Up until this Tuesday, even the bookies weren’t clear on who they thought would be the next Latics manager. Early certainty that Graham Souness would quickly be bullying the squad into shape fell away within hours, leaving a muddle of slight of hand and speculation so typical of the fourth estate’s approach to the beautiful game in this country. And then, quicker than you could say ‘that’s not what I meant’, in your best Scouse accent, Paul Jewell was out of the running and the press were left without the only solid lead they’d had since the story began.
So Tuesday morning say the guesswork recommence in earnest and the dusty old list of likely lads rolled out for inspection. From Peter Reid through to Terry Venables they were all there and with more than a whiff of ‘end of an era’ Leeds United about them. Not that it was all doom and gloom, Houllier’s dip in the odds providing an, albeit slight, hope that there was indeed an outstanding candidate out there, somewhere, if only we could shake off the attentions of Joe Royle.
The winds of football change quickly though, and somewhere between me sitting at my desk and taking the tea bag out of my first brew, the picture had become clear again. Enter Steve Bruce, in a first during Whelan’s tenure as chairman, a man already contracted to another club.
The possibility of compensation payments, at first, made this look an unlikely option but as soon as the masses had warmed up their Whelan is a cheapskate jibes, their were quotes from both sides of the fence, confirming Latics’ approach and suggesting that a deal was very much a possibility. Despite a fair bit of hokey-cokey from the St Andrews decision makers, in the meantime, that remains the case and Bruce is expected to be in place shortly after Date Whelan’s return from Barbados.
Steve Bruce’s place in the Wigan Athletic ‘fairy tale’ is often a forgotten one. Folklore has it that he was the man who did the dirty on the club leaving up with half a squad. Worse, for some, he is a man inextricably linked with the departure of the club’s most favourite son of recent times, Roberto Martinez. As is nearly always the case, folklore has a loose grip on the facts.
It’s easy to see Bruce leaving Latics for Crystal Palace as him taking the easy way out, but the simple fact of the matter is that Latics hadn’t offered him a contract and Palace had, what would you have done? Whelan may have had an offer ready, but the delay in acting cost him. As for Bobby, well his contract was up and a manager-less club isn’t in a position to offer new contracts. Despite both Bruce and his predecessor, Bruce Rioch, wanting to keep the Spaniard on, others at the club had different ideas and so it was off to Motherwell for everyone’s favourite Sky pundit.
The end of year shenanigans marked a more simple truth. Steve Bruce did a quite good job as Latics manager. Taking over a squad of wasters and ne’er do well’s, in the doldrums and steering them to the brink of promotion. The Whelan revolution had started to look a little bit flat at this stage and Bruce was the man that breathed new life into it. In fact he showed every sign of being able to do the job that Paul Jewell started the season after.
Of course things change over time, and Bruce might not be quite as much an attractive option to a Premier League club as he was to a second division one, but should that put us off? His reputation in football seems to remain untarnished by Birmingham’s relegation two reasons back. In fact it may have been enhanced by his loyalty and achievements in sticking around to bring then back up at the first time of asking. Latics fans should also be buoyed by Birmingham’s first season in the top flight, where clever dealings in the January window saw them turn around a worse situation than we are likely to be in come New Year’s Day.
I’m not saying that Bruce is the best manager around, I’m not even sure that (if the likes of Houllier are genuinely sniffing around) he’s the best available option. What I am saying is that he is a pretty good choice for a club like our’s. A young manager, keen and with a fair bit of experience with the situation we’re in.
In the end, if Bruce gets the job it’ll be a bit of an anti-climax for most fans. No-one had him down as first choice but in some ways he’s the perfect choice, cutting through the expectations of the optimists and pessimists amongst us. In some ways he’s very similar to Paul Jewell, but in others very different. Without disrespecting Jewell’s football career, it didn’t quite span the heights of Bruce’s. Hopefully his name will go some way to offsetting the club’s reputation and make it that bit easier to sign players.
Then again, we’ll still be Wigan Athletic so maybe not.
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