Belligerence and a smattering of brilliance: The story of Newcastle United's 2020/21 season
All’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. This is Newcastle United, after all.
Joe Willock left the field to a deserved pat on the back from Steve Bruce following Sunday’s 2-0 win over Fulham.
The club ended the campaign in 12th place, but the final Premier League table only tells you so much.
Before a ball was kicked, things had seemingly been going well. There was some welcome positivity following a summer which had seen the club recruit Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis.
Journalists – who had last last visited the club’s training ground before the first coronavirus lockdown – were invited to a socially-distanced media day inside the indoor barn attended by Wilson, Fraser, Lewis and head coach Steve Bruce.
In Wilson, the club had a genuine No.9, though the striker didn’t get that jersey.
“The No.9 shirt is taken (by Joelinton), to be honest with you,” said Wilson, who was at ease following his £20million move from Bournemouth.
"If it was available, don’t get me wrong, I would have snapped it with both hands, but, for now, it’s not. The shirt’s just a number at the end of the day – I’m playing for the badge at the front.”
Bruce too was at ease as he spoke to journalists, having got the Premier League experience he had wanted in the summer window, though his relationship with the media wouldn’t stay so cordial.
“We know what a difficult league it is, but I do believe we are better,” said United’s head coach. “Pressure? Listen, you’re always going to get pressure at Newcastle, that’s for sure. But I hope we can improve on last year’s performance.”
After a season-opening win over West Ham United, things slowly and steadily unravelled, and, as Christmas approached, the team, hit by a debilitating Covid-19 outbreak with badly affected a number of players, was in trouble.
Too many players were under-performing, and too much was going wrong on the pitch. The pre-season optimism had long gone, and Bruce appeared to be losing it at Newcastle.
The club was still in the Carabao Cup, but it all went wrong for the team on a miserable night at the brand-new Brentford Community Stadium.
Bruce’s side was out-played and out-thought by Championship club Brentford, who deservedly booked a place in the semi-finals. Newcastle lacked ideas and imagination. They plodded through 90-odd awful minutes.
Bruce got the tone right in his post-match press conference – and accepted responsibility for the defeat.
“I have to accept what’s coming my way, and accept that it’s part and parcel of being the manager of Newcastle, and accept the criticism which is fully justified,” said Bruce.
However, Bruce came out swinging on Boxing Day when he said: “We had a bad week, but some of the mass hysteria, in my opinion, was unfair.”.
That ill-advised comment further riled an already-filed fanbase, and things would get worse on the pitch before they got better. The club lost 1-0 to previously-winless Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on January 12.
Bruce vowed to do it “his way” after that defeat. Angered by what he labelled as a lack of “respect”, Bruce also ended the separate press conference section for written journalists earlier in the month.
Willock, signed in the mid-season window, would help transform the team on the pitch, but the club’s other arrival that month – assistant manager Graeme Jones – would prove to be just as influential off the field.
Jones – who had spoken like a manager in an interview after joining the club – quickly earned the respect of the club’s fanbase.
There was a change in formation for his first game as assistant coach, and it worked. Newcastle deservedly beat Everton 2-0 at Goodison Park with a split-striker formation to end an 11-game winless run.
They played with with pace and purpose – and pressed high up the pitch The system, however, had its limitations, and it wasn’t nearly as effective in attack without Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron, who would all suffer injuries in February.
There were tensions behind the scenes, and Bruce admitted having a “row” with Matt Ritchie.
And the low point of the season was yet to come. That came at the Amex Stadium on March 20, where United were beaten 3-0 by Brighton and Hove Albion.
Bruce’s position looked to be untenable following that shocking defeat. Brighton, by Bruce’s own admission, were “better in every department”,
Change, surely, was better than no change for a team seemingly heading towards the Championship, yet by the next morning Mike Ashley had made it known that Bruce would not be sacked.
There would be a change, but not a managerial one. Bruce reverted to a back five, and recalled Ritchie and Jacob Murphy as wing-backs.
Wilson and Saint-Maximin returned from injuries, and the latter’s cameo off the bench at Turf Moor changed everything. Saint-Maximin – who had been out of form before the club’s November Covid-19 outbreak – set up a goal for Murphy and scored one himself to give United a 2-1 win over Burnley.
Willock, of course, also came to the fore as Newcastle won five of their last nine Premier League games and end the season with 45 points, one more than last year.
“There were a lot of questions asked, and rightly so,” said Bruce, who was booed by some returning fans following the club’s final home game. “I hope the people who totally wrote us off eat a bit of humble pie, and say ‘well done’.
"We finished 12th and got to 45 points. We’re not going to accept that as an achievement, because I’ve said from day one we’ve got to try to get into the top 10.”
The season, punctuated by belligerence and brilliance, ended well, but, for many months, performances and results weren’t good enough.
Consequently praise for Bruce has been tempered.