As we approach the end of the calendar year - that symbolic cue to reflect and reset; that brief period of introspection and retrospection, goal setting and resolution making - the long and eventful experience of being a Newcastle United supporter offers more opportunities than most.
In a year like no other, where do you start? At the beginning, of course.
Newcastle United 0-3 Leicester City
January 1st 2020 offered all the clues we needed about the year ahead - we just didn't know it at the time. Game two of the free season tickets period of a club that used to have a waiting list and queues around the stadium, saw two individual errors gift goals to the opposition while Newcastle lost four players to injury in the space of twenty minutes.
The players walked off at half-time to a chorus of boos and many seats were left empty in a silent second half. Rumour has it that, by the final whistle, The Strawberry roof terrace held more fans than the Gallowgate.
The first injury didn't result in a substitution until the 45th minute and Newcastle were already 0-2 down by this point but the post-match comments (excuses) from Bruce are now so commonplace that they feature on social media Brucey Bingo boards:
"You get injuries by forcing players to play tired. That's not an excuse, it's a fact. I was concerned before the match, I made that clear. I said it a month ago that to ask players to play four games in 10 days is ludicrous. Today is the consequence."
Indeed, Steve, indeed:
vs Man Utd (26/12): Dubravka, Manquillo, Schär, Lejeune, Fernandez, Willems, Longstaff, Longstaff, Almirón, Joelinton, Gayle
vs Everton (28/12): Dubravka, Yedlin, Schär, Lejeuene, Fernandez, Willems, Shelvey, Hayden, Almirón, Joelinton, Carroll
vs Leicester (01/01): Dubravka, Manquillo, Schär, Lejeuene, Fernandez, Willems, Shelvey, Hayden, Almirón, Joelinton, Muto
The discussion of team selection, shape and tactics as if it is someone else responsible for these decisions has become the norm this year but this was surely up there with the biggest deflection of them all. Nobody forced him to play six of the outfield ten in all three games during a five day period and yet, here he was, bemoaning the soft tissue injuries picked up by two of them by the 47th minute of the third game. Not to mention the Leicester game being Lejeune's fourth game in twelve days, after returning from ACL reconstruction.
The other standout quote from day one of 2020 was this:
"In the first half, I thought we gave the ball away too cheaply - that’s what I was agitated for - and we’ve given the ball away in an awful position, which has cost us."
This was from the Leicester game, honest. I know it looks like the Brighton game or the Southampton game but no, this copy and paste post-match comment has been with us since January 1st. Newcastle had 24% possession that day - giving the ball away too cheaply was our New Year's resolution, apparently, and one we stuck with all year as the following quote was from our last game against Manchester City:
"We gave the ball away in a poor area and if you do that then you get punished and we did. We were sloppy in possession and gave the ball and we were punished."
Consistent, at least.
2020 Newcastle United
By the time this wretched year ends, Newcastle United will have played thirty-three Premier League games across two fragmented seasons. The team has had an equal share of possession in just seven of those games and, although not everyone cares for possession figures, alongside woeful passing accuracy statistics, this confirms that giving the ball away too cheaply is the norm, rather than the exception.
My view on possession has been covered in detail but, to summarise, a team can not consistently allow their opponent to have the ball and expect to win football matches. It might work for a short period or in individual games but, eventually, those with the ball and those who turn that into shots on goal are going to win more points than those without. It isn't complicated and is the reason I feared the Leeds game so much, despite a similar record at the time. Newcastle United are punch-drunk.
Away from the detailed analytics, in 2020, Newcastle United have won nine Premier League games, with the final game against Liverpool unlikely to add to that figure, giving a win percentage of 27%. In 2019, the win total was fifteen from thirty-eight games - a win percentage of 40%. A work in progress, apparently. "Judge me after ten months!" Which ten months, Steve?
Thirty-three games, with the opposition having the majority of possession in twenty-six of those, and Newcastle managing only nine wins. It has been a challenging year for supporters to watch the on-field action, in more ways than one.
Newcastle United 0-0 Burnley would be an instantly forgettable fixture in any other year but February 29th 2020 is still engrained in the hearts and minds of thousands of fans, as the last time St. James' Park was open to the public. Tonight's game against Liverpool will be the thirteenth consecutive home league fixture played in the echoes of an empty stadium.
In the twelve eerie exhibitions to date, the grey plastic seats have witnessed just four wins - the same number of times they have witnessed Newcastle concede three or more goals.
What difference 50,000 fans would have made to these games is a regular topic of discussion and one that has little evidence to support either side. Liverpool are the only Premier League team with an unbeaten home record this season, possibly suggesting that home advantage has been reduced by the absence of fans.
However, would a St. James' Park filled with the Toon Army have prevented any of the five defeats suffered in their absence? I suspect not, with the one caveat being the atmosphere post-penalty save against Manchester United. Those kind of moments, and the atmosphere they generate, can truly influence games but we will never know.
The reverse logic could be applied - that the atmosphere could be increasingly toxic and negatively impact all of the players flourishing in the absence of demanding and deluded Geordies who make Newcastle United such an impossible job and a difficult place to go and play your football.
Empty stadia are the control tests for the research into fan influence: there's no blaming the crowd this season - it is all on the players and the manager.
The other, perhaps more interesting, section of this discussion is the difference a full St. James' Park would have made to Steve Bruce's status. In his very first press conference, when asked about abusive remarks online, Bruce said, "I've not been in Newcastle to monitor it, I don't read it, if you read and scrutinise everything thrown your way, you'd end up in a madhouse."
This quote has always stuck with me as twelve vacant St. James' Parks, and counting, have given Bruce twelve free passes on instant and cumulative feedback from supporters. Without the fans present, and if he doesn't read online remarks, where is he getting things 'thrown his way' to result in increasingly defensive press conferences? Where is he experiencing the infamous histrionics and mass hysteria? What does he use to gauge supporter opinion? I can only assume that it is via journalist questions and potentially his son, Alex, reporting on social media opinion. However, I am not 'ITK' and this is only a guess.
Had fans been present this season, it is safe to assume that Newcastle players would have started their home campaign by being booed from the pitch at both half-time and full-time against Brighton and, most recently, have been booed from the pitch following a draw with ten-man Fulham. These moments, as well as attendances, generally provide the most accurate reflection of opinion but in their absence it is social media that has become 2020's gauge.
A poll ran by NUFC 360 on December 22nd, asking whether people wanted Steve Bruce sacked, received 27,000 votes, with 77% voting 'yes'. Of course, Newcastle had lost to Brentford that evening, there is no guarantee that everyone who voted was a Newcastle fan and an instant social media click is not always reflective of actual opinion but that is a significant number of people whose patience with the 'work in progress' has expired. Whatever happened to that forward-thinking four-four-two?
Interestingly, Bruce has been the main target of growing unrest with little directed towards the players. It seems as though responsibility for Newcastle's on-field regression has been pinned solely on the manager and the overall stagnation, or indeed decline, of player development being largely excused from the individuals themselves.
If you pay attention to certain sections of social media, Joelinton was a 'good player' under a 'world-class coach', Schär was the best Newcastle defender since Woodgate, Sean Longstaff was worth £50m and Saint-Maximin was better than Ginola, Robert and Ben Arfa combined. The only thing responsible for Joelinton scoring 3 goals in 51 league games is Bruce! The dinosaur! Schär's decline? Bruce! Longstaff? Bruce! Saint-Maximin? Bruuuuuuce!!
It could be the professional football players not playing very well as individuals and a few of them having an issue with attitude and application too, you know? There is little doubt in my mind that Bruce is not maximising the potential of this squad but there are several individuals who haven't maximised their individual effort and performance for months. I'm looking at you, Jonjo.
Of course, there is another section of player-tagging social media that has already abusively written off Jamal Lewis as a failure, spammed Joelinton's Instagram so much that he disabled comments and (non-player related) tagged Alex Bruce in on abuse about his Dad but that's as much word count as that lot deserve. What's the song, again? "Get out of our club!" Like that.
Looking back at this year, Karl Darlow, Martin Dubravka and Federico Fernandez would be the only players I would consider worthy of any accolades for consistently performing at an acceptable level. Callum Wilson also fits into this category but this is an annual review, not a three-month review. Some players have declined, while some have been exposed for what they already were but were hidden in the ultra-organised unit they previously inhabited.
The club has three right backs who are all worse than Kevin Mbabu, five central midfield players who are all worse than Mikel Merino and two forwards who can't score goals. Quantity over quality, befitting of Sports Direct FC's bargain basement.
The team is so difficult to watch that I can't remember the last time I looked forward to a game. The social media account tries, bless it, with 'IT'S MATCHDAAAAYYY' tweets but honestly, who gives a fuck?
Away from the pitch, the endless takeover saga mirrored life as a Newcastle supporter as hope and optimism gave way to doubt, before being crushed in disappointment. I've already written elsewhere about some of the pantomime villains in this but, in terms of the fans, it brought out the best and worst in us.
The gallows humour that has seen us through so much was there throughout, with mock-ups of Mbappe and plane-spotting to name but a couple, but so too was a vitriol, born of frustration at the perceived loss of our golden ticket.
The majority of Newcastle fans want Mike Ashley out of their club and the promise of investment, ambition and progress from the would-be buyers was never allowed to play out. This understandably caused enormous frustration, even anger, but the way some of it was vented towards individuals is not something I look back on fondly or proudly from this year.
The rise of illegitimate and illiterate protest groups, the targeting of Richard Masters the individual rather than the Premier League as an organisation, the MP spamming during a pandemic with far greater priorities, the Saudi love-in, the deifying of Staveley, Ghodoussi and the Reubens, ITK accounts, podcast exclusives, attacking journalists who questioned the baseless positivity, click-bait headlines, begs for followers, vague claims, backtracking, utter nonsense and cult-like behaviour. This takeover saga is the worst thing to happen to Newcastle United and its fans since Mike Ashley.
Anyway, time for me to stop sitting on the fence.
Football's bigger picture
Football in general seemed to take a giant step towards its own death during 2020, as hundreds of thousands of fans from all clubs recoiled and rebelled at the news of pay-per-view (PPV) games and Project Big Picture. If it was not already visible, a microscope was placed over the greed in the elite level of English football and their disdain for the supporter it claims to value so highly.
However, this period also brought about the highlight of 2020 as fans around the country channeled their chagrin into charity and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for their local foodbanks. Without a doubt, the proudest I have felt this year to be a Newcastle United supporter.
VAR has entered common parlance in the world of football and most likely ended the 'Referee's a wanker' chant's career on the terraces. For no longer is the man in black the man in control of events on the pitch, as the mystical VAR now makes all major decisions. It always amuses me that it is spoken of as some sort of artificial intelligence droid, rather than simply another official using some technology. The technology, of course, is not the problem - rather, the individual(s) using it and applying it.
My concern at the end of this year is the same as it was at its beginning - if you remove the instant, spontaneous explosion of emotion that goes with the ball hitting the back of the net, you have ruined live football. Supporters in the ground only ever had to glance towards the linesman's flag to confirm their celebrations but now football has created an environment of muted, delayed and doubtful joy.
Imagine climbing back to your own seat, having ended your celebration two rows in front, following Cheick Tiote's volley against Arsenal to then stand in place for two minutes while lines were drawn and images zoomed before the big screen ruled it out?
If it happens often enough, and we're seeing offsides for armpits, then sufficient doubt will be created in the collective minds of supporters to dim their celebration and, even if it is only a slight dimming, football has lost its most wonderful asset.
Any review of 2020 wouldn't be complete without discussing COVID-19. Focusing on its impact on football, I have already covered the joyless experience of watching your team play in empty stadia on your television. What is unknown is the lasting impact the enforced absence of supporters will have when we are allowed to return en masse. In other words, will we?
Apathy has been seeping into the Newcastle United fanbase and I suspect that the only thing keeping it from drowning the club has been the habit of attendance and the enjoyment that the matchday experience, in its whole, brings to so many. That habit has been broken for ten months and is likely to extend to the end of the 2020/21 season, before full capacities are allowed to be welcomed.
Ten-thousand free partial season tickets were given out before a pandemic kept people away. Since then, thousands of people have lost income, or even employment, with the uncertainty of Brexit to add to the ongoing lockdown restrictions and their effect on the economy.
People have stepped away from Newcastle United, with many fans not watching televised games, despite having access to them. The failed takeover crushed the last hope of many that this year would see the end of Ashley. Performances have not excited, nor inspired, and fans are looking down the table rather than up - if at all.
Many of us have different priorities now and our level of financial comfort has been reduced. When it comes to deciding how to spend our newly-limited disposable income, assessing the value of hundreds of pounds going to our zombie club in return for 24% possession at home and one shot on target may well add to the grey plastic and its echoes. We've been taken for granted long enough.
Perhaps, like a fat man (me) intending on losing weight come the new year (me) and so gorging on high-calorie festive treats to accentuate his January weight loss results (again, me), Newcastle United conceded five to Leeds, drew with ten man Fulham, lost to Championship Brentford and bent over for Manchester City to highlight their 'new year, new me' January sheen. Expect a feast for Liverpool, then!
So, with 2021 upon us, what are my hopes and expectations? Well, they are neither deluded nor unrealistic and certainly not hysterical. In fact, they are non-existent because Newcastle United, in its current form, is hopeless. It is a football club that exists simply to survive with a football team that barely plays football. It is joyless mid-table mediocrity, occasionally broken by relegation.
It is devoid of ambition or progress and offers nothing in return for monetary and emotional investment from its loyal legion of supporters. It is a pathetic club fostering an apathetic fanbase and there is no hope that this will change until Mike Ashley is no longer its owner. My expectation, unfortunately, is that this will still be the case when I write this next year - despite the claims of zebras and bread.
There was never much hope. Just a fool's hope.
Away from Newcastle United for a moment, one hope is to meet some of NUFC Twitter in a pub for a pint. Nee trawls, mind! Since March, Twitter has become my social hub and despite the odd knacka I have 'met' some really great people on there. Hopefully, our pubs hang on long enough to welcome us back in the new year and we can drink them dry during real-life conversations! Remember those?
In the meantime, look after yourselves and your families. We're almost through this pandemic and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of a vaccine. Wear a mask, distance, play it safe and I'll send you all a virtual man hug. Don't and I'll send you a virtual slap.