Sky Sports News North East reporter Keith Downie reflects on Newcastle’s situation with fans feeling bored and detached from Steve Bruce’s side.
Newcastle are winless in eight games in all competitions and have fallen to 15th in the Premier League after their 1-0 defeat at low club Sheffield United Tuesday.
Here, Downie goes over fan sentiment, criticism of tactics, whether Steve Bruce will sign anyone in January, and the latest takeover …
Boring unacceptable tactics for fans
After speaking with a number of supporters recently, the main complaint they make is that they are bored. They say they don’t even look forward to games anymore due to the level of performance lately.
Steve Bruce tried to play two up front at one point in his management, but recently returned to playing only one forward. I think the supporters could accept that if for example Callum Wilson had three attacking players behind him, but lately Bruce has been packing his team with defensive players because he believes that is the best way to get a result.
I looked at the side on Tuesday and had to watch twice what looked like an even more defensive team than usual against the lower team in the league, which were winless all season. Plus, they had eight attack-focused players and a goalie on the bench.
It evoked a tactic of trying to stay in a game for as long as possible in the hopes of screwing something up in the later stages. Fans could accept that against Liverpool or Manchester City, but they expect their side to lead the game in a club like Sheffield United, rooted at the bottom of the table and lacking in confidence.
Newcastle’s establishment on Tuesday would have given Blades players a boost as they hit the pitch. Bruce has had to deal with a number of players affected by Covid-19, especially his captain Jamaal Lascelles and most creative player Allan Saint-Maximin, and we don’t know how badly those who stayed on the bench on Tuesday were really in good shape.
But from the outside, looking inside wasn’t a good look to go ultra-defensive in such a game. Sending didn’t help matters but Newcastle were outmatched before being reduced to 10 men.
But Bruce retains Ashley’s support
I understand Steve Bruce retains the support of owner Mike Ashley and the couple have a strong working relationship. This was not the case when Rafa Benitez was in charge and Bruce did well to charm Ashley into changing his transfer policy by refusing to sign players in the later stages of their careers.
Despite Tuesday’s result – and eight without a win – Ashley believes Bruce is the right person to turn things around and, more importantly, keep Newcastle out of the relegation zone. However, Ashley’s patience would have to run out if Newcastle were dragged into the bottom three. Bruce said last night that he would never quit a challenge, insisting that any decision on his future is not his.
Newcastle fans detached
Fans equate this to how they felt in the final days of Steve McClaren’s tenure. They feel that the day’s lack of fun due to the pandemic, combined with the performances they are witnessing on their TV screens, have left them depressed and detached.
I think they were pretty happy at the start of the season when the team got off to a good start, but their negativity grew week by week. There have been some decent performances, such as wins over West Ham, Burnley and Everton, as well as the home draw against Liverpool, but the majority of fans have been unhappy with the way they approached the majority of matches.
It would appear that they are trying to stay in games rather than go out and win them – even against the lower team in the league, as we have seen this week. We’ve asked Bruce many times about fan concerns and he says the team is a work in progress following a handful of newcomers this summer, but that explanation is worn down by fans to say the least.
There was a positivity when the takeover looked set to be completed in April, but the mood quickly changed when the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund pulled out this summer. Fans live in the hope that the arbitration between Ashley and the Premier League – which has started – brings a positive end to a long saga. It is for them the holy grail.
Staff issues – Covid, signatures, January window
I think it’s unfair to accuse the players – or the manager for that matter – of being disinterested. Newcastle have a large group of characters in their dressing room and they all want the best for the club. A number of them were physically affected by a Covid-19 outbreak within the team in November and this explains some of the absentees and could also be attributable to some of the performances.
It’s also worth pointing out that the team faced a busy schedule against some top-level teams over the Christmas period. But they will be the first to admit that they should be performing better and that recent screens have failed to measure up.
There are a number of players who exceed the requirements, but they are not part of the 25-man Premier League squad, so they cannot play. Bruce got the players he wanted this summer – Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis – but only Wilson has been successful so far, with the other two facing a number of injuries; they struggled to build any shape.
Bruce is keen to sign a central midfielder and left-back, but he is aware that he will have to do so in the loan market. It does not turn out to be easy.
The wait for recovery is excruciating
As we know, Mike Ashley has taken legal action against the Premier League for what he claims he did not do “right” during the endless test of owners and directors. The Newcastle owner has claimed the £ 300million buyout has been “formally rejected” with the Premier League saying they are still awaiting further information from the consortium.
The arbitration is ongoing and Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has said he hopes it will be resolved at a “convenient time”. It will be played behind closed doors with Newcastle fans desperate for a happy ending to a stressful saga. Ashley only has eyes for the Saudi consortium as he knows they are the only party to prove they have the funds available to buy the club.
By going to arbitration, Ashley also wants to show Newcastle fans that he is real about his desire to sell, and has been given assurances that the consortium will wait behind the scenes if he wins his case against the Premier League. The wait for the fans is excruciating – until Ashley leaves, they are left in a loveless marriage.