Newcastle boss Steve Bruce returns to Aston Villa on Monday in front of a global television audience having revealed his former club were “practically bust” and “close to the wall” in his final days as manager.
The idea that both Bruce and Villa would be meeting in Premier League action seemed remote little more than 18 months ago.
Defeat to Fulham in final of the 2018 Championship play-offs could not paper over the cracks of deep-seated financial problems that were threatening to floor the club, which was lurching towards the cliff edge until the NSWE Group completed a swift takeover from Tony Xia.
Bruce, who held the fort after the sacking of chief executive Keith Wyness and director of football Steve Round, was dismissed by the new owners in October amid poor form and fan revolt but both parties found a quick route back to the top table.
Speaking ahead of his Villa Park return with the Magpies, Bruce recalled his fears that Villa might not be saved.
“We didn’t know if we were going to get paid in the May and June. It was practically close to the wall,” he said.
“It never got that far but there was a threat at the end of the month that we couldn’t pay the wages. It was the worst and probably the most difficult six weeks after the play-off game, it was unrivalled from where we were. To be fair to the chief executive at the time he had kept it quiet for three or four months.
“We were aware we couldn’t bring anyone in but financially we didn’t realise the enormity of it until he got the sack and then Steve Round got the sack. It was a really difficult time.
“In that summer we had to sell. (Jack) Grealish nearly went to Spurs. James Chester nearly went to Stoke and then…the new owners came in and everything changed very, very quickly. If they hadn’t come in so quickly I would have feared for a great club the way it was, because we were practically bust.”
Bruce lost his struggle to win over many Villa fans, coloured potentially by his prior association with rivals Birmingham, with a cabbage launched in his direction the low point of his relationship with the crowd.
As a former Sunderland manager he has another battle on his hands at Newcastle and when asked if expected to be booed on Monday, the 58-year-old joked: “From which end?”
“I got criticised, yes, but for that 18 months only Manchester City scored more goals than us. They (Villa fans) are a very difficult lot – great club, great support with great history, but it was in a mess.
“It was arguably my most difficult job, even more difficult than this one.”
As for receiving one of sport’s more unusual projectiles, he offered: “The fans can throw some things, but a cabbage?
“I went the next day so I didn’t have time to get angry. It was one of the most unsavoury times of my career.”