One word that’s been used on countless occasions over the past six months is ‘unprecedented’.
It’s been a repetitive and apt way to describe a 2020 that has been so surreal throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, yet also a word that describes the past few months at Newcastle United pretty well – for good and bad.
Unlike so many takeover attempts that came before it, the Saudi bid looked set to go through and got closer to completion than any other deal we’ve seen emerge since Ashley bought the club. We were also playing football without fans, unable to go to St James’ Park, wearing masks in shops and wondering when we’d next hug members of the family or see friends safely – never mind go to the game.
Although the buyout has ultimately failed – something that seems anything but out of the ordinary – another ‘unprecedented’ event arrived earlier this week, with Mike Ashley finally agreeing to back a Newcastle United manager with PROVEN Premier League players.
It’s been the most bizarre summer I’ve ever experienced as a fan, or human being for that matter. It perhaps says a lot about the rubbish we’ve become used to under Ashley’s previously flawed transfer policy that the signing of a 28-year-old striker with a 1 in 3 record in the Premier League and decision to pay money for a talented left-back (not bring in another on loan) has been lauded by fans on Tyneside, with that and a couple of bargain free agents seeming like the best business we’ve done in years at a time when we feared the worst heading into 2020/21.
It’s given us the surprise boost we so desperately needed after a summer of false hope and ultimate hurt, and a reason to get excited again now football is finally returning.
The question is, can Steve Bruce now deliver an exciting season at St James’ Park? I don’t think any of us presume we’ll suddenly become world beaters, but with us adding a few quality additions and some of his top targets to an already solid Premier League squad, there’s an expectation to be sniffing around the top 10, scoring more goals and playing some better football this time around – not playing negative football with no identity and a whole lot of luck.
Bruce has done very well to convince Mike Ashley to spend at a time where we needed it more than ever, however the pressure is now on him to deliver. With a front four of Wilson, Fraser, Almiron and Saint-Maximin, we have the ability to cause any team in this league real problems and should no longer be relying on goals from centre-backs, Dubravka heroics, ASM magic or blaming Joelinton for another blank.
First up, we travel to West Ham – a side who aren’t exactly heading into the new season with the same level of momentum, with few players signed and their star winger Grady Diangana sold to West Brom.
Let’s hope we can come flying out of the traps, immediately look more fluid in this 4-2-3-1 system and get at a leaky defence that could well be there for the taking.
Bruce has confirmed that Callum Wilson is ‘available’ and that fellow new boy Jamal Lewis ‘will play’, although it seems Ryan Fraser will face a late test after training well for two days and declaring himself fit, but not playing competitively since March!
Elsehwere, Jonjo Shelvey is expected to make it despite missing our final friendly vs Stoke, while Matt Ritchie is deemed ‘touch and go’ and Joelinton unlikely to start after linking up with the first-team squad in the final week of pre-season.
Ruled out are Martin Dubrakva (ankle), Fabian Schar (shoulder), Dwight Gayle (knee), Matty Longstaff (thigh) and Paul Dummett (hamstring), while Ciaran Clark is ‘OK’ but still not ‘fully recovered’ after Bruce revealed he actually ‘broke his leg’ earlier in the year at Arsenal.
Elsewhere, Jeff Hendrick could make his competitive debut and skipper Jamaal Lascelles has been declared fit despite only recently recovering from ankle surgery.
Predicted line up
Predicted NUFC XI (4-2-3-1): Darlow – Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Lewis – Hayden, Shelvey – Murphy, Almiron, Saint-Maximin – Wilson.
I can see Ritchie starting if he’s fit, but think Jacob Murphy could be thrown in following his eye-catching form over pre-season, with him starting alongside Almiron and Saint-Maximin in our final friendly.
I generally can’t see him getting enough game time this season, especially if Ritchie stays following Fraser’s arrival, however now is surely the perfect chance for Bruce to take a look at him at Premier League level before he makes a decision on another loan?
I can’t see Fraser being thrown straight in – he won’t be match fit after over six months away from competitive action – but think Bruce go with Lewis (our only fit left-back!) in Dummett’s absence and start Wilson up top too.
Carroll has done well in pre-season, staying fit and scoring a few great goals, but Wilson has 7 goals in his last 8 games against West Ham, with his presence in the starting 11 likely to give everyone involved an automatic boost.
Here’s a few ones to watch in David Moyes’ Hammers side:
Jarrod Bowen – The winger was a target of Bruce’s back in January and has been quietly impressive since arriving. West Ham fans I’ve spoke to like him a lot, with his movement, goal-threat and intensity promising to give Lewis a big test on Saturday should our new £15m start.
Tomas Soucek – The 6ft 4′ midfielder doesn’t look like a goalscorer, but quickly developed an uncanny knack of arriving late into the box and heading home following his January arrival. One to watch in the air.
Michail Antonio – No Premier League player scored more goals over Project Restart (8) than the powerful forward who’s recently been converted from a winger to a striker, of sorts. Scored at St James’ in our 2-2 draw with the Hammers back in July and will be looking to cause havoc for Lascelles and Fernandez once again.
Aaron Cresswell – It’s hard to say who’ll be running at him, but we could have a field day if we get Allan Saint-Maximin running at the out of sorts full-back. In our ‘Opposition Opinion’ piece he was described as their biggest weakness, so he could be one to target.
Predicted West Ham XI (4-4-2): Fabianski – Johnson, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell – Bowen, Rice, Soucek, Fornals – Antonio, Haller.
I can see this being a game of goals – especially when Bruce’s new-look attack and 4-2-3-1 formation (featuring one less centre-back) may leave us a little more open at the back.
Saint-Maximin and Almiron’s pace tore the Hammers apart in this fixture last season, so add into that a Callum Wilson desperate to score on his debut and we have the makings of a front four who could call all sorts of bother.
That said, the new players haven’t had long to bed in and it feels like a game where we don’t quite know what we’re going to get from two unpredictable teams who’ve both had disruptive pre-seasons for one reason or another.
My heart says 1-3 to Newcastle with a brace from Callum Wilson and Saint-Maximin masterclass, but my head’s saying a score draw that sees our defence let us down.
Prediction: West Ham 2-2 Newcastle