It is early on Friday morning, Steve Bruce has just been asked about hope and he looks braced for combat.
Can Newcastle’s manager offer the disenchanted and disengaged any reason for optimism? Does he expect to be greeted by rows of empty seats when Newcastle kick off against West Ham at St James’ Park on Sunday afternoon? Is he aware that a majority of the fans seem unusually pessimistic about this season’s prospects? Bruce’s body language tenses.
As the questions continue it shifts, almost imperceptibly, from deliberately impassive to bristling. “We’ll be close to a full house, which is quite remarkable,” counters a manager bolstered, and possibly emboldened, by Joe Willock’s imminent £22m arrival from Arsenal. “We’ll have close to 50,000 people coming to support their team.
“There’s nothing quite like a full house at St James’ Park. It’s marvellous. Empty stadiums in lockdown have been bloody awful. Yes, it was a spectacle for people to watch on television but it was bloody awful for us. We’ve missed supporters – and the one thing we now know is that we can not take them for granted. They need to be excited.”
Bruce is cautiously optimistic Newcastle can fulfil this craving for thrills. No matter that his team were often excruciating to watch as they ground their way to a slightly flattering 12th, he believes Willock’s installation in midfield will prove pivotal to the success of a newly attractive counterattacking strategy refined over the summer.
After apparently ditching his dalliance with the flat back four his predecessor, Rafael Benítez, never thought suited the nucleus of Newcastle’s squad, there has been a return to the side’s longstanding default strategy of playing on the break. It will involve using the pace, dribbling skills, clever movement and sheer energy of Allan Saint-Maximin, Miguel Almirón, Callum Wilson and Willock to petrify opponents caught out of position when attacks are intercepted. Or at least that is the theory. “We need to stay fitter, be more consistent and better defensively than last season,” Bruce says.
The 60-year-old appreciates much hinges on Saint-Maximin and Wilson remaining injury free and knows the backline remains the one department that lacks a helpful change of pace. He has also not forgotten just how cruelly he was jeered when 10,000 fans returned to watch Newcastle beat Sheffield United late last season.
Feeling the noise generated by a crowd of 50,000 can indeed be life-affirming, but full houses sometimes create a lot of unpleasant heat for Newcastle managers. Much as he hated the silence, those empty stands arguably kept Bruce in a job last season and the returnees will now have a big say in his future.
With Graeme Jones, the club’s influential first-team coach, having returned from a Euro 2020 secondment to England in time to sweat over the tactical small print, Bruce hopes to pacify the dissenters among St James’s first proper crowd since 52,219 watched a 0-0 draw with Burnley on 29 February 2020.
If the mercurial Saint-Maximin is almost certainly the individual opposition defenders most fear, Willock demonstrated an impressive mastery of the art of making late scoring dashes into the box during a loan from Arsenal in the spring, when his eight goals allayed lingering relegation fears.
“Joe made us a threat, he improved us,” says Bruce, although Newcastle did not sign the player in time for him to be involved on Sunday. “This club’s gone above and beyond where I’d thought we’d go to get him. There were times I never thought we’d get there but our doggedness has paid off.”
Newcastle’s manager could still do with a new midfield enforcer, a left-sided central defender and another striker but the biggest questions on Sunday surround the goalkeeping position. In Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow, Bruce possesses two excellent keepers but the former is sidelined by a foot injury and the latter is too weak to play as a result of a severe Covid infection, which kept the 30-year-old in hospital for five nights and caused him to lose a stone and a half in weight. Their absence leaves Southgate’s Godson,the 24-year-old Freddie Woodman, Gareth Southgate’s godson, set to make his Premier League debut after two seasons spent on loan at Swansea.
“Let’s hope Freddie grasps his chance,” says Bruce who had been close to dispatching Woodman on another loan, to Bournemouth, before Darlow entered hospital. “It’s what the kid’s always wanted.”
The conversation turns to Covid and, as Newcastle’s manager implores fans to be double vaccinated, it serves as a reminder of the backdrop to a 0-0 draw with Norwich on Tyneside on 1 February 2020. Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary sits a long goal kick away from St James’ and that Saturday international television crews gathered to report on the two Chinese nationals who, having been identified as the UK’s first official coronavirus patients, were being treated inside its specialist infectious diseases unit.
Even then, few could have predicted the nightmare about to unfold but now the gates are fully unlocked once more and Bruce, albeit grim-faced, is talking about hope. Someone asks if European qualification is possible. “We won’t transform overnight,” he says, before a certain defiance enters his voice. “But, yes, that has to be the aim.”