Steve Bruce endured a miserable holiday season as Newcastle struggled on and off the pitch to leave disgruntled fans in rebellious mood once again.
A coronavirus outbreak which forced the closure of the club’s training ground at the end of November is still having a significant impact, while the brand of football Bruce’s team has served up has been thrust firmly under the spotlight.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at some of the big questions at St James’ Park.
Not as well as they would like, but it could be worse. After 16 games, they have 19 points and sit in 15th place in the table, eight points clear of Fulham – who have a game in hand – in the bottom three, and four adrift of 11th-placed Arsenal. The concern is that only two of those points have come from their last five games and that, aside from an opening day win at West Ham and a spirited performance in a 0-0 home draw with champions Liverpool, they have rarely looked convincing even in victory. That, coupled with a tame surrender against Sky Bet Championship Brentford in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, has added fuel to the fires of Bruce’s detractors.
Bruce celebrated his 60th birthday on New Year’s Eve having spent three-quarters of his life in professional football, and he knows as well as anyone that managers ultimately carry the can for failure. He was aware when he took over – amid fury over predecessor Rafael Benitez’s departure – that he was not a popular choice and has struggled to persuade those who did not welcome his appointment that he is the right man for the job. He abandoned his early attempts to introduce a more-progressive style of play after a disastrous 5-0 defeat a Leicester last season and his latest forays into similar territory have yielded decidedly mixed results. At times, it has been difficult to identify what the plan is beyond trying to be difficult to beat.
This is perhaps the crux of the matter. When Bruce arrived on Tyneside during the summer of 2019 the club had already committed a total of £56million to the capture of record signing Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin, having already brought in Miguel Almiron for £21million during the previous January. Saint-Maximin’s pace and creativity – traits otherwise in short supply – instantly captured the imagination of the Toon Army, while Almiron’s attacking instincts and industry have been similarly well received. However, the Paraguay international has slipped down the pecking order since the £20million summer arrival of striker Callum Wilson and the different approach that has allowed Bruce to take, and his influence when selected has waned.
There are. The squad Bruce inherited from Benitez, whose departure was in part due to his lack of control over recruitment, needed to be improved in terms of quality and it still does. He was allowed to spend heavily by the club’s recent standards last summer, but three of his recruits – Wilson, the stand-out success to date, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis – came from relegated sides and Jeff Hendrick arrived on a free transfer from Burnley. To compound his problems, Covid-19 has robbed him of skipper Jamaal Lascelles and Saint-Maximin for an extended period, while Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar, Isaac Hayden, and Emil Krafth are among those playing while dealing with the after-effects of the virus.
A debate which has fuelled radio talk-ins and social media far beyond Tyneside. There is a misconception that the club’s fans are demanding the kind of challenge for honours they saw during the Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson eras, but that is simply not the case. The vast majority know that is simply not realistic given owner Mike Ashley’s unwillingness or inability to fund a drive to compete with the big boys, but they do want their team to try to win games rather than not to lose them.
In an ideal world, Ashley’s tenure on Tyneside would have been a distant memory by now. His efforts to sell the club, which have been ongoing for much of the last 13 years or so, looked to have come to a head in April last year when he agreed a deal with Amanda Staveley’s largely Saudi-funded consortium. However, after a 17-week wait in vain for the Premier League to approve the takeover which became enmeshed in political debate, they withdrew their offer, prompting a furious Ashley to instruct lawyers to investigate the process, while Newcastle Consortium Supporters Ltd has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to demand answers. Sources suggest there is an ongoing willingness from both seller and buyer to resurrect a sale, but there is currently no light at the end of the tunnel.