Steve Bruce: Saved by an empty stadium and hollow owner

A shrill echoed around the stadium, notifying the managers, the players, a smattering of media staff and journalists that the game was over: a share of the spoils neither side should be happy about.

The players left to near-silence, arrowing down the tunnel as the camera picked up a slice of conversation here and there. No shouts of anger, no jeers, just monotone voices of officials mixed with breathless players and the faintest sound of scuttling.

Ten minutes went by and we returned to the studio, where they mostly talked about the penalty that should not have been, the red card that Joachim Andersen did not deserve and the general travesty of VAR, before it was out to the pitch again, where Steve Bruce was asked questions.

He was asked whether he thought the result was good enough – he didn’t think it was – and he was pressed a bit on this style of play, how he was unable to beat a side who possessed only ten men for almost half an hour of play.

“We take a point and move on.”

And that was that.

Bruce came away from the Fulham game seemingly saddened by a game they should have lost but, in reality, the obscenity of VAR’s implementation saved him a point, while the current pandemic restrictions saved him the heat of the fans. They surely would have voiced their discontent after watching their side gift Fulham 66% possession in the first half and then still look the side least likely to score in the second, either side of that red card.

But he left without such evidence of his current unpopularity, before heading to training the next day in preparation for the upcoming quarter-final clash against Brentford: an easier game in which the tide could turn yet again, surely pulling this infamously neurotic fanbase towards him once more. They just had to turn up for this one.

If anyone was on the fence about their position on Bruce, surely Newcastle’s 1-0 loss to a weakened Brentford side has tipped them over the edge. Even those in the media who take a quick glance at the table before promptly giving Bruce his dues must surely now have doubts.

Missing key players and performing in third gear, Bruce was unable to inspire his men to even vaguely look like overturning the Bees’ lead. His final card was to bring on Andy Carroll, a man who is yet to get a goal or assist for his club in 279 minutes.

Don Goodman, the co-commentator who is paid to watch Championship games, blasted Brentford for their weak performance despite the win. This has to tell you everything.

If you had hidden the score-line at 85 minutes and asked someone to select who was behind, chasing the game, they’d have a hard time deciding. It was like Newcastle looked to play out another cosy point despite it being a knockout competition.

This is a nadir Newcastle fans have seen coming for some time. It’s not merely about the loss to Brentford (arguably their biggest game in several seasons) – there have scarcely been any signs of improvement since Bruce came in and was dealt a relatively sizeable kitty and a mid-table squad. He’s had £100m so far.

Despite what you might hear, Bruce did have fans on his side in some games last season: they sang his name on occasion, podcasts gave praise where it was due, but soon the evidence started to show that the direction was firmly pointed backwards.

The problem is that even in victory – some 33% overall for the club – it’s always been about the performance of the opposition rather than Newcastle. Even Steve McClaren provided Newcastle fans with moments like the 6-2 win over Norwich City, games in which the side ran riot; Bruce has yet been able to deliver a convincing display for Newcastle. Being slightly better than the opposition is his ceiling.

He pitches his side as passively as possible, meaning that even in victory, the game itself is mundane. They don’t press, they don’t want possession, so no wonder they succumb so easily to teams that do, such as Leeds (5-2) and Southampton (2-0). And these are teams which Newcastle fans envy, despite them both having rocky spells.

Luck has been cited as the reason for the Magpies’ occasional victories but can you really luck your way to 13th in the table? Or luck your way to where Newcastle are now? Probably not, but a collection of games with a decent squad does merit some wins here and there; this is especially the case when you have a manager who’s not terrible – particularly regarding man-management matters – but whose tactics have simply been left behind in a league which now delivers some of the world’s best front-foot, pressing football. Sooner or later, you get found out.

Last season the club scored 38 league goals; they have not scored fewer goals since 1997/98. And they are yet to win three consecutive league games under Bruce.

So now there is an onus on the owner to do the right thing. But Mike Ashley has appeared to skittle away from this. Nothing will happen until this manager leads them into a relegation battle; as long as that bar is not breached and the ongoing takeover is not disrupted, Newcastle will remain forever in Brucie Land. And that means dour football – punctuated only by moments of class from players of Premier League stature – mixed with bags of luck.

Voicing this cry for change hits a roadblock with the lack of fans at stadiums; even protests would be frowned upon. There is no way to show their revolt other than through social media, which carries the notoriety of reactionary fans speaking half-truths, spurred only by the latest result and without nuance. No one is going to pay much attention to the fans’ concerns right now.

Newcastle’s next games are Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester City, followed by Arsenal in the FA Cup, then Sheffield United, Arsenal, Leeds and Everton. Newcastle could be in a relegation battle – predicted by fans from the first moment Bruce was appointed – by the end of January. Perhaps only then will something happen to stop the grind of supporting a team constricted by the apathy of their owner and the inability of their manager.

Jacque Talbot – follow him on Twitter