has been met with joy and despair since it was confirmed in early October.
PIF have been trying to buy the club for a couple of years, with a dispute with Middle-Eastern broadcaster BEIN Sports proving to be a stumbling block.
When that ban was lifted, the takeover was swiftly completed, ending a controversial and mostly miserable reign under Mike Ashley.
While there was joy at Ashley’s departure and the promise of huge squad investment to see Newcastle compete for the Premier League title and beyond, there was justifiably some concern about the possibility of sports washing, where sports properties are bought to try and clean up a questionable reputation.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had once advised the government before he fell out of favour, particularly for his criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman and the kingdom's de facto ruler, shocked the world.
Khashoggi had cast a light on the human rights abuses that Saudi Arabia still conducts and Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), the group founded by Khashoggi before he was killed, expressed its concerns about the takeover going through.
Dawn’s Executive Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: “Newcastle has sold its name and reputation to a brutal government with a brutal ruler.
“They may as well put Bin Salman’s picture on the club’s emblem. It is now more apparent than ever that English football will sell itself to anyone, no matter how abhorrent their crimes, if they offer up enough money.
“I don’t think people really understand the corrupting influence that this deal will have. It normalises a dictator who literally goes around butchering journalists.”
As well as journalists and other critics, the kingdom’s LGBTQ+ community has also suffered at the hands of the government.
As The Athletic reported, there have been ‘multiple allegations of attempted cure therapy in some of the country’s “mental health” hospitals, mistreatment by the police, in addition to a growing campaign across Europe to secure the release of Suhail al-Jameel, a 25-year-old social media influencer reported to have been arrested in 2019 for posting a shirtless picture in leopard-print shorts on Twitter.
The Premier League made its own statement explaining why it had now allowed the takeover to be concluded: “Following the completion of the Premier League's Owners' and Directors' Test, the club has been sold to the consortium with immediate effect.
“The legal disputes concerned which entities would own and/or have the ability to control the club following the takeover. All parties have agreed the settlement is necessary to end the long uncertainty for fans over the club’s ownership.
“The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.”
It was perhaps telling given the questioning that may have come his way that the Premier League’s Chief Executive Richard Masters, has so far avoided any interviews.
The fact that the British government also refused to reveal what it told the Premier League about the PIF takeover of Newcastle United because it could "harm" relations with Saudi Arabia, smacks of profits before principle.
No wonder Labour MP for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, who has been critical of the way the Premier League handles takeovers, said: "The lack of transparency and accountability by the Premier League and government is a sign of broken football governance.
"This is the first time we've heard it's an issue of diplomacy. There will be many fans who have concerns about Saudi Arabia's human rights record - if the government raised concerns, we deserve to know about it."
Amanda Staveley, the businesswoman who helped broker the deal, said in a recent interview with The Athletic that there were no links between PIF and the Saudi state: “Human rights we take very seriously, but our partner is PIF, not the Saudi state. The separation issue has been resolved. It’s not sportswashing. It’s investment.”
The question remains, though…if PIF is not linked to the Saudi state, why can Ms Staveley not come out and condemn human rights abuses, the war in Yemen or indeed the routine executions taking place in the Kingdom?
Only last year, the Premier League confirmed that state and fund are inextricably linked, as the Premier League said in a letter to Newcastle last year: “PIF’s directors are appointed by royal decree and its current board is almost exclusively composed of (Saudi) government ministers. The PIF Law puts it expressly under the direction of a (Saudi Arabian) government ministry. Its function is to serve the national interest of (Saudi Arabia).”
Sunjeev Bery, the executive director of Freedom Forward, an organisation that works to end US alliances with non-democratic regimes, said that PIF is inextricably linked to the Saudi Arabian state.
“The public investment fund is the direct financial arm of the Saudi dictatorship’s brutality, and it is the source of the cash that finances the repressive system.
“There is no division between the PIF and the state. The Saudi ruler is in charge of the PIF, sits at the top of the PIF and uses the PIF directly to maintain power. The Saudi monarchy is using football to hide this horrifying record, and everyone should be utterly appalled.”
It was left to the clubs themselves to hastily arrange a meeting where 18 of them (Newcastle were the sole objectors while Manchester City, another club with state links, abstained) voted to temporarily block lucrative sponsorship deals linked to a club's owners.
It means a one-month ban on deals linked to club owners while the issue is debated further and more robust rules are put in place.
Almost 98% of Newcastle fans surveyed by The Mag admitted that they were happy PIF have taken over the club, the same fans no doubt who protested about Newcastle’s sponsorship deal with payday loan company Wonga on ethical grounds.
The UK government, the Premier League and the club owners have a lot of explaining to do.
In this age of 24/7 news, the fact that so many have remained so quiet speaks volumes and underlines the challenges that lie ahead if the Premier League’s reputation is not to be damaged beyond repair.