The next few days could be hugely significant for Newcastle United – on and off the pitch.
And the week couldn’t have got off to a better start.
Newcastle United restart their Premier League campaign with their biggest win of the season, a 3-0 victory over Sheffield United at an eerily-empty and sanitised St James’s Park.
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Goals from Allan Saint-Maximin, Matt Ritchie and Joelinton saw the club move 11 points clear of the relegation zone ahead of Wednesday night’s home game against second-bottom Aston Villa.
The win was comfortable and convincing. The team played with intelligence and intensity after an enforced three-month break from competitive football.
Football, finally, is back on Tyneside, and seemingly better than it was before at St James’s Park, where the team had played out three disappointing goalless draws before a lockdown was imposed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are two more home games to come this week – Wednesday night’s Premier League fixture against Aston Villa is following by an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City on Sunday – but the agenda is still dominated by the proposed £300million takeover, which has been with the Premier League since April.
So where are we with the deal?
Lee Charnley, the club’s managing director, was sat alone in the directors’ box for the game. How long before we see a new face in those seats?
The biggest issue facing the takeover, which is 80% funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, has been TV piracy in the kingdom.
Last week the World Trade Organisation (WTO) drew a link between “individuals or entities” under the jurisdiction Saudi Arabia and beoutQ, a pirate TV station which has illegally broadcast Premier League games and other sporting events.
A geopolitical dispute between the kingdom and Qatar led to the signal of rights-holding broadcaster beIN Sports having its signal blocked in Saudi Arabia. This, understandably, has long troubled the Premier League given the money generated by its overseas rights and the importance of protecting their integrity.
Significantly, there could be movement on that front.
The Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property has vowed to “block 231 websites that violate intellectual property regimes”, and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has also written to the Premier League and other sporting bodies also pledging action on the protection of sporting rights.
Sources close to the buying side remain optimistic that the deal will be given the go-ahead.
Making his own luck
In the meantime, Steve Bruce is preparing his players for the Villa game.
A win would take Newcastle above the 40-point mark with seven games left to play and strengthen the club’s mid-table position.
It would also strengthen Bruce’s position at the club after months of speculation about his future. Bruce – who has two years left on the contract he signed last summer – last week labelled some of that speculation as being “disrespectful”, though it will only intensify should the club be taken over.
The name of Rafa Benitez, the man he succeeded at St James’s Park, won’t go away given his affection for the club and city – and his wish for a long-term project in English football.
And then there’s Mauricio Pochettino, who’s patiently waiting for the right opportunity following his dismissal at Tottenham Hotspur.
The appointment of Bruce last summer was met with a lukewarm response, but the 59-year-old deserves credit for the job he has done so far at United. Has Tyneside warmed to one of its own?
Bruce has been labelled “lucky” – he inherited a committed, talented core of players from Benitez – but, ultimately, you have to make your own luck in the Premier League, and if he does leave the club this summer, he will be able to leave the club with his head held high.
Bruce tweaked his team before lockdown, and the tactical changes he made in late February appear to be working given that the team has won its last three league and cup games.
Importantly, the team is scoring goals. Goalscorers Saint-Maximin and Ritchie were a threat on the flanks in a 4-4-1-1 formation, while Almiron, playing as a No.10, caused problems with his pace and persistence as he roamed the pitch.
Goals have been the biggest problem for the team during a season which has seen £40million signing Joelinton come under intense scrutiny. United just couldn’t score. They didn’t even look like scoring in some games.
Joelinton’s second league goal, which came 301 days after his first, was greeted with cheers from his on-field team-mates and applause from Newcastle’s expanded and socially-distanced bench.
Just imagine the response it would have got from a capacity crowd.
Matty Longstaff’s contractual situation has dominated the headlines since early this year, but what about Isaac Hayden?
A new contract has been on the agenda for Hayden – who was immense against Chris Wilder’s side – for more than a year.
In that time, a number of senior players, notably Ritchie, Jonjo Shelvey and Martin Dubravka, have committed their long-term futures to Newcastle, and the focus will be firmly on Hayden, under contract until the summer of 2021, if he can maintain this level of performance.