In the last few weeks, a crack of light has begun shining through the St James’ Park tunnel writes Adam Walton.
The tumultuous life of a Newcastle United supporter has taken on mythical proportions. This season has been no different. In the shadow of a failed Saudi takeover, already evident hatred – and hatred is the word – for Mike Ashley and his supposed lackey, Steve Bruce, was further festering on Tyneside. Ashley has earned the vitriol that has come his way, but many of Bruce’s pundit friends have continued to defend him. However, Bruce’s reputation amongst fans isn’t purely a result of club politics; it’s his lack of style.
For the last season and a half at Newcastle, negative football has been the Steve Bruce default. For fans that will have memories of the sides managed by Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson, watching their team sit deep in their own half for 85 minutes of every game will no doubt infuriate. It’s this sharp contrast to the club’s historical footballing values that has fuelled the anti-Bruce mob gathering outside the gates of St James’ Park.
This season did start promisingly, the team buoyed by the arrival of Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis. The trio may have the injury records of an over-40s Sunday league side, but it appeared that management and ownership were finally investing in a squad severely lacking in quality. However, from mid-December, results started to go the way of the performances; badly.
In fairness, Covid-19 cases took their toll, with team sheets looking makeshift at best. Whilst his squad was stripped of multiple players, Bruce’s insistence on packing as many players between the opposition and the goal smacked of defeatism. Joellinton, a player without pace, notable crossing ability or a left foot, being asked to play left-wing is a decision worthy of Freudian analysis. The chimes of dismissal and potential relegation once again sounded in the North East.
In recent weeks, however, a crack of light has begun shining through the St James’ Park tunnel. Two wins out of the last four may not scream redemption, especially as the other matches ended in defeat, but performances were certainly better. In all four matches, Newcastle had a higher Expected Goals than their opponents, one of which was Leeds. Repeat, Newcastle had a higher Expected Goals than Leeds. A Steve Bruce team out-performed the hipster-darling Marcelo Bielsa. It really has been a strange twelve months.
There are two reasons for this upturn in form. One is the return of crucial players, especially the thrilling Allan Saint-Maximin, whose decision making and end product are usually forgotten amongst his average of 47 stepovers per game. Joe Willock, on loan from Arsenal, also had a promising debut, with Newcastle finally having a midfielder who looks happy to play in between opposition lines and make runs into the box.
The second is the appointment of Graeme Jones to Bruce’s coaching team. Moore has worked alongside Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic and the Belgium National team, evidently sharing the Spaniard’s passion for attack-minded football. His arrival has seen a shift in tactics in Tyneside. Gone is the suffocating 5-4-1 formation, replaced by a dynamic 4-1-2-1-2 midfield diamond. Newcastle are still able to play narrow and retain defensive solidity. But Callum Wilson now has pace alongside him, and the familiar thirty yard gap between the midfield and the England international is now gone. Newcastle have also started pressing. They’re no Bayern Munich, but it at least poses a threat to the opposition and gives fans the impression of competitiveness from their team.
The Newcastle faithful have credited this recent revival almost solely to Jones. This seems unfair to Bruce, who has developed notable forward lines in the past (the trident of Asamoah Gyan, Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck springs to mind). Whoever should be credited, there is bad news; Fabian Schar, Javier Manquillo and the crucial Wilson have all recently picked up injuries. Whether this spells the end to a glorious two weeks of attacking football for Newcastle, remains to be seen. It would not be a shock if Newcastle failed to deliver on early promise. Whatever happens, Newcastle fans have at least sampled the excitement of previous decades. For the first time in a while, there is hope of attacking football on Tyneside.