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Opinion

Could be the difference between Steve Bruce’s Newcastle staying up compared to McClaren relegation

2 weeks ago
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It may be still relatively early in the season but the worry is that Newcastle United are already sliding to another relegation battle despite Saturday’s win. If we do go down it would be a third under Mike Ashley’s ownership.

Unfortunately, in recent years it has become all too familiar for us to be fighting for Premier League survival and this campaign already has a feel of impending doom.

In particular the comparisons between our season so far and the last relegation season are as clear as day.

After 11 games this season we have 12 points. After the same amount in 2015/16 we had seven points. Our position of 15th in the table at this stage though is hardly surprising or undeserved.

Once again we have a new manager at the helm. Steve Bruce is similar to Steve McClaren in a number of ways. Being a hugely unpopular Newcastle United manager perhaps the most obvious one.

As with the vast majority of Mike Ashley appointments, neither were wanted by the supporters, both were working in the Championship and unable to achieve promotion with decent sized clubs. Neither have been able to win over the fanbase but then this hardly a surprise. Both are uninspiring appointments. McClaren always tried to find an excuse and continually claim his team were playing well and were often unlucky, when in fact they weren’t.

I don’t think Bruce will be quite as naive but he should stop talking about Benitez in his interviews. Comparing himself to Rafa will never work for him so why bother? Even after our win last Saturday he was still talking about hopefully getting the support Rafa has had one day.

In that situation he should just be happy to see his team do well, rather than milk it for all it’s worth. It might take a bit more than a couple of half decent performances and results to earn that kind of unwavering support from the supporters.

McClaren also managed to get the odd big win in his short tenure. There were times during that season it felt like things we turning around. We beat Liverpool and Spurs in back-to-back weeks before Christmas and it looked like we had turned a corner. Only to follow it up with an awful draw against an Aston Villa side who were one of the worst the Premier League has ever seen. That was the sort of result that relegated us.

Perhaps the most unmentioned, yet damning indictment on the last 12 years of ownership, is the fact that the only two managers to have received proper financial backing in the transfer market are McClaren and Bruce. Both summers involved monumental levels of spending by Mike Ashley standards. Gini Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic were both big money signings in the summer of 2015 that were supposed to take us onto the next level.

This summer we have invested heavily in Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin, players who both arrive with huge reputations. Mitrovic and Wijnaldum were two of our better players in that awful season, and maybe Joelinton and Saint-Maximin will have decent campaigns, but should we be relying so heavily on players with no experience of playing in England, is more the question?

It would be funny it is was not so tragic.

The similarities between the sides they are creating are uncanny. Joelinton has become the new Mitrovic. Both scored goals and starred for their teams in other leagues before making the move for sizeable chunks of money. By the standards of Ashley’s austerity Newcastle they are practically Galactico signings. In both cases you get the feeling there might be a good player in there waiting to come out but clubs at the bottom of the league don’t have the time.

Joelinton did have an excellent game on Saturday in the win over West Ham. The hope is that he doesn’t just have a season of having a good game here and there but actually starts finding the net on a regular basis. Mitrovic played very well in a number of his 34 league games in 2015/16, but it was a lot of responsibility to throw on the shoulders of a 21 year-old, who had never played English football before.

The main difference between these two teams four years apart, will hopefully be the difference between staying up and going down. The centre backs.

Our current depth in this position is as good as it ever has been before at Newcastle United in the modern era. This is no doubt largely down to the work of Bruce’s predecessor but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a big plus point for the current squad. The form of Ciaran Clark and Federico Fernandez since they have been brought into the starting XI has been remarkable. We still have Florian Lejeune and Fabian Schar to come back, who for my money are the best two footballers currently at the club.

This is a stark contrast to the Steve McClaren team which struggled hugely in this area. Chancel Mbemba was a fairly decent signing early on that season but all the other first choice centre backs looked way past their best. In fairness to him, even the hapless McClaren managed to spot this and asked Lee Charnley for another centre-half to be signed in pre-season. Instead Fabricio Coloccini received a new 12-month contract. Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson were often involved when both were lacking form and fitness. This crucial difference in quality may get enough just enough clean sheets to be secure of survival.

The two seasons could be different in one crucial aspect. Last time, in spite of all rational logic , Steve McClaren managed to survive until March, by which time we were near enough down and out anyway. If Benitez had have managed to keep us up that season it would have been the great escape. If form does tail off badly this time, Charnley will have to act far quicker in changing manager. Obviously we are not at this stage yet but if a times does come when the manager’s position is untenable and we look like we are going to lose the dogfight, it is better to change sooner rather than later.

The litmus test for Steve Bruce could be over this next month.

Winnable games against Bournemouth and Villa look a more reliable test of form. Can we win when some people are expecting us to?

Losing points to these teams left McClaren’s reign dead in the water. In fact his very last home game was a 3-1 defeat to Bournemouth with a terrible display to boot. Steve Bruce would have been nowhere near my top choice to take the managerial reigns this summer but equally that doesn’t mean it is in our interests for him to be another McClaren.

You can follow the author on Twitter @JackLaceySport

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