IT might have been a challenging first few months in charge at Newcastle United, but Steve Bruce insists that not even those strains compare to leading Aston Villa during tough times as he prepares to head back his former club tonight.

The Magpies boss has managed to steer the Magpies through a tricky start to head to his old club sitting seven points above the Premier League's relegation zone – and early criticism of his methods has been silenced for the time being.

But despite the trials and tribulations that he has encountered at St James’ Park since taking over in the summer when supporters didn’t want him to replace Rafa Benitez, and the toxic feeling there is towards the club’s owner Mike Ashley, Bruce does not think it compares to his battle to succeed at Villa.

He was sacked by the Villans in October last year after a 3-3 draw with Preston when an angry fan threw a cabbage at him before that game. That arrived even though he had led Aston Villa to the play-off final the previous May, losing out to Fulham at Wembley.

“I thought the cabbage was a ball to begin with, it was a big old thing,” said Bruce. “How he got it into the stadium I don’t know. Stephen Clemence miscontrolled it when it came in, my reaction was ‘what the **** is that?’ It didn’t miss me by much, it fell at my feet. I thought it was a ball, the size of it. 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.

“I got criticised, yes, but for that 18 months only Man City scored more goals than us. It was always brought up as ‘my style of play’. They are a very difficult lot. They are a 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.”

After that play-off final Aston Villa were taken over by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, but Bruce was in control at a time when he didn’t even know what the future would hold – with a real threat that players might not even be paid.

“It was the worst and probably the most difficult six weeks after the play-off game, it unravelled from where we were. To be fair to the chief executive at the time he had kept it quiet for three or four months,” said Bruce.

“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.

“We didn’t know if we were going to get paid in the May and June. It was practically close to the wall. In that summer we had to sell. Jack Grealish nearly went to Spurs. James Chester nearly went to Stoke and then within July and going back to work 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.

“With the experience I had they said would I stay and try to help the club through the mess it was in. It was a huge mess. It was ridiculous. There was gaping holes that we had to try to fill in.

"If the new owners had not been so quick I don’t know where it would have ended up. The takeover was done within three or four days, which was remarkable.”

Aston Villa’s fans never really warmed to Bruce during his time in charge, and they wanted him gone when he did lose his job.

“That’s the perception of the job I did. I remember sitting down with Steve Round after two days and going if we’re not careful here, never mind not getting promoted we’ll be lucky to stay up in the Championship the way there were,” said Bruce, whose side beat Middlesbrough in the layoff semi-final that year.

“It was a big struggle but when you walk away from it, I like to say I did well at Wigan, at Birmingham and down the road. I knew how difficult it was but we very nearly got there. We were poor in the first half of the play-off against Fulham but to get there, on what we did and what we had, we had.”

Bruce will take charge of Newcastle at Villa Park knowing recent performances have given him some breathing space with the visiting fans, but he knows that can soon change if the improved form isn’t maintained.

To stand a chance of succeeding tonight he knows how important Jack Grealish is to the Villa way, with Bruce recalling when the penny dropped and he started to fulfil the potential everyone knew he had by working with strength and conditioning coach Oli Stevenson.

Bruce said: “I have to say fair play to the owners, even though they sacked me. The first thing they did was to give Jack Grealish a new five-year contract and say we want to build the team around him. How refreshing to every Villa supporter that was. He is the crown jewel and he never wanted to leave. It would be difficult for anyone to buy him with the size of contract he has got. He could play for any team, Man U, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal … any team. I rate him that highly.

“I'd love to say it was all me. He got a horrible injury, got an injury in pre-season where he damaged a kidney. The perception of Grealish is he wants to just play football - an absolute football nut and of course he's young and he's good looking kid and all the rest of that, that will be written about but he wanted to play but he damaged his kidney so badly and was in the hospital for three weeks.

“And then he came out and missed four or five months. And his mate, who we took on because we were skint, we employed. We brought this kid from the academy who was his mate, who grew up with Jack as the strength and conditioning coach in the gym. And he single-handedly, for me, changed him. In the gym and what he worked on - he came out after six months, and we looked at him and went 'oh my god' physique wise he's a beast now and I think there was a little bit of shock really but a terrific player.”

Newcastle: Dubravka; Schar, Fernandez, Dummett; Yedlin, Shelvey, Hayden, Willems; Almiron, Saint-Maximim; Joelinton.