The sad news from the weekend saw Bill Shankly getting numerous mentions.
The announcement that Ray Clemence had passed away at the age of 72, a player Bill Shankly signed from Scunthorpe, just as he did Kevin Keegan a few years later.
Ray Clemence, a goalkeeper who was a massive figure in football back in the 1970s and early 80s if you were around then, not just because he played for England but with so little football on TV, Liverpool’s European dominance meant they made up a significant amount of football on TV that wasn’t Match of The Day.
Back then the only matches guaranteed to be live on TV each year were the FA Cup final and England v Scotland in the home internationals. European Cup finals on TV were a massive bonus back then as English clubs dominated, Liverpool in particular, plus of course you had regular bonus football highlights to look forward to on Sportsnight in midweek, throughout the season, if English clubs were doing well in the European Cup.
There was a direct Newcastle United connection to Sunday’s sad news as well, with Ray Clemence’s son Stephen being part of Steve Bruce’s coaching staff, having played under Bruce at Birmingham.
As for Bill Shankly, he was the man who set Liverpool on their way for a 20 years or so period of dominance in English football, as well as Europe, plus making them massively popular around the world as well, helping to make them so financially competitive in recent times with that lasting legacy and popularity.
Bill Shankly is much quoted and I came across this one today when reading stuff online:
‘Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.’
That is football, summed up in only a handful of words.
I think that it is striking that pretty much all the best and most successful managers tend to say similar. That football is a simple game and it isn’t rocket science what they do that brings about success. Instead it is just keeping it simple and backing that up with their personal input, their man management and ideas and confidence they can instil in the team, working on these things on the training ground and usually finding that the harder they work with their players, the ‘luckier’ they get.
It tends to be the poor to average managers who make out that football is some complicated game that is all but impossible to get right, with mysteries and challenges that us mere mortals can’t comprehend.
Which brings me to the present day and the situation we are facing at St James Park, for me, those words from Bill Shankly say it all about Newcastle United with Steve Bruce.
The two best managers at Newcastle United for most current fans in their lifetimes, are Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson. It very much sums up their seasons in charge when you quote Bill Shankly: ‘Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.’
The emphasis in both training and in matches was smooth, clever, passing and moving with ball, working together as a team to get the ball forward and create chances, to score goals.
Nothing complicated for Sir Bobby or KK, just instilling confidence in players, getting them to believe in themselves and the football they had been asked to play. Both managers had a great eye for a player but they also improved so many players as individuals and as part of a quality functioning unit.
With Kevin Keegan you even saw this when he returned for that brief period before Mike Ashley forced him out. The football was appalling under Sam Allardyce but once he’d had time to work with them, within a couple of months KK had those same players playing far better more attractive and winning football, keeping it simple, passing and moving.
What you do need of course to have players playing in this style, is a manager brave enough to do so. Who has belief in their own ability as well as in the players, rather than going for supposedly lower risk defensive football and launching the ball long all too often.
Which once again, brings us back to Steve Bruce.
It is up there with some of Donald Trump’s claims, when you recall that on his arrival at St James Park, Steve Bruce promised us all that his Newcastle United teams would always play on the front foot, quite incredible really.
To be honest, it didn’t take much detective work to pick holes in Bruce’s claims, in 392 Premier League matches managed by Steve Bruce before he came to Newcastle, his teams had averaged a shocking 1.03 goals per game, Bruce anything but a ‘front foot’ manager.
The frustrating thing for so many Newcastle fans is that whilst this current NUFC squad are no world beaters, there is a general belief that they are capable of playing far better football, the emphasis on attack, which would also bring better results.
For Steve Bruce though, he seems totally incapable of being able to do this, seemingly too scared to even try. Turning 60 this year and after more than two decades in management, it would be a massive surprise I guess, if at this late stage Bruce changed from what we have seen down the years. A very limited manager whose teams play very limited football, football that has never seen one of his teams finish top eight, win anything, nor play in Europe apart from a handful of games with Hull in July / August 2014.
The football Newcastle United have played these last 15 months or so has been at odds with all but the odd other Premier League club, hitting the ball long far too often from the back, giving the ball to ASM in deep positions and hoping he can beat half the opposition team, hoping for set-piece situations to deliver a high proportion of goals, simply by getting the ball into the box and hoping something happens.
You watch teams like Southampton, Leeds and numerous others, as well as the obvious ones, they don’t always win as they don’t always have the best players but you can see what they are trying to do. Constantly trying to evolve and play better and better attacking football.
Not so at Newcastle under Steve Bruce.
Even under Rafa Benitez, he based his team on a solid disciplined defence as the mainstay, but always then tried to play football despite never really having the players to do so on most occasions.
However, once Almiron arrived, we instantly saw a better more attractive plan as the Paraguayan linked up with Rondon and Perez, you could see then real potential for better and more successful football.
With a net spend of over £100m in 16 months, it doesn’t really seem to make any difference which players he has to choose from, Steve Bruce can’t break out of the limited mindset and football that has been his staple diet for over two decades.
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