This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Can 95 per cent of Newcastle fans ever be wrong? Can Mike Ashley ever be right?
If the final weeks of the campaign hinted that the answer to each question comes in the affirmative, it doesn’t mean they can be reconciled. There can be lulls in the Tyneside civil war, but this is the kind of conflict where no one ever signs a peace treaty.
Rewind a few months and, after March’s dire 3-0 loss against Brighton suggested the Magpies were sleepwalking towards relegation, 19 of every 20 supporters polled thought Steve Bruce should be sacked. One banner called him a coward – echoing words Matt Ritchie said in a training ground row – and another read, “You are not one of us – leave now.” Ashley can delight in ignoring popular opinion and Bruce’s Newcastle finished the season with a flourish, 17 points from nine matches meaning they ended as close to Tottenham as to Fulham.
Yet neither side has reconciled. Ashley doesn’t like paying off managers. The absence of fans spared Bruce a hostile reception; perhaps his job would have become untenable with them. A lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the owner, Bruce appears to be one slump away from more calls for his head. The Magpies’ propensity for groundhog seasons makes it likely they will have a dreadful spell at some point.
Part of the case against Bruce is that there can be some terrible football. Newcastle were responsible for some of the worst displays any Premier League club produced last season; the sort of spineless and insipid surrenders they offered up against Brighton, Brentford (in the League Cup) and Sheffield United symbolised the soullessness of the Ashley regime.
The Sports Direct tycoon has been trying to sell for much of his 14-year reign, but only on his terms. The breakdown of a £300 million Saudi-led takeover last year means the one thing that unites owner and supporters is unhappiness with the Premier League.
Ashley’s on-field ambitions don’t extend much beyond staying in it. Fans’ wishes for more – top-half finishes, better football, cup runs, squad investment – often go unfulfilled. The signing who transformed last season was Joe Willock, with his Shearer-esque burst of seven goals in as many appearances, but he was borrowed. Now he is back on a permeant deal and much will be expected of the youngster.
The constants – Ashley, Bruce and the fans – are stuck with each other in a dysfunctional relationship. Happiness, then? Still very much on hold...
The five-point plan
1 Carry on attacking
A crowd-pleasing tactic could also be a successful one. The Magpies netted a mere 18 goals in the first half of last term, outscoring only four teams. In the second half, aided by the addition of Graeme Jones to the coaching staff and some more ambitious tactics, they plundered 28 – more than Chelsea. The duller Toon got 19 points; the more entertaining variant 26. Positivity can pay off.
2 Lads, meet ball
Newcastle rose one place in the table last season. They ranked 20th for possession in 2019/20, and – aided, no doubt, by Sam Allardyce – edged out West Bromwich Albion last term. The Magpies had under 42 per cent of the ball in both campaigns; before that it was barely any higher under Rafa Benitez. While Jonjo Shelvey is a terrific long passer, they lack someone who controls games – it condemns them to spending much of their time playing on the defensive.
Sensational Saint-Maximin 💥Allan Saint-Maximin's stunning solo effort against Burnley is the @GilletteUK #PrecisionPlayOfTheWeek 👏 pic.twitter.com/qCc3ZkhXeUApril 12, 2021
3 Play Rafa’s shape
Comparisons with his predecessor yielded the sarcastic quip “the mighty Rafa Benitez” in January but, while Bruce’s preference for a back four has been apparent, his players want the back three that Benitez introduced. Their spring revival came using three centre-backs and wideman Ritchie creating more chances.
4 Pray for Saint-Max
Newcastle’s season could have been very different had Allan Saint-Maximin not suffered a particularly debilitating case of COVID-19. The mercurial winger was the catalyst for the Toon’s April renaissance as a split striker, and St James’ resident crowd-pleaser makes a prosaic team exciting. The Magpies must play to his strengths: and Callum Wilson – freshly installed as the club's new No.9 – will certainly hope they do.
5 Don’t leave it late
Newcastle face Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal in their final four games. They have another tough-looking run in December: Leicester, Liverpool, then both Manchester clubs. In both cases, they need points on the board to ensure potential spells of defeats don’t cost them.
FFT verdict: 16th
Survival is not enough. Until Ashley does the right thing, Magpies fans are stuck in purgatory.
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