Steve Bruce’s future as Hull City manager is uncertain despite winning promotion to the Premier League for a second time – though I’m not convinced it’s as up in the air as he’s claiming.
Bruce told David Burns that he’d have to consider his immediate future after talks with Ehab Allam almost before the champagne corks had landed on the Wembley pitch. With a rumoured takeover in the offing, you can hardly blame the manager for wanting to know who he’ll be working for before committing his future to the club while you’d also forgive him for asking Ehab whether a failure to sell the club would lead to more of the same nonsense Bruce has felt compelled to defend for the last three years.
Barring any new owners wanting their own man at the helm, it’s highly unlikely Bruce is going anywhere. He’d certainly have gone if City had lost on Saturday but in achieving the ultimate goal for the season, however he’s gone about it, he’s surely cemented his job for next season.
On the whole, I think that’s probably right. I’m unconvinced that Bruce has it in him to take City to the next level, as witnessed by last season’s unnecessary relegation, but sacking a manager who has just achieved promotion would be harsh and rarely happens. Saturday’s victory continued Bruce’s unprecedented success at the KC Stadium but sandwiched between his two promotions was the failure of relegation and the inability to achieve automatic promotion with what was, in all likelihood, the best squad of players in the league.
Bruce has to demonstrate that he’s learned the lessons of the last relegation and do a better job this time around. Recruitment is the obvious place to start as the disastrous acquisitions in the summer of 2014 were largely responsible for the club struggling in the Premier League having stayed up fairly comfortably the year previously. Not only did the expensive signings destroy the bond the team had built over two years under Bruce but they failed on an individual level too.
He took a scatter-gun approach to that transfer window. Little thought went into how the likes of Tom Ince, Haten Ben Arfa and Abel Hernandez would fit into the squad – we just had to have somebody, anybody and they were available. Hernandez’s goals have been key this season for City but he’s been in England for almost two years now and still doesn’t speak English. That’s a ridiculous situation and shows how poor we are at doing the homework on signings from abroad. We got lucky with Abel because no-one came in for him last summer and he showed a wholly unexpected level of application to perform brilliantly in the Championship but luck wasn’t going to make players of Nick Proschwitz, Yannick Sagbo or Adama Diomande.
Bruce’s best signings have tended to be guys he worked with before City, like Meyler and Elmohamady, or well-known Premier League players who cost an absolute fortune, like Livermore, Dawson, Long, Jelavic and Snodgrass. The cost of players in that second category is growing astronomically so it’s more difficult than ever to attract them. Bruce has to lean on his contacts and scouting team to find more gems that are under-appreciated or undiscovered (at the top level) like Curtis Davies, Robbie Brady, Andy Robertson and Moses Odubajo
Hand in hand with recruitment, Bruce needs to reward the contribution of the players who’ve achieved promotion. Previously he tried to evolve the squad too quickly and achieved nothing except pushing many noses out of joint. That will be easier this time, in fairness, because we still have a core of his Premier League signings but he has to be wary of wholesale changes – particularly when the signings are last minute panic buys.
Bruce defied his reputation as a tactical dinosaur during our initial run of success by switching to a 3-5-2 system that suited our players and proved difficult for plenty of other teams to counter. He’s not shown any ability to find an alternative once that started to get found out reverting only to a pretty standard 4-4-1-1. That’s been enough to succeed in the Championship but the Premier League is a different beast and the emphasis on pressing high up the pitch and the need to match up to three or four players in the centre of midfield require a level of subtlety Bruce has rarely been capable of.
Perhaps most crucially, Bruce has to improve the quality of coaching at the club. Too few players have improved under his watch, particularly during the couple of Premier League years where we saw promising signings going backwards rather than improving. As a group, we’ve made the same mistakes too often leading some fans to question whether we do anything in training. We’ve seen the same slow transition of the ball from defence to midfield too often, the inability to get runners into the penalty area too often, the unimaginative set pieces too often and heard the same excuses for not scoring enough goals for four years.
The coaching set-up needs freshening up and it would be nice also to see some succession plan put in place. If Bruce doesn’t go this summer, he’ll go at some point and we weren’t supposed to be in the position where the manager leaving leads to an exodus of the staff (According to Assem Allam circa 2011).
There’s certainly plenty for the owners, new or old, to think about on that score.