Steve Bruce is hunting for a latter-day Guy Fawkes. Newcastle’s manager may have long since forgotten most of the history he learned at school but it seems a football equivalent of the gunpowder plot is brewing at the club’s training ground.
Bruce was so incensed by the deliberate leaking of details of his heated altercation with the midfielder Matt Ritchie to the Daily Mail that he used the word “treason” on Fridayyesterday during one of the most highly charged press conferences delivered by a Newcastle manager since Joe Kinnear’s expletive-ridden address in 2008.
In 1605, when Fawkes and his fellow Catholics failed in an attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up the House of Lords, the standard punishment for treason was hanging, drawing and quartering.
Yet much as Bruce is hellbent on identifying the “traitor” he is convinced intends to see him ousted, the manager’s critics believe that, in throwing open a sealed dressing-room window, the “mole” may be doing Newcastle a favour.
There is an argument that, by revealing the faultlines within a fractured squad, this latest in a series of leaks will hasten Bruce’s ultimately inevitable dismissal by the owner, Mike Ashley, and quite possibly avert relegation.
As Bruce prepared to take his side to West Brom for Sunday’s tactical duel with Sam Allardyce, he bore all the hallmarks of a manager who knows his job is in jeopardy. After two wins in 15 Premier League games and with Newcastle three points clear of third-bottom Fulham, he desperately needs his apparently fragile truce with Ritchie, and other dressing-room dissenters, to hold.
Although it appears some players are genuinely happy with Bruce’s management, others draw unflattering comparisons with his much-decorated predecessor, Rafael Benítez, and miss the erudite Spaniard’s “devil in the detail” approach.
It does not help that Bruce has regularly been scathingly critical of his team this season and last Saturday blamed Ritchie for the tactical chaos which prefaced Wolves equalising in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park.
On Tuesday the pair clashed, with the midfielder calling the manager a “coward” and an incandescent Bruce offering a retaliatory shoulder barge. “It [rows with players] happens up and down the country every week,” Bruce said on Friday . “You’re dealing with 25 fiercely competitive men, full of testosterone but, at other clubs, it doesn’t get into the papers. It happens too often here.
“It borders on treason – it’s wholly disgusting. The source has to be someone from within. That’s the biggest disappointment but we will try our utmost to discover who it is.”
The mole might counter that Bruce initiated the whole sorry episode with his clumsy post-match criticism of Ritchie. He similarly let himself down by not telling the goalkeeper Karl Darlow he was to be dropped for the Wolves game until 72 hours after media reports that Martin Dubravka would start.
Darlow initially believed that Bruce was responsible for that leak and it has taken considerable effort to repair relations between the pair. “I find that idea totally disgusting,” said a manager who held further clear-the-air talks with senior players on Friday. “If I’d done that I’d resign tomorrow. It’s not true. Leaving Karl out has been my most difficult decision in 18 months.”
Despite reports that certain first-teamers believe they are given too many days off – three alone in the past week – Bruce has not agonised about his training schedule.
“That’s bordering on the ridiculous,” he retorted. “It’s absurd and obscene. We’ve got a ludicrous amount of matches and our days off were agreed with the doctor, medical department and sports scientists. People are picking up injuries because they’re playing tired.”
Given that Newcastle travel to the Hawthorns without their three brightest, and most incisive, creative talents in the injured Callum Wilson, Miguel Almirón and Allan Saint-Maximin, Ashley will doubtless expect Bruce’s gameplan to mitigate the resultant loss of goals and pace.
Whatever Sunday’s result, a manager who could reportedly cost as much as £4m to sack is adamant he will not resign and the owner may be slightly reassured that performances, if not results, have improved since Graeme Jones’s appointment as a senior coach.
Some observers think Jones should replace Bruce but that overlooks the former’s shortage of frontline managerial experience. Any external appointment would be complicated by the continued determination of a Saudi Arabian-led consortium to buy Newcastle, regardless which division they end up in next season.
Should the buyout succeed, no one will be surprised if Benítez is reinstalled, but first Ashley must win an arbitration hearing intended to determine whether the takeover was blocked unreasonably by the Premier League last summer.
In a rare public statement on Friday the retail tycoon revealed Newcastle had failed in an attempt to replace the chairman of the arbitration panel, Michael Beloff QC, on the grounds of his previous relationship with the Premier League.
“NUFC is fighting tooth and nail [for Saudi-led ownership],” said Ashley. “The fans and the region are being denied the investment they deserve.”
Meanwhile Bruce battles on, grimly determined to confound his growing army of doubters and silence the enemy within.