Steve Bruce sets out to ‘match the mighty Rafa’ with top-half Newcastle finish

Steve Bruce has defiantly set his sights on matching the “mighty” Rafael Benitez’s top-10 Premier League finish as he attempts to drag Newcastle out of trouble.

The Spaniard, whose departure from St James’ Park 18 months ago is still a source of pain for many fans, secured 10th place in his first season back in the top flight after winning promotion and 13th a year later with 44 and 45 points respectively.

It was Bruce to whom owner Mike Ashley turned after Benitez opted to head for China, with his first season in charge ending with a 13th-place finish on 44 points.

Rafael Benitez was well liked by Newcastle fans
Rafael Benitez was well liked by Newcastle fans

But this campaign has seen Bruce’s side slip to the fringes of the relegation battle amid a nine-game winless run.

Asked if any manager could achieve success under Ashley’s tenure, the 60-year-old, who is understood to be keen to add Bournemouth coach Graeme Jones to his staff, said: “I would ask the question what do you gauge as success? I gauge success last year as matching Rafa’s tally of points, of where we finished, because that’s where we are at this particular moment.

“We are in the bottom half of the Premier League and have been there for the best part of 15 years. What’s realistic for where we are? In between 11th and 16th, is that realistic?

“Can we aim towards the top 10? We’re three, four points adrift of that. Would that be an achievement? In my eyes, probably yes.

  • 2017-18 under Benitez - 10th, 44 pts

  • 2018-19 under Benitez - 13th, 45 pts

  • 2019-20 under Bruce - 13th, 44 pts

  • 2020-21 under Bruce (18 games) - 15th, 19 pts

“Rafa, who I have obviously heard a lot of and have the hugest respect for, like all you have, where did he finish? He was a world-class manager. Where did he finish? Is that success?

“We matched the mighty Rafa last year. We will try to do the best we can again this year.”

Bruce’s cause will be boosted this weekend by the timely return of Allan Saint-Maximin from a two-month lay-off with coronavirus.

The Frenchman is arguably the club’s quickest and most creative player and they have been painfully blunt in his absence.

Asked how Covid-19 had affected the 23-year-old, Bruce, who denied rumours of a fall-out with the player, said: “It’s been really tough. The one thing Allan wants to do is run around and play football.

“That gives him joy and it was good to see him in the last week or so because he’s bounced around the training ground. He’s just delighted to be given the go-ahead, that he’s OK and thankfully this virus hasn’t scarred any of the organs which it attacked.

“Let’s hope he can come and give us a spark because certainly the team needs it and needs that bit of flair, style, arrogance, swagger and pace that we have been missing at the top end of the pitch.”