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Steve Bruce: A victim of language?

Not everything is black or white

Newcastle United v Sheffield United - Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

As a self-certified pedant, Jamie Redknapp’s use of ‘literally’ has always amused and annoyed me in equal measures. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bard of Barton-on-Sea’s oratory skills, from memory and a quick Google search, here are a few highlights:

‘He literally chopped him in half with that challenge.’

‘He’s literally turned him inside out.’

‘Michael Owen literally turns into a greyhound.’

‘These balls now – they literally explode off your foot.’

‘He had to cut back inside onto his left because he literally hasn’t got a right foot.’

To be clear, incorrect use of language is literally my pet hate and this brings me to Sunday’s commentary of the Newcastle United vs Sheffield United game on Sky Sports. Mid-game, Andy Hinchcliffe described the job Steve Bruce has done in managing Newcastle United to 14th in the table (we finished 13th last season) as ‘incredible’. Several minutes later, he also described the job Chris Wilder has done in managing newly-promoted Sheffield United to 7th in the table as ‘incredible’. The problem with using superlatives is that it leaves you nowhere to go and if you use it again to describe something of a lesser degree, then you have lost meaning and credibility. Now, Andy isn’t the first co-commentator to display limited vocabulary during a live broadcast but this was the straw that broke the pedant’s back. Graeme Souness had already said that Bruce had ‘done a great job’ and fans had been described as ‘disrespectful’ for asking for more than 35 points at this stage or discussing alternative managers to spend the Saudi millions. How dare we?

Newcastle United v Sheffield United - Premier League Photo by Owen Humphreys/Pool via Getty Images

I can accept a lead commentator doing what Hinchcliffe did as they speak so much during a game, often reactively, that errors and repetition is likely at some point. Very few commentators in history have a perfect record at the microphone and nobody could reasonably hold them to account for the odd slip of the tongue. However, co-commentators and studio pundits do not have this excuse as they spend more time thinking about what they might say than actually speaking. Despite this advantage of preparation and pause, they are usually the linguistic liabilities of broadcasting. How do you watch a game for 45 minutes and then during your 2 minutes (maximum) of speaking at half-time, talk such utter drivel?

Sunday made me wonder whether part of the problem with perceptions of Steve Bruce inadvertently comes from the very pundits who many fans view as his ‘media pals’. If they used words appropriately, perhaps it would create an environment of reason, measure and perspective for the narrative to take place. It isn’t very ‘sexy’ but if they described the job he has done with more appropriate and considered language, aligned with the majority of the fan base, would there be as much divisive debate over the man? Using words such as ‘magnificent’, ‘terrific’ and ‘unbelievable’ tends to provoke a response of incredulity from fans who feel significantly underwhelmed compared to the level of success and quality those words imply. These are exceptional adjectives and ought to be used for exceptional circumstances in order to preserve their meaning.

If a pundit uses ‘incredible’ to describe a team being in the same position as the previous season, then what word do they use to describe Leicester City winning the Premier League? Of course, it is possible for two things to be incredible but there is a spectrum of achievement and similar to a mackem wedding, it’s all relative. The reaction from fans is then misinterpreted as criticism when, in fact, it is more likely a plea for reasonable and informed commentary from outsiders on their beloved area of expertise. Don’t tell us something is unbelievable when you have no idea what we are capable of believing.

Newcastle United v Sheffield United - Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

This creates a rigid dichotomy between pundits and fans, painted as pro-Bruce vs anti-Bruce, with the middle-ground seemingly disregarded and ignored in a trend extending beyond football. The majority of us are centrist, considering points of views from both sides of a debate and forming an opinion somewhere in the middle. However, in a world of sensationalist headlines and extreme language, there is no room in the mind of sender or receiver for this sensible nuance as it takes too much time to explain and digest. This is the fast food, instant messaging, on demand, live feed, refresh generation. Communication has changed and in the era of instant reaction, the bullet point has replaced the paragraph and the vlog has shouted over the verse. ‘Unpopular opinion’ tweets are generally popular opinions disguised as controversy to attract attention in a sea of click-bait:

‘People may not agree with me but on a good day, Shelvey is a class player.’

‘You might be mad at me saying this but Hayden is vastly underrated.’

‘Not trying to wind anyone up but ASM is the best dribbler in the squad.’

Even in this world of utter nonsense, the fact remains that it is possible to give Bruce credit and respect for the work he has done while also wanting more and looking beyond him, should the takeover be confirmed. If you think he has done an unbelievable job, then your imagination is very limited. He has done a reasonable job, a decent job, perhaps even a good job but no more. I can not say whether he has exceeded expectations, as I do not know what your expectations were and neither does any pundit. Even if they did, there is no universal expectation of fans and we all have slightly differing views and that’s ok. It is not negative or pessimistic to offer perspective, balance and critique and perhaps if the media were to do so there would be less of a contentious issue with the Steve Bruce narrative. There’s a huge area between ‘superb’ and ‘shite’ and it’s perfectly fine to inhabit it. Not everything is black or white.