Premier League 2020-21 preview No 14: Newcastle United

Premier League 2020-21 preview No 14: Newcastle United

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 17th (NB: this is not necessarily Louise Taylor’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 13th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 500-1

By now Newcastle were supposed to be under Saudi Arabian majority control with Steve Bruce – assuming he had not been replaced by Rafael Benítez – signing pretty much whoever he wanted and hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on regenerating the north-east economy in a Saudi soft power exercise.

Being Newcastle though there was, perhaps inevitably, a kink in the script. The Saudis withdrew their offer, ensuring it was straight back to the pretty joyless existence endured under Mike Ashley’s ownership. Talk about a sliding doors moment.

Whether Ashley’s unloved 13-year tenure continues for much longer is the subject of considerable uncertainty. The Saudis and their consortium partners – the financier Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reuben Brothers – are continuing discussions, extremely discreetly, about ways and means of reviving a highly controversial deal it is understood the UK government would welcome.

Whatever happens – and resurrecting the takeover will not be easy – Bruce must cope without his excellent goalkeeper Martin Dubravka for at least the first six weeks of the campaign. Dubravka, who has cracked a bone in an ankle, once again shone as relegation was, fairly comfortably, avoided and is likely to be missed.

Bruce will be anxious to talk up a big chance for Dubravka’s deputy, Karl Darlow, and Newcastle fans must trust the recently much-improved understudy seizes the opportunity to prove he really is first-choice material.

Attack has been the team’s most problematic department under Bruce, making goalscoring reinforcements vital. Considering Dwight Gayle has sustained a serious pre-season knee injury and Joelinton would need a complete transformation if he were to somehow morph into Alan Shearer, infinitely too much strain was resting on Andy Carroll’s fragile physique.

How they finished

Cue Newcastle’s pursuit of Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson and of Ryan Fraser, a winger who was also at Bournemouth last season. There is longstanding interest in the Burnley centre-forward Chris Wood, but the club opted to invest £20m on Wilson while also acquiring the out-of-contract Fraser on a free.

Left-back, too, has long been a problem area but that appears close to being rectified with the £13.5m acquisition of Jamal Lewis from Norwich.

Until this flurry of activity Bruce had made one senior first-team signing: Jeff Hendrick. The midfielder, who has left many supporters slightly underwhelmed, joins as a free agent after leaving Burnley where he was disappointed to have been frequently deployed wide rather than in his preferred central role. With Jonjo Shelvey, Isaac Hayden and the Longstaffs, Sean and Matty, similarly keen on central midfield roles, Hendrick – much coveted by Milan earlier this summer – may find the grass is not necessarily greener on Tyneside.

With Bruce exploring the possibility of, among other things, taking the Arsenal defender Rob Holding on loan, Newcastle’s recruitment department cannot be accused of not working their contacts. The caveat, as ever, was whether Ashley would be prepared to open his cheque book.

A recent 5-1, behind-closed-doors, friendly defeat by Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough – who narrowly escaped relegation from the Championship – prompted crisis talks between Bruce and the managing director, Lee Charnley, whose concern perhaps persuaded the owner to spend. A subsequent friendly defeat by second-tier Stoke certainly appeared to vindicate this mini recruitment drive.

At least in the gloriously maverick French winger Allan Saint-Maximin and Paraguayan attacking creator Miguel Almirón, Bruce possesses two high-calibre, if not exactly high-scoring, attacking talents.

Their presence aids his efforts to wean Newcastle from Benítez’s old safety-first 3-4-3 on to a back-four-based fluent passing game. This transition – which began just before lockdown – could arguably be hindered by the lack of fans inside St James’ Park where the customary 52,000 full houses help maintain players’ adrenaline at optimal levels throughout the course of a long, draining season.

For the moment supporters anxious to know how good, bad or indifferent the team are looking seem destined to frustration. Unless the television schedules change, they will be unable to see Bruce’s side for the whole of September.

Allegations of broadcast piracy against Saudi Arabia helped derail the takeover; how ironic then that Newcastle fans are searching for access to illegal overseas streams in time for the big kick-off.

Bruce can only hope they will not feel the need to watch through their fingers.

Quick guide

Newcastle’s history in 100 words

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In a nutshell, rich but increasingly sepia tinged. Since their establishment in 1892 – following a merger of Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End – Newcastle United have won four top-tier titles, six FA Cups – three during the 1950s – and, most recently, the European Fairs Cup in 1969. The club has long delighted and disappointed in not always equal measures. Gallowgate has hosted some gloriously free-scoring no 9s, acrimoniously intense derbies with Sunderland, and some dazzling if ultimately forlorn flirtations with glory – see Keegan’s 1990s entertainers and a certain title race against Manchester United. Not to mention often machiavellian boardroom politics.

Photograph: PA

The manager

On the touchline Invariably affable with rival managers, Bruce proved reluctant to abandon post-match handshakes during project restart. Considerably calmer than during his younger years – and dressed in civvies rather than tracksuit these days – his body language suggests he often watches Newcastle more in hope than expectation.

On Zoom Human, relaxed. Jokes with journalists about lockdown hairstyles and makes his distaste for football without fans plain but, unable to monitor the switching off of recording devices, no longer goes “off record”.

Steve Bruce is relaxed in his dealings with the media.

The key

Saint-Maximin switches the lights on at St James’ Park, consistently raising the game of those around him. Virtually impossible for opponents to second guess – a lot of the time “Saint-Max” himself is probably not quite sure what audacious manoeuvre he is about to perform.

The owners

According to the Sunday Times 2020 Rich List, Ashley is worth £1.95bn. A true – and not always terribly appealing – maverick, the 56-year-old retail tycoon bought Newcastle in May 2007 for £134m, apparently on a whim, and has been trying – and failing – to sell it for much of the past 13 years, most recently to a Saudi-led consortium. Not the most popular of owners.

Mike Ashley, pictured here in 2015, has been trying – and failing – to sell the club for much of the past 13 years.

Young blood

The 20-year-old midfielder Matty Longstaff – young brother of Sean – scored the winner on his Premier League debut against Manchester United last season. After rejecting overtures from Italy and Germany before signing a new two-year contract, he will hope to force himself into Bruce’s first XI. He is the son of the former GB ice hockey star and current Whitley Warriors player-coach, David Longstaff.

New blood

Hendrick, a 28-year-old Republic of Ireland midfielder, is ostensibly perhaps not the most exciting signing – but he was Bruce’s only new first-team recruit until Wilson and Fraser joined on Monday.

Jeff Hendrick (centre in light boots) trains with his new teammates.

Kit story

For two years following their foundation in 1892 Newcastle played in red shirts and white knickerbockers, switching to black and white stripes two years later following multiple kit clashes with the likes of Woolwich Arsenal. Shirts and socks have tended to be black with white trim – although when Ruud Gullit was manager socks became supposedly “lucky” white.

Notes from an empty stadium

St James’ Park without fans is sad, depressing, weird and surreal. The ache of absence is all-pervasive as players strut their stuff beneath empty stands. Newcastle need them back, preferably singing Blaydon Races at full volume, and soon.

Euros vision

Midfielders Jonjo Shelvey and Sean Longstaff seem the best bets but Gareth Southgate does not appear to trust the former sufficiently. Meanwhile if Longstaff wants to play for England he will need to rediscover the form and consistency that characterised the first few senior games of his career under Benítez.