What the pandemic has meant for reporting on Newcastle United – and questioning Steve Bruce
The matchday experience has changed. A lot.
Supporters don’t leave their sofas these days – all Premier League games are on TV – and it’s also very different for journalists. Football writers have been the lucky ones, though their job, arguably, has got harder.
It’s almost 13 months since Newcastle United fans were last allowed inside St James’s Park due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Reporters have attended behind-closed-doors games, which are played in front of around 300 people.
Journalists must follow strict protocols, undergo temperature checks and submit medical declarations before being allowed inside Premier League grounds.
They must also wear masks once inside the outer zone – the stadium and car park are split into green, amber and red zones – and maintain social distancing.
Steve Bruce has been spared the reaction of fans inside stadiums as his team has slipped down the Premier League table, but he’s not been spared some damning criticism from those in the reorganised press boxes.
Fans have missed their own matchday routines, but most of the season has been very forgettable.
At St James’s Park, the vantage point has changed – some supporters watching the games from the seats in front of boxes higher up in the Milburn Stand – but just about every shout from the pitch can still be heard in the eerily quiet stadium, so often a cacophony of noise when full.
Of course, matchdays – and match reports – are only part of the job.
Bruce’s press conferences before and after games are now held virtually – and that has changed the whole dynamic of his dealings with the media. Arguably, it's not helped Bruce – or those covering the club.
Before the first lockdown, United's head coach fielded questions in a small room at the club training ground before every game. Bruce would speak to TV and radio broadcasters before sitting down with written journalists for at least 15 minutes. There would be follow-up questions, and off-the-record clarifications, if needed.
Pressers, by necessity, are now held over Zoom. Hands are virtually raised, and questioners are unmuted in turn.
Since late January, when Bruce demanded more “respect” from journalists, there have been only been a limited number of questions from written journalists at the end of the broadcast section.
"For me, I’ve got no problem with criticism,” said Bruce at the time. “It’s the constant criticism of the club, and when it comes to ridicule, then I think there should be a little bit more respect. We accept criticism. We’re getting beat. It’s the Premier League.
"I give up my time, and I give them respect to speak to them. Yes, they can be pretty damning. We all accept that, but have a little bit of respect.”
Criticism has only intensified since then given the relegation-threatened club’s plight near the foot of the Premier League. Newcastle are just two points above the relegation zone, though they have a game in hand over third-bottom Fulham.
It’s the same press conference format after games, as the post-match media suite at St James’s Park, where managers usually field questions from the stage, is out of bounds – for now.
There is no tea or coffee, only water, and reporters must bring their own food – just as they did several seasons ago when the hot buffet in the press room was stopped by the club’s hierarchy.
Due to Covid-19 protocols, there are also no mixed zones, where journalists are normally able to interview players on their way out of stadiums, so it’s harder to gauge the mood of the dressing room.
Players haven’t routinely been made available for online interviews, though Callum Wilson, Jamal Lewis and Ryan Fraser did speak to reporters at a socially-distanced open day last summer following their arrivals at the club.
The mood was different then. Bruce believed he had a squad capable of bettering last season’s 13th-placed finish following a busy summer.
"We know what a difficult league it is, but I do believe we are better,” said Bruce. “I hope we can improve on last year’s performance. We gave ourselves a chance of the top 10, but we’re quite good enough, and struggled towards the end with injuries and who we were playing in the last six games.
"That’s all gone and we start afresh. Let’s hope we can make a fist of it
There was also optimism among fans following the acquisition of Wilson and Fraser – and an impressive season-opening 2-0 win over West Ham United.
Wilson and fellow new signing Jeff Hendrick were on target at the London Stadium, where Mike Ashley applauded the players off the pitch following the victory.
Speaking on a Zoom call after the game, Bruce said: "He enjoyed watching his team win, which is what we are all in it for. It helps that at the right time he flexed his muscles (in the transfer market), and we’ve now seen the benefit of them."
Six months later, the outlook is very different following a dismal run of two wins from 20 games. It’s not been enjoyable for Bruce, his players, the club’s fans – or Ashley.
Bruce, however, retains the backing of the club’s owner, who believes he has the experience needed to get the club out of trouble.
It’s hoped that St James’s Park can again be filled to capacity next season, though we don’t know which division the club will be playing in when the 2021/22 campaign kicks off.
There could yet be some fans inside for the penultimate game of this season – and, certainly, their return can’t come soon enough. Without them, games have been sterile and soulless.
This season has been memorable for those inside the stadium – for all the wrong reasons.