After what seemed like a never-ending period in which games were played two or three times per week, there has been a sense of relief that Newcastle United have not been available to inflict further misery on their long-suffering supporters for an entire week.
TFI Friday took on new relevance during the Aston Villa game, as the torture was inflicted early on in our weekends, leaving Saturday and Sunday free for more pleasurable experiences such as weeding the driveway or rubbing alcohol gel into paper cuts.
That respite of exactly eight days between 8pm kick-offs has been unusually calm and quiet in the context of the infernal racket that is our football club. Perhaps this is because I have muted and blocked every possible outlet for takeover guff and have actually missed a breaking news story from the Gulf that may or may not mean that something else of questionable relevance may or may not happen. Ignorance is bliss.
This week, the biggest noise emanating from my social media was outrage over Newcastle’s backup goalkeeper not being selected as England’s third-choice goalkeeper for an international break that should not be going ahead.
Quite what pleasure seeing Karl Darlow sit on a bench in England warm-up gear would have brought this disgruntled section of our fanbase remains a mystery to me. As Newcastle tumble towards relegation, taking comfort or pride in Darlow’s selection is akin to watching your house burn to the ground but finding solace in an evacuated neighbour commenting on how lovely your flower bed looks in the orange glow of the fire.
The definition of ‘must-win’ has also been debated this week, with both pedantry and ignorance in equal supply. “It isn’t must-win unless the consequence of not winning means relegation” is certainly not an approach you would want any of the healthcare practitioners involved in your care to take. “Well, yes, you probably would benefit from this treatment now but technically it isn’t necessary until you’re almost dead.” Can I have a second opinion, please?
We have become increasingly obsessed with words over the last year as, in the absence of many other parts of our normal lives, they are all we really have and they are picked apart at every opportunity. It is why press conferences provide a weekly meltdown within the fanbase, as the manager continues his struggles with the most basic grasp of effective communication and public relations. In any other job, he would be removed or protected from media duties but this is Newcastle United – a club that not only accepts mediocrity and failure but rewards it.
Today’s press conference saw Bruce tell reporters that we have to accept that we are in a relegation scrap (we accepted it pre-season), repeat the accumulation of points mantra (yes, we are aware how league tables work), forget that Crystal Palace exist (easily done, to be fair) and insist that six or seven teams are in the fight (are Brighton & Hove Albion two separate teams?). You can almost picture Michael Spicer in the room next door, throwing his notes in the air in exasperation.
Meanwhile, Newcastle’s greatest ever social media player has been away home during his injury and given the faux-outrage ITK accounts a chance to wind up the rumour mill they’ve had in storage since his bust-up with Bruce turned out to be long-COVID. Players going to their home country – or indeed any other country – during rehabilitation from injury is nothing new in football but they need something to gossip about, I suppose.
That Saint-Maximin has only played 956 minutes of Premier League football all season ought to be of greater concern than which one of his bathroom’s he puts his treadmill in but as long as he wears his full kit at home, I guess we’ll stay up. To give an idea of just how low that number is, Sean Longstaff has played 826 minutes and he has been marooned on Holy Island with Matty since mid-January.
“I only want what is best for the club and over the last few months I’ve not been good enough to get the results the club demands” was the biggest tease I’ve ever read as Bruce gave the introduction to a leaving speech before the caveat of, “The decision will always be taken out of my hands.” Seemingly, our manager is oblivious to the option of resigning, despite a long managerial career of practising it. At least he stopped short of a Wolf of Wall Street, “I’m not fucking leaving!” moment, hyped up on too many smoky bacon Frazzles.
So on we go to what feels like the most important 24-hour period of the season, as Fulham host Leeds before Newcastle play at Brighton. In their last nineteen games, Fulham have only lost six times - to Man City (twice), Chelsea, Man Utd, Leicester and Spurs - but have, mercifully, only won three games. It should come as no surprise that a team managed by Scott Parker has pirouetted sideways, rather than driving forward.
Perhaps those ten draws are what Bruce means by it all being about the accumulation of points and that is why our unbeaten run of three draws has been such an achievement to him. Draws are the new wins.
Leeds, meanwhile, continue to be beautifully chaotic for the neutral and equally-capable of a result like their 3-1 win away at Leicester as they are their 4-2 defeat at Arsenal. Predictions, therefore, are pointless other than Twitter losing its collective mind if Fulham take the lead. Strap in.
Whatever happens tonight, Newcastle’s game at Brighton is followed by a run of eight fixtures, of which seven are against sides currently in the top ten. The problem is, how do you suddenly switch on a ‘must-win’ attitude when draws or slightly-improved performances found within a defeat have been lauded by your manager for months?
Bruce’s satisfaction at positive twenty-minute spells within a loss and his incessant use of words like ‘hopefully’ and ‘luck’ have created a negative environment and allowed his team to adopt an unnecessary role of underdog, regardless of opponent. You can't turn on belief like a tap and this drip has been allowed to go on too long.
League tables showing first half results versus second half results reveal that Newcastle are 18th in the first half and 14th in the second half. This is open to interpretation but, for me, shows the negative mindset the team sets out with from the beginning of games. Our 9 first half goals scored, compared to 19 in the second half, adds weight to this suggestion that the team is going out not to lose games rather than to win them and only switches to a more attacking mindset out of necessity.
The xG poster boys of Brighton average 51.5% possession – a number Newcastle have only reached in one Premier League game all season – and if a passive approach is once again adopted, they will most-likely dominate the game. The reverse fixture saw Newcastle down 0-2 after seven minutes but still fail to register a single shot on target during an impotent attempt at a comeback, as Brighton tested Darlow with a further four shots on target and hit the woodwork.
Relegation won't be decided this weekend but the picture ought to become clearer by 10pm on Saturday. Whatever happens, perhaps we should all wake up on Sunday and claim that we have only lost to Man United and Chelsea.
This is Bruce's world, we're just (barely) surviving in it.