By Shelley Osborne
American novelist Fanny Fern once said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
The act of sharing food and enjoying a meal with another person is of course an intimate act that often helps bond people together. Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce also appears to view the act of breaking bread as a crucial component in respect of maintaining relationships with members of the press and media.
When Steve Bruce was announced as Aston Villa manager to replace Roberto Di Matteo in early October 2016, the press didn’t miss an opportunity to swank as ‘Brucie’ joined them in the players canteen prior to his official unveiling. The new manager worked the room with Steve Clemence and Steve Round, and admiring members of the press conversely mentioned to Aston Villa fans that this was something previous managers would never do.
Neil Johnson of BBC Sport online, tweeted of Steve Bruce in February this year:
“Steve Bruce never dodged a question when Wigan boss. Flung his doors open to press, invited us into players’ canteen, training ground dressing room & his office. Total respect. A great manager with manners to match.”
Football media lighting cameraman Sean Twamley tweeted in 2017 about a ‘cup of tea rule’, which seems to relate to the amount of refreshments offered by a manager and he ranked Bruce as the best.
“Under the ‘cup of team rule’ Steve Bruce, Aston Villa manager is now ranked top. Took us all to lunch in the players’ canteen.”
Bruce with his warm Geordie charm is known as an expert in his handling of the press and media, but did the relationships he enjoys with the press contribute towards ensuring he has stayed in the post as Aston Villa manager after two seasons of under achievement?
The appointment of Steve Bruce as manager in October 2016, as Roberto Di Matteo’s successor, was less of a process and more of a procession.
Some fans raised an eyebrow when Wyness and Xia talked about a 25-man list of candidates, that Bruce apparently topped.
The football media were in unison backing the “The best man for the job”, as two Birmingham Mail journalists called him, while others promised success.
Villa have made a great appointment this time. Hear Steve Bruce talking to K&G on #beINSports tomorrow. He’ll get them up – this season.
— Richard Keys (@richardajkeys) October 13, 2016
The manager himself was also confident of promotion.
“If I didn’t think I could do it, I wouldn’t be here,” said Bruce, immediately after taking the job.
“There’s no honeymoon period. We’ve got 35 games to go. That’s a lot of time to do something. When I came to Birmingham in 2001, we were 15th at Christmas and still got up via the play offs.”
Having recovered to get within six points of the play-offs on 1stJanuary 2017, Bruce continued to be confident of achieving the club’s objective for the season.
“I am going to be brave and stick my head over and say a club like ours has got to be in the play-offs,” said Bruce on 13th January 2017
Bruce was meant to be implementing his ‘January plan’ to cover for Jonathan Kodjia and Jordan Ayew’s participation in the African Cup of Nations. Together with CEO Wyness, he had assured fans that plans were in place (where have we heard that before?) to cover for this crucial month in the season. It had been a clear concern of Villa supporters before the season had even kicked off.
Bruce’s actual plan for January 2017?
Aston Villa’s manager seemed determined to get Gabby Agbonlahor fit to replace the goals of Kodjia and Ayew.
“When he’s played he’s shown exactly what he wants to do. There’s no better centre forward in this league, if he’s fit,” stated Bruce about Agbonlahor on 7th November 2016.
Bruce’s fixation with Gabby would continue into the 2017/18 season and was finally abandoned after another bad run of form which resulted in the manager coming close to the sack.
Bruce was never criticised by the local press for relying so heavily on Agbnolahor (who was deemed surplus to requirements by previous managers) and his stubborn willingness to include Agbonlahor had a negative effect on both the ‘January plan’ of the 2016/17 season and the bad start to the 2017/18.
Agbonlahor failed to score any goals in January 2017 and following Bruce’s decision to sell Rudy Gestede to Middlesbrough on 4thJanuary 2017, there appeared to be little by the way of a back-up plan that month, other than continued efforts to try to get Ross McCormack going.
It wasn’t until 31stJanuary 2017 that Scott Hogan finally arrived at the club, even though Kodjia would return in the following game.
By this point however Villa’s season had gone into reverse. The failed January plan and huge influx of January signings saw the team drop down the league table as Bruce struggled to fit Hogan and Kodjia into his team together.
At the height of Bruce’s poor January, a story was released to the press regarding an incident that was meant to have taken place at Ross McCormack’s house. It was alleged in an exclusive that Bruce had been involved in an angry confrontation with Villa’s £12m striker Ross McCormack, after he had failed to arrive at training because of faulty electric gates. In the sexed-up version of the story written by Neil Moxley on the 21stJanuary 2017, Bruce was alleged to have scaled the gate and confronted McCormack in his house.
“I have just filed the story behind SB’s outburst. Rarely had I heard anything like it. Admiration for him now through the roof.”
The story was positively received by Villa fans, who after years of rumours about a toxic dressing room, were glad to have a manager acting tough again. Forgotten was Bruce’s assertion that a club Villa’s size had to be in the play-offs and Bruce was able to buy himself more time.
A less sexy version of the story, where Bruce merely drove up to the gate took a photo and drove off, was released the following day on 22ndJanuary 2017 but this version did not, of course, receive as much press attention.
Phantom January 2017 Spend
Another factor that receives little press attention – to the point of being forgotten – is the £23m Bruce spent on players in the winter 2017 transfer window.
Bruce was promised funds by CEO Keith Wyness when he arrived at the club in October 2016 and Aston Villa’s new manager chose to sign eight new players that winter; Lansbury, Hourihane, Bree, Hogan, Bjarnason, Neil Taylor, Bedeau and Sam Johnstone for a cost of around £23m.
CEO Keith Wyness explained one advantage of spending big in a January window was that players what a longer period to settle in before the start of the following season. Bruce’s January transfer window was effectively his summer transfer window and Bruce himself admitted as much.
“There won’t be a huge turnover this summer,” said Bruce in March 2017. “I don’t think the club can expect to do that again. Now I’ve got a squad which I’m delighted about.”
After finishing fourth this season in the Championship, there has been an almost uniform rewriting of Bruce’s expenditure as Aston Villa manager by the press. Six high-profile journalists appear to have omitted entirely from the debate the eight players Bruce signed in January 2017.
“It hasn’t been easy with Financial Fair Play. People need reminding of that because they think I’ve used a big cheque book here, which has not been the case,” pleaded Bruce, at the end of last season. “We’ve brought in loans and I think I spent £2.5m in the summer and brought in almost £20m.”
The alleged £20m Bruce claimed to have raised for the club this season included Veretout (a player Di Matteo didn’t have available to him either) and Carles Gil and Carlos Sanchez (Season long loans with buy options arranged during Di Matteo’s time was manager).
The press kept to Bruce’s script.
‘Despite the acquisition of a stellar name in John Terry, the last two Championship years have been austere,’ wrote the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel.
‘Finishing 13th in the first season inspired the determination to recruit a player of Terry’s stature and experience but, in reality, times are hard. Steve Bruce, the manager, spent only £2.5m last summer, while raising £18m in player sales.”
If only journalists could make Aston Villa’s financial woes disappear as quickly as the many millions Steve Bruce spent on players, wages and loan fees during his time as manager here.
At best, the reporting in relation to Bruce’s expenditure can be described as a disingenuous, at worst deliberately misleading. Sunderland and Huddersfield fans have expressed similar complaints about Bruce’s financial mismanagement of their clubs, but this is something that seems to be overlooked by the press. Bruce had spent over £80m at Sunderland in two years as a manager there.
Many articles have been written in the past few weeks lamenting the financial mismanagement of Aston Villa yet seemingly no blame has, again, been attached to Steve Bruce. This is a particularly troubling omission considering the justification Bruce gave for paying his signings such high wages.
“One of the reasons we have one of the biggest wage bills in the Championship is we have to deal with that mentality and that expectation,” he said back in February last year. “That’s why they get paid more than anyone else in this division. That’s why they get paid it – to handle the expectation.”
End of Season Excuses
Following Bruce’s failure to make the play-offs in his first season at Aston Villa, the ex-Hull City manager sought to redefine the parameters of his objectives.
“I make no bones about it, when I arrived here 10 months ago I didn’t think we could be open and expansive,” said the Villa boss in September last year. “I wanted to stay in the division, daft as that may seem.”
This explanation was thereafter trumpeted as an achievement by several of Bruce’s most vocal supporters in the press. Apparently – “Bruce saved Aston Villa from relegation!”
This notion was repeated again, after Villa failed to make the automatic places and then lost the play-off final. Apparently, Bruce had saved Villa from doing a back-to-back relegation ala Sunderland.
Failure was being spun as success.
Meanwhile, Neil Warnock, who was appointed at Cardiff City in the same week as Bruce, with relatively little spend turned a team in the relegation zone into an automatic promotion winning team. He out performed Bruce every step of the way.
Nearer to home, Wolves, who finished below Villa the season before, won the league with a new manager (so much for ‘stability’).
The Birmingham Mail were bullish that Bruce would get Villa ‘definitely’ promoted in the 2017/18 season.
The reason local journalists were so emboldened in their Bruce support and predictions was Villa were once again the bookies favourites for automatic promotion and they had the most expensively assembled squad in the league (spending a reported £88m on players in the 2016/17 season alone).
After Villa’s poor start to the season, it was during the month of September that sections of Villa fans were already beginning to lose patience with the Villa boss.
Harry Redknapp later stated that Steve Bruce had called him by telephone on the eve of the Barnsley game (September 16th) to inform him that he feared he would lose his job if he did not win that match.
The Midlands reporters circled their wagons to protect Bruce, pointing out that Villa had seven managers in seven years and that the club should try to implement a period of stability. Journalists were also happy to echo Bruce’s choice of the word ‘hysteria’ when describing some fans social media reaction to Villa’s bad start to the season.
Other members of the press encouraged fans to wait until the end of the season and then make an assessment in the summer (it was also MOMS opinion that it was too early to fire Bruce in September – Ed).
Expectations though were clearly mapped out for that summer assessment.
‘They’ve spent a lot of money over recent years, they have a squad brimming with quality and experience,’ wrote Gregg Evans of the Birmingham Mail in September.
‘Nine players in the Villa squad have won promotion from the Championship before, so there are to be no excuses this season.’
Come mid-February the calls for patience showed merit with Bruce finally leading Villa into the automatic promotion spots for the first time after a home win against Birmingham City. It was perfect timing, for as Bruce had always said throughout his managerial career, it didn’t matter where you were in the early part of the season, but where you were when the “daffodils come up.”
He now had Villa perfectly placed and the injuries that plagued his season had largely cleared up.
Yet, Villa remained in second place for just six days and would never return.
Having limped to 4thplace in the Championship behind Neil Warnock’s Cardiff, despite an expensively assembled squad that was a favourite for promotion, Bruce’s underachievement seems to have been glossed over once again by the press.
Bruce had a very difficult period personally towards the end of the season and some press members declared that Bruce deserved promotion.
‘Steve Bruce has cleaned up the Aston Villa mess amid personal tragedy and sack threat – he deserves Premier League return‘ read the headline of Neil Moxley’s Sunday Mirror article.
Unfortunately, such sentiment offers no reprieve in such a pragmatic results orientated business. Moxley admitted that himself at the end of his article, when he wrote ‘happy endings are rare in football’.
Failure to get Villa promoted has, judging by the recent reporting of Villa’s recent financial woe, put the club in an even bigger mess than the one Bruce was deemed to have inherited.
The way the Villa manager has set his teams up has been consistent throughout his tenure and it’s ultimately fallen short – “open and expansive” has rarely been seen. Aston Villa’s negative first half against Fulham in the ‘£140m play-off final’ epitomised this and has not been subject to the sort of scrutiny you would expect, when you consider how crucial the game was to the financial future of the club.
Those end of season assessments from journalists, who requested a stay of execution for Bruce, never came.
Some journalists seemed to have staked their personal credibility on Bruce achieving promotion this season to the extent that they appear unable to criticise him now.
No consideration has been given to the failure of Bruce’s ‘experience and steel’ strategy which could only be judged on the short-term since Robert Snodgrass and John Terry were a one season only gamble.
It seems like some journalists want to have their cake in the players canteen and eat it too.
You can find Shelley on Twitter here @ShelleyOzzy
Listen to the latest MOMS Podcast about the current state of Villa