Through my career I saw no end of sackings and, perhaps more significantly, the harsh (and sometimes excruciating decline) which brings a manager to that point. Thick skin isn’t the half of it. It’s armour you need. And if you can’t cope with the days when the world is on your back, it’s really not the job for you.
To a degree, 20 years as a player prepares you for that because no-one is immune to a bit of treatment from the terraces when the wind blows in the wrong direction. I tried to be philosophical about criticism and I tried to buy into the mentality of the crowd: that if you were awful they’d slate you but actually, deep down every one of them was there with the intention of backing you. You just had to give them something to back. Quid pro quo.
But when you get to the stage where a cabbage is being thrown at Steve Bruce as a means of forcing him out of Aston Villa, you cross a line. I’m sure some people found that story funny and it is darkly comical in its own way – I mean, even before we get into the incident itself, who the hell brings a cabbage into a football ground? – but what happened at Villa on Tuesday reached a level of disrespect which no-one can defend.
Players and managers should always be open to criticism. If they aren’t, they’re effectively expecting to work with impunity and without expectation. The game pays big money to many of them and the only reason it pays big money is because it’s so madly popular. You cannot disregard the view of the public. But if someone is throwing vegetables at a manager, they’re not trying to initiate a discussion. They’re not trying to make a reasonable point. They’re dragging a manager down to a level of ridicule which someone like Steve Bruce doesn’t deserve.
He’s got big Manchester United connections so he won’t be the most popular man in Leeds but I think we can all accept that in the Championship he’s got a damn fine record.
I’ve dealt with him from time to time during my work with Sky and he’s warm and engaging: committed to his work and very serious about it. He’ll be big enough to take his sacking at Villa but I’m sure he’ll feel bitter about the way he was treated in the end. That cabbage almost represents the social media age in which no abuse seems to be too much.
It’s blatantly obvious that all was not well at Villa. There’d been a breakdown between Bruce and the crowd, as anyone could see, and they weren’t pulling up trees. Even though they reached the play-off final last season, I lost count of the number of people I heard moaning about the quality of their football. I accept that point and I know that fans want to be entertained. But I also know there are plenty of clubs in the Championship who would form an orderly queue to make the play-off final any which way.
In the end, Villa did what they had to do and they’ve probably saved Bruce from himself. He didn’t look like he was going to walk – why should he have walked so early in the season? – but the atmosphere was very toxic and sometimes there’s no way back from that. All I’d say is that the man who replaces him won’t inherit a bed of roses either. Toxic has described Villa for a while now and there’s more to the problems down there than Steve Bruce.
That’s for them to sort out and I don’t expect supporters of other Championship clubs to care about Villa’s plight but there was something about the treatment of Bruce on Tuesday which made me uncomfortable. It sank too low. The cabbage incident tars the person responsible for it but it should maybe lead to some reflection about the way in which criticism so often goes over the top.
Bruce will have been doing his best at Villa. He’s had a tough year personally too. None of that means he gets allowances for poor results but you’d think that people would air their grievances without the need for outright humiliation.
I sometimes wonder if this might be one of the next challenges for football or for the next generation of players and managers. Abuse is nothing new but in my day, you’d get it occasionally on match-days and then moan a bit about your match mark in the local paper on Monday morning. That was it.
Now I see the way in which players are ripped to shreds on social media every hour of the day and I can’t help feeling that throwing a cabbage at a manager who has earned more respect relates to the attention-seeking which social media breeds.
It might seem funny or clever but the people on the end of it are just people, after all.
Championship on Sky Sports today: Leeds United v Brentford – Sky Sports Main Event noon, Bolton Wanderers v Blackburn Rovers – Sky Sports Main Event 6.30pm.