Why Steve Bruce has had a 'free hit' at Newcastle United over the past 12 months
The outlook is gloomy on the pitch at Newcastle United, but there’s a glimmer of hope off the pitch.
It’s been 392 days since fans last stepped inside St James’s Park.
On February 29 last year, a crowd of 52,219 saw a goalless draw against Burnley. It was a forgettable game, yet it has proved memorable because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Football eventually restarted behind closed doors after being suspended following the start of first national lockdown a year ago – and the turnstiles could finally reopen in a couple of months.
The Premier League, which is in discussions with the Government, hopes that the final two rounds of games will be played in front of crowds of up to 10,000 fans.
Newcastle’s penultimate match is a home fixture against Sheffield United, and the campaign ends with a potentially decisive away game against relegation rivals Fulham.
Certainly, fans have been missed at St James’s Park, a stadium which literally kicks every ball.
“The players play differently when fans are there – I definitely think the fans have an input,” said Kris Leighton, of the South Shields Mags.
“Liverpool have missed that 10% (without fans). Fans can carry the team through games. That’s why we’re seeing everything up and down. The players react to fans.”
Games have been played in a sterile environment, and the players have missed their backing. They’ve certainly needed it – home and away – during a tough few months on the pitch.
Bruce has spoken about his dislike for behind-closed-doors football – and his desire to see supporters back inside stadiums.
“We may as well be playing on a training ground, so there you go,” said Bruce in November. “The whole build-up to a game is not quite the same. It never will be, especially when we have something like 50,000.
"The advantage which we have, and why St James’s Park is always tortuously difficult to come and play at, has been taken away, and when you look at even someone like Man U, it’s the same.
"We certainly miss it, and it’s very difficult to play without supporters.
“Even the spectacle of it. I watch every game. Do we really enjoy like we used to? It’s something to watch, isn’t it, but the whole thing is very difficult.”
The lockout has spared United’s head coach – who no longer holds a separate press conference for written journalists – some uncomfortable afternoons given the mood among the fanbase.
There have been no boos at the end of home defeats, just a smattering of applause from visiting players, staff and officials in an otherwise silent stadium.
“Steve Bruce has had a free hit,” said Leighton. “It’s all very well stopping journalists asking questions, but you can’t stop 52,000 fans from asking questions. Hopefully, we’ve got enough to stay up.”
Newcastle fans haven’t been able to attend games, but they’ve still played their part in another way.
For several seasons, supporters have been making matchday donations to the NUFC Fans Foodbank behind the Gallowgate end of the stadium.
These donations go to those in need via the Newcastle West End Foodbank, and volunteers were concerned about the impact behind-closed-doors football would have on the valuable work they do in the community.
However, they needn’t have worried, as supporters rallied to help. The Foodbank took thousands of pounds in donations in October in lieu of pay-per-view payments for a home game against Manchester United.
Volunteer Bill Corcoran said: “When people in the North East are tested, you get a very good response in adversity.
“When we looked at other ways to raise money. You can donate online. There were the pay-per-view donations for the Manchester United game – that made a huge difference.
“We had some massive online donations. There was also memorabilia donated. We had some amazing help from people.”
Corcoran, however, still yearns for the day when he can stand outside the stadium on a matchday.
“I miss it,” said Corcoran. “I can feel it, hear it.”
Corcoran went on: “Financially, we’re probably OK (in terms of donations). Ask me if we want to go back tomorrow and stand with a bucket in the rain - and the answer is ‘yes’.
“We miss that interaction with hundreds of supporters. I’m really looking forward to seeing people. It ain’t the same as on a matchday. We’re all missing it and the people. Hopefully, we can do that when lockdown finishes.
Every game has been televised, but there hasn't been much for United fans to shout about from their sofas.
One game, however, stands out for Leighton, landlord of The Ashley pub on Stanhope Road, South Shields.
Newcastle, leading Southampton 3-2 last month, went down to nine men for the last 12 minutes due to the dismissal of Jeff Hendrick and the loss of Fabian Schar to injury after Bruce had made three substitutions. Callum Wilson had limped off earlier in the game with a hamstring problem.
Somehow, Bruce’s team held on to claim all three points – and Leighton, watching at home, could imagine how St James's Park would have reacted in those tortuous final few minutes as the visitors laid siege to the goal.
“It’s one of the times I’d wished I’d been there,” said Leighton. “We’ve all been to those games I know what it would be like. That would have been brilliant, man.”
It’ll be brilliant to finally see fans back inside St James’s Park – and it’ll be better still if they there to watch Premier League football next season.