The unpopular Mike Ashley decision which is paying off ahead of Newcastle United takeover arbitration
A month ago, things looked bleak for Newcastle United – despite the onset of spring.
Steve Bruce’s side had just been beaten, convincingly, by Brighton and Hove Albion, and there were renewed calls for the club’s head coach to be dismissed.
Bruce’s position looked to be untenable following that 3-0 defeat at the Amex Stadium. The club looked to be in disarray, and, with third-bottom Fulham were closing the gap, bookmakers adjusted their relegation odds accordingly.
Owner Mike Ashley, however, quickly made it clear that there would be no managerial change at St James’s Park.
And, today, the club is 33/1 to go down following two wins and two draws. What’s more, Bruce, arguably, is the leading candidate for the Premier League’s Manager of the Month award for April.
It had all been going wrong for Bruce and Newcastle, so what’s gone right?
Firstly, there was a spirited reaction from his players to that abject Brighton defeat. They reacted in exactly the right way.
Secondly, there was a change in system for the Tottenham Hotspur game. Bruce has always been keen to regularly play with a back four at United, but the move to a back five has worked.
The team is better balanced, and has offered more of a threat in the final third of the pitch. Credit must go to the wing-backs, Jacob Murphy and Matt Ritchie, for their contributions since returning to the re-jigged starting XI.
The third factor is obvious. Bruce has welcomed back Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson from injury. They were badly missed, and the form of Allan Saint-Maximin, in particular, has driven the team on.
Saint-Maximin has been unplayable at times – and he quickly unsettled Liverpool on Saturday.
But the player who has probably made the biggest impact in the box has spent the least amount of time on the pitch in recent weeks – and that’s Joe Willock.
Willock has come off the bench in three of the last four games – and he’s scored every time, most recently at Anfield, where his 95th-minute strike earned Newcastle a point from a 1-1 draw.
The midfielder, signed on loan from Arsenal in January’s transfer window, has that uncanny knack of getting on the end of things in the box.
Willock’s been unlucky to miss out on a place in the starting XI, but the form of Sean Longstaff, the player keeping him out, is also worth noting.
Longstaff, curiously left in the cold after January’s defeat to previously-winless Sheffield United, has moved the ball intelligently, covered a lot of ground and competed physically since returning to the starting XI.
What’s more, the team has done all this without Wilson in the starting XI. The club isn’t safe quite yet, but there aren't many backing 16th-placed Newcastle to go down now.
The past few weeks haven’t exactly righted the wrongs of the previous four months – but Premier League survival is all-important for the club ahead of arbitration over a proposed £300million takeover.
United should never have been in the position in the first place, even accounting for injuries and a Covid-19 outbreak at the training ground late last year.
Bruce must take responsibility for an unacceptable few months on the field, but he must also get some credit for the recent turnaround.