Sky Sports News’ North East reporter Keith Downie reflects on Newcastle’s situation, with the fans feeling bored and detached from Steve Bruce’s side.
Newcastle are without a win in eight games in all competitions, and have dropped to 15th in the Premier League following their 1-0 defeat at bottom club Sheffield United on Tuesday.
Here, Downie runs through the fan feeling, the criticism of tactics, whether Steve Bruce will sign anyone in January, and the takeover latest…
Unacceptable tactics boring fans
Having spoken to a number of supporters recently the overriding complaint they are making is that they are bored. They say they are not even looking forward to games any more due to level of performances of late.
Steve Bruce tried to play two up front at one stage of his stewardship, but has in recent times reverted back to playing just one striker. I think the supporters could accept that, if for example Callum Wilson had three attacking players in behind him, but of late Bruce has packed his side with defensive-minded players as he feels that is the best way to achieve a result.
I looked at the side on Tuesday and had to look twice at what looked like an even more defensive side than usual against the league’s bottom side, who were without a win all season. In addition, they had eight attack-minded players plus a goalkeeper on the bench.
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That smacked of a tactic of trying to stay in a match for as long as possible in the hope of nicking something in the latter stages. The supporters could accept that against Liverpool or Manchester City, but they expect their team to take the game to a club like Sheffield United, rooted to the foot of the table and bereft of confidence.
Newcastle’s set-up on Tuesday would have given the Blades players a boost as they took to the field. 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 do not know how fit those left on the bench on Tuesday actually were.
But from the outside looking in it was not a good look to go ultra-defensive in such a game. The sending off did not help matters but Newcastle were being outplayed before they were reduced to 10 men.
But Bruce retains backing of Ashley
I am of the understanding that Steve Bruce retains the backing of owner Mike Ashley and the pair have a solid working relationship. That is something that was not the case when Rafa Benitez was in charge and Bruce has done well to charm Ashley into changing his transfer policy of refusing to sign players in the latter stages of their career.
Despite Tuesday’s result – and eight without a win – Ashley believes Bruce is the right man to turn things around and more importantly, keep Newcastle out of the relegation zone. However, Ashley’s patience would be expected to run thin if Newcastle were to be dragged into the bottom three. Bruce said last night he would never walk away from a challenge, insisting any decision on his future was not for him to make.
Newcastle fans detached
Fans are equating this to how they felt in the latter days of Steve McClaren’s time in charge. They feel the lack of matchday enjoyment due to the pandemic, coupled with the performances they are witnessing on their TV screens, has left them depressed and detached.
I think they were fairly content at the start of the season when the team got off to a good start but their negativity has increased week-on-week. There have been decent performances, such as the wins over West Ham, Burnley and Everton, as well as the draw at home to Liverpool, but the majority of fans have been unhappy with the way they have approached the majority of the matches.
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It would appear they are trying to stay in games rather than go out and win them – even against the league’s bottom side as we saw this week. We have often asked Bruce about the fans’ concerns and he says the team is a work in progress following a clutch of new arrivals in the summer, but that explanation is wearing thin with the fans to say the least.
There was positivity when the takeover looked close to completion back in April, but the mood soon changed when the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia pulled out in the summer. The supporters are living in hope the arbitration between Ashley and the Premier League – which has started – brings a positive ending to a protracted saga. That, for them, is the holy grail.
Personnel issues – Covid, signings, January window
I think it is unfair to accuse the players – or the manager for that fact – of being disinterested. Newcastle have a great bunch of characters in their dressing room and they all want the best for the club. A number of them have been affected physically from a Covid-19 outbreak within the squad in November and that that explains some absentees and could also be attributable to some of the performances.
It’s also worth pointing out the team have faced a hectic schedule against some top sides over the Christmas period. But they will be first to admit they should be performing better and recent displays have not been up to scratch.
There are a number of players who are surplus to requirements, but they do not feature in the 25-man Premier League squad anyway so they cannot play. Bruce got the players he wanted in the summer – Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis – but only Wilson has been a success so far, with the other two having to deal with a number of injuries; they have struggled to build up any form.
Bruce is keen to bring in a central midfielder and a left-back, but is aware that he will have to do so within the loan market. It is not proving easy.
Takeover wait is excruciating
As we know, Mike Ashley has started legal proceedings against the Premier League for what he says was not acting “appropriately” during the drawn-out Owners’ and Directors’ Test. The Newcastle owner claimed the £300m takeover had been “formally rejected”, with the Premier League saying they were still awaiting additional information to come forward from the consortium.
Arbitration is underway, with Premier League chief executive Richard Masters saying he hoped it would be resolved in a “timely matter.” This will be played out 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 the Newcastle fans that he is real about his want to sell, and has been given assurances the consortium remain waiting in the wings should he win his case against the Premier League. The wait for the fans is excruciating – until Ashley leaves they are left in a loveless marriage.
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