Miles Starforth's verdict as Newcastle United takeover and transfer delays impact pre-season preparations
New season, new optimism? Not at Newcastle United.
The club ended last season on a high following a Joe Willock-inspired run of results, but pre-season started on a low with a defeat to a non-league club.
Of course, the early warm-up games are more about fitness than anything.
But the joy felt by those fans again clicking through the away turnstiles was tempered by frustration at a stalled takeover arbitration process and a lack of incoming signings.
And that frustration was evident at the AESSEAL New York Stadium during the club’s third pre-season friendly against Rotherham United.
Supporters – Newcastle were backed by 1,488 fans – chanted against the Premier League, owner Mike Ashley – and, for the first time, head coach Steve Bruce.
Bruce was spared boos last season because of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced football to go behind closed doors.
The return of fans is a huge positive – United have badly missed their backing – but Bruce knows that supporters will be quick to register their disapproval if the club can’t pick up where it left off last season.
Bruce – who, unlike his predecessor Rafa Benitez, has not been critical of the club’s transfer policy in public – again stressed the “difficulties” facing the club when asked about their frustration.
The club has taken a huge financial hit due to Covid-19 – and Bruce’s transfer budget has, in turn, been hit.
All clubs have been hit by Covid-19, but United have seemingly been hit harder than most.
"We haven’t got a lot money, like most clubs,” said Bruce. “We’ll see what we can achieve.”
Ashley, still hoping to sell to a consortium led by Amanda Staveley, is not a long-term investor, and Bruce must somehow get by with a minimal spend.
“I’m sure they are (frustrated), and it’s very, very difficult,” said Bruce.
"Look, I’m a football manager, and the one thing we want is better players. Always. That’s our job, and the one thing a football fan, of any club, wants to see is one or two new faces in pre-season.”
There will be new faces at the club this summer, but will there be enough? And will they be good enough to take the club forward?
Bruce pledged to take the club forward after succeeding Benitez, and a late-season run in 2020/21 saw the club recover from an awful campaign to finish 12th.
Few fans, right now, believe Newcastle can better that finish this season, and many supporters feel that another relegation battle is inevitable given the lack of backing from Ashley.
Many also still question whether Bruce is the right man for the job, though he has Ashley’s full backing. Bruce – who signed what was described as an “initial” three-year deal in 2019 – has also revealed that his contract does not expire at the end of the seaso.
Bruce’s side struggled without Callum Wilson last season – the striker’s campaign was interrupted by a mid-season hamstring injury – and the club has since lost Andy Carroll, whose contract expired this summer.
However, Bruce insisted after the Rotherham game, which saw Jeff Hendrick scored after being pushed up front following the withdrawal of Wilson and Dwight Gayle, that he had “adequate cover”.
“We’ve got Allan (Saint-Maximin), Joe (Joelinton), (Miguel) Almiron,” said Bruce. “We’ve got Dwight (Gayle). We’ve got five. How many do you have in a squad of 22 outfield players?
"I’ve probably got to look at picking four goalkeepers in the squad, which is a little bit unheard of, but with the problems I’ve got there, that’s in the back of my mind at the minute.
"The midfield area is a must, in my opinion. We’ll look to try and strengthen there first. When everybody’s right, then I think we’ve got adequate cover up there.”
United’s options look inadequate, and fans can only hope that Wilson – who had an outstanding first season on Tyneside following his £20million move from Bournemouth last summer – stays injury-free in 2021/22.
Newcastle, at least, can count on Graeme Jones, who was appointed as Bruce’s assistant in late January following an 11-game run without a win. Jones quickly earned the respect of the club’s players – and supporters.
Jones was part of Gareth Southgate’s England Euro 2020 backroom team this summer, and he returned for the club’s friendly against Burton Albion, which United won 2-0 thanks to goals from Joelinton and Jacob Murphy.
Bruce again spoke about the club’s keenness to re-sign Willock at the Pirelli Stadium.
“We haven’t made any bids for any player, because Joe’s been our No.1 target,” said Bruce, who could name four goalkeepers in his 25-man Premier League squad because of injury and illness concerns over Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow.
"Of course, we’ve got one or two irons in the fire. We have to make sure that if that doesn’t happen, we have got who we think is our second choice. We’ll what develops in the next few days.”
Willock alone won’t strengthen a squad which was found wanting at times last season.
The squad looks short of a striker, and some fans feel it’s time for Dwight Gayle, signed five years ago following the club’s relegation to the Championship, to move on.
It’s imperative that Newcastle get off to a strong start, but supporters fear that their team will start the campaign on the back foot without significant investment.