Neil Redfearn and Ben Dawson, leading training in China following the departure of Rafa Benitez last month, put Newcastle United players through an energetic hour or two in the shadow of Nanjing’s impressive 62,000-capacity Olympic Sports Centre which finished with a penalty shootout.
Everything seemed normal. The players were laughing and joking, and, outwardly, in high spirits as the sun slowly set on the city, which is the stage for Wednesday night’s Premier League Asia Trophy fixture between the club and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Yet nothing about this pre-season is normal. This club doesn’t do normal too often, though Benitez, during his three years on Tyneside, at least brought down normality – and sanity – to St James’s Park. He stayed calm. And he stayed cool.
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Staying cool in China, however, is difficult given the soaring temperatures.
As the players warmed up, news was filtering through from England that Steve Bruce, the club’s managerial target, had offered to resign from his post at Sheffield Wednesday.
The players, coaches and backroom staff in the country for the Premier League Asia Trophy are in the dark, and not solely because of the Great Firewall of China. They don’t know exactly what’s going on back on Tyneside – or in Sheffield. And that might not be a bad thing.
So far, the mood over here is upbeat enough.
But the players – and staff – need the uncertainty to end soon. The players want to know who their manager will be for the coming Premier League season, which is just 27 days away.
Other teams are well advanced with their preparations for the new campaign. That can’t be said for Newcastle, who lost all of June to a stand-off between Benitez and owner Mike Ashley. The club needs a manager – and some signings.
In the meantime, players are getting on with things as best they can, but they need some certainty. That may now come following Bruce’s decision to force the issue with his employers.
They have been holding out for a mutli-million pound compensation settlement for a manager who knows he will not be welcomed by all to the club he supported as a boy.
Jamaal Lascelles, handed the captain’s armband three years ago, is trying to lead by example.
“We can’t dwell on us not having a manager yet,” said Lascelles.
“You’d rather know but, again, we can’t control it. It’s my job, and the job of a few of the other boys, to make sure everyone’s on it so whenever a manager does come in, we’re ready for whatever instructions he decides to give us.”
The club’s pursuit of Bruce, we can only assume, will have been the talk of the team’s plush, high-rise hotel, which overlooks Mochou Lake, for the past 24 hours.
Dawson and Redfearn hope the players will be fit and ready by the time they hand them over to a new manager and return to their duties at the club’s Academy.
Some players are playing for second chances at United. Jack Colback, Achraf Lazaar and Dwight Gayle are among the returning loanees who travelled to China with the club’s squad. Colback and Lazaar, frozen out and told to find new clubs by Benitez, are likely to get minutes in the Asia Trophy games, which are being screened live.
They were joined in the squad by a number of Academy players, notably Elias Sorensen, a late-call up after Joselu was left out of the travelling party. Joselu today joined Alaves in Spain.
Matty Longstaff joined elder brother Sean in the squad.
And that’s another thing. Longstaff senior – who suffered a season-ending injury in early March – looked sharp.
And the midfielder, the subject of interest from Manchester United, stung Martin Dubravka’s hands with one fierce drive which the goalkeeper just palmed over his bar.
Isaac Hayden also travelled while he waits on news of a hoped-for move away from the club he joined in 2016.
Three players – Gayle, Fabian Schar and Ki Sung-yueng – weren’t able to finish the session. They sat and watched as the players practised penalties ahead of the Trophy games, which could be settled by spot-kicks. Even the goalkeepers had a go.
Longstaff junior, 19, netted with an audacious attempt, and he could also feature against Wolves. Not too many players missed.
Manchester City’s arrival was delayed after two charter flights were cancelled due to an “administration issue”. They will have little time to adjust to the seven-hour time difference when they land before their fixture against West Ham, which follows Newcastle’s game.
United, at least, didn’t have any problems getting here, though, like Wolves, they took a scheduled flight from England to the Far East.
Newcastle, however, aren’t on schedule this pre-season.