For a few weeks last summer there was a rare outbreak of optimism around St James’ Park. After 13 largely miserable years at the helm, Mike Ashley was willing to sell Newcastle United with a takeover finally in the offing. And not just to anyone: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was the interested party.
A challenge for the Champions League places was no longer a pipe dream. Mauricio Pochettino was earmarked as the preferred replacement for Steve Bruce in the dugout. Antoine Griezmann was linked with a move to the northeast of England. A bumper new contract for Allan Saint-Maximin was said to be in the offing.
Then the Newcastle takeover fell through. Key figures in the consortium concluded that the Premier League would not approve the deal and thus decided to withdraw their £300m offer, much to the consternation of Newcastle fans desperate for an end to Ashley’s unloved tenure.
Yet while hopes of a top-four finish were hastily shelved, the Magpies still had cause for a degree of positivity. Their summer recruitment was widely praised, as Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson arrived from Bournemouth, Jamal Lewis was brought in from Norwich City and Jeff Hendrick joined from Burnley. All four players had Premier League experience, as Newcastle sought a repeat of the previous season’s comfortable mid-table finish.
Things have not gone to plan. As we prepare to enter the business end of the campaign, Newcastle sit 17th in the standings, a far cry from the lofty heights they were anticipating when the takeover was mooted. They are just two points ahead of Fulham and on a miserable run of form, with no wins in their last six matches and only two victories to their name since mid-December. With a trip to Craven Cottage looming on the final day, Newcastle have reason to fear a third relegation during Ashley’s time in charge.
The nadir of 2020/21 came last Saturday, when the Magpies fell to a 3-0 defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion. Graham Potter’s side were the better team from first whistle to last, and thoroughly deserved to move six points clear of the drop zone.
Watching the game, it was hard to believe these two teams began the day with just a point between them. Brighton were far superior in every department, dominating possession from the get-go, creating numerous chances and keeping things tight at the back.
There is nothing wrong in theory with a reactive game plan. Newcastle were always going to let Brighton have most of the ball on Saturday, and that in itself is not a problem. Yet to sit deep, refuse to press even when behind and offer nothing at all on the counter-attack is inexcusable. In a crunch clash against a relegation rival, Newcastle had one shot on target and almost seemed content to accept defeat and be on their way. There was no effort, no intent and no ambition.
Newcastle fans have grown accustomed to this under Mike Ashley but, with the takeover seemingly so close, reverting back to a season of struggle and dreadful football has been tough to take.
“I was absolutely shocked at basically Brighton being that far in front of us in every department tonight,” Bruce said afterwards. “We simply didn’t do enough. That’s the biggest frustration.”
“The one thing I won’t ever do is give up on anything because we’ve had a bad defeat. We’ve been OK, I believe, we haven’t been sensational over the last weeks. But tonight I have to accept the criticism which will come my way and the fallout from it.””
That fallout could yet include Bruce losing his job, but even that might not be enough to save the Magpies from the drop. Having felt so close to a takeover that could have altered the future course of the club last summer, Newcastle fans are instead looking over their shoulders at spell in the Championship.
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