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From functional to dysfunctional: how Newcastle United went into reverse

12 months ago

A long, long time ago, an old geography teacher asked the class why people went to football matches.

He listened to our predictable answers and then delivered his verdict: “Supporters turn up week after week because they want to see footballers do things that are unimaginable to normal people. They want to be lifted out of reality, if only for a few seconds.”

Nearly 50 years on, I still reckon that’s a good explanation, though only one of several.

Because of Covid the question needs to be rephrased: “Why do people watch football on TV?”

If Mr Allnut (yes, honestly, that was his name) is still alive, he would perhaps have been surprised so many supporters were continuing to flock to St James Park earlier this year. And last year. And the year before that.

The most one-eyed black-and-white fan would be fooling nobody but himself by claiming the football in recent seasons has been sparkling, progressive or exciting. With a few notable exceptions, it has been thud and blunder rather than blood and thunder.

There was a level of optimism while Rafa Benitez was the manager. The team seemed to be improving, albeit slowly. The supporters, generally, seemed to respect what Benitez was trying to achieve with extremely limited resources. The players were well drilled, hard working and probably punching above their weight. Performances were, in a word, functional.

Is that still the case? In match after match under the current regime the tactics are negative to the point of surrender. Let the opposition have the ball, sit back, hope their strikers have an off-day. Before anybody cites the away win at West Ham as proof Steve Bruce is on the right track, remember the opposition that day were staggeringly bad and still managed to hit our bar twice with Karl Darlow beaten. We had two efforts on target and scored with both.

Against Brighton at home we had no efforts on target, while Brighton fans of my acquaintance thought their team should have scored six or seven.

Away to Spurs yesterday we had no efforts on target (and barely any attempts to score) until that stoppage-time penalty. Just as at West Ham, the home team hit the frame of the goal twice, while Darlow was the star of the show, making 11 saves. We played five at the back, including our only mobile central midfielder. That isolated our putative forwards something rotten. No wonder we struggled to retain possession. Week by week, the team are becoming dysfunctional.

Could this be a consequence of what does and doesn’t go on between matches? Martin Peters was memorably described by Alf Ramsey as a player “10 years ahead of his time”. Will Bruce be described in similar terms? Not when he gives the players two or three days off between matches. Where is the determination to improve our play, which was clearly evident under his predecessor?

Anything the Spurs manager says needs to be taken with a massive dose of salt. True to form he came out with this: “The performance was really good. It was an amazing performance, very good. We deserved the points.” No, it wasn’t; and no, you didn’t. Your team squandered nearly all their chances. But credit where it’s due. Spurs passed the ball to each other, found space in and around our box, nullified our rare attempts to attack them and looked by far the better team. All of that counts for diddly squat, however, if you don’t stick the ball in the net more often than the other team. And your lot didn’t, so don’t come looking for sympathy in these parts.

As for his tosh that Spurs as a club “deserve more respect”, what planet are you on, Jose?

His moaning is an irrelevance, if occasionally an amusing one, when compared with the problems that need sorting at Newcastle United. Here’s a brief to-do list, offered to Bruce with all good wishes.

1) Drop Jonjo Shelvey until he is fit enough to play in the Premier League. By continuing to select him, you insult his excluded colleagues. Ditto Andy Carroll.

2) Give Jacob Murphy a run in the team. His talent needs to be nurtured, not ignored.

3) Insist Miguel Almiron practises his finishing every day in training. If he already does, double the sessions.

4) Teach Jamaal Lascelles how to marshal the defence. Or have you forgotten what you did as a player?

5) Stop talking nonsense, such as the “hysteria” comment after the Morecambe match. Why advertise the sad fact that you just don’t get it? Sir Bobby got it, Kevin Keegan got it, Benitez got it. What’s your problem?

The optimism has dwindled since Bruce was appointed, just as it did under managers including Graeme Souness, Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear, Jim Smith and most others. Dwindled but not entirely vanished, if only because of one quality our chief coach seems to have in abundance: luck. Napoleon once said he would rather have a lucky general than a good one.

Being greedy, I would rather have a good manager and a lucky one. The fans of Newcastle United deserve that, for their dedication to the cause.


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