One Monday morning back in late September, Steve Bruce cancelled training to give his Newcastle players an old-fashioned bollocking. The previous day they had been thrashed 5-0 by Leicester City; Isaac Hayden’s studs gored Dennis Praet’s shin, reducing them to 10 men, and from there Bruce’s side crumbled, or as he put it, “surrendered”.
Clearly it had not been a smooth transition from Rafael Benitez’s strategic nuance to Bruce, who had left players confused by some of his tactical decisions in the opening weeks of the season. Here, though, he let them know exactly how he felt about their limp display at the King Power Stadium. “We can’t play like that again,” said Andy Carroll. “The gaffer was fuming and rightly so – it was absolutely terrible. The heads went down; what happened was a disgrace.”
With hindsight, that moment may have been something of a turning point. The following weekend Bruce handed 19-year-old Matty Longstaff his debut alongside brother Sean in midfield, and together the local boys set about terrorising Manchester United in front of a rapt St James’ Park. Matty’s brilliantly taken late winner clinched Newcastle’s second win of the season, hauling them out of the relegation zone and starting some momentum.
Over the following weeks Newcastle beat West Ham, Bournemouth, high-flying Sheffield United, Southampton and Crystal Palace to celebrate Christmas in 10th place. Fans softened towards Bruce’s prosaic style and even began to enjoy the occasional bolts of excitement generated by Jonjo Shelvey’s passing range and Allan Saint-Maximin’s unpredictable dribbling.
Then, on Boxing Day, Newcastle visited Manchester United. This time the outcome was different: although Matty Longstaff scored again, Manchester United clapped back hard to win 4-1. So began a 10-game league run with only one victory, and a whole lot of stagnation. Newcastle entered lockdown 13th with 37 points, stuttering over the safety line.
Relegation might not be a realistic concern, but performances should be. No team has scored fewer than Newcastle’s 25 goals. Shelvey, a deep-lying playmaker, is the club’s top scorer with five league goals, which tells the story of a season in which £35m striker Joelinton has not delivered.
There have been momentary flashes of excitement, like Florian Lejeune’s injury-time brace to pinch a draw at Everton, displaying ingredients of spirit and togetherness which Bruce often brings, but these have been few and far between. Bruce has railed against talk of riding a little luck along the way, but to watch Newcastle in 2020 it is hard to conclude they are not riding above their natural station. The stats agree: they rank in the bottom three on possession, goals, chances created and just about every front-foot metric you might think of. No goalkeeper has had to make more saves this season than Martin Dubravka.
And so it is hardly surprising that insipid performances combined with a long-despised owner have most fans clamouring for the completion of a Saudi-backed bid for the club that remains in limbo as the season restarts. This campaign has encapsulated much of the past decade at St James’ Park: spirit in spades, but little in the way of quality, and a life spent looking down, not up. Many supporters would love an exciting new chapter, even if the financial means to make it happen come from such an unsavoury source.
As the Premier League assesses the Saudi takeover bid and reviews the passionate case against it, Newcastle’s future remains uncertain off the pitch, while on it there is clearly the need for fresh impetus into a squad lacking investment. The only solace is that the upturn following that dismal defeat by Leicester has ensured that whatever happens over the coming weeks, Newcastle can plan for another season of Premier League football.