2019/20 in Review – Newcastle United
A disappointing season for the Toon Army may finish in unbridled optimism. The departure of a beloved boss, a lack of goals and consistently uninspiring football will be forgotten if there is a long-awaited change in ownership. Cameron Wanstall reflects on Newcastle’s suspended season and looks at what the future may hold for the club.
Newcastle’s season began with disappointment. An exciting takeover attempt fell through in June and come July, Rafael Benitez was gone. Benitez, who was adored by the Toon Army, was hired by Chinese club Dalian Pro after he failed to agree a new deal with Newcastle. Top goalscorer Ayoze Perez was sold to league rivals Leicester for £30 million, and fans’ favourite Salomon Rondon joined Benitez in Dalian when his loan deal expired. The loss of 55% of their league goals, as well as the departure of their most popular manager in over a decade, was cause for concern.
Joelinton was signed for £40 million from Hoffenheim to replace Perez and Rondon, whilst Mikel Arteta, Steven Gerrard and Patrick Vieira were rumoured to replace Benitez. However, fans had a feeling they would be disappointed – again. Unsurprisingly, they were. Steve Bruce was appointed, known for his loyalty within the game – Brucey managed both Aston Villa and Birmingham City, as well as both Sheffield clubs (United and Wednesday). Furthermore, Bruce managed Newcastle’s fiercest rivals, Sunderland, and when he was appointed by the Black Cats, Bruce said, “Managing Newcastle has never been my dream.” Despite insisting he is a boyhood Newcastle fan, this quote was inevitably brought up near the end of his first press conference at St. James Park – not an ideal start.
Approaching November, Newcastle were struggling to stay out of the relegation zone. Surprise victories against Tottenham and Manchester United were the only wins in the opening ten games for Bruce’s side. Dismal defeats to Norwich and Leicester was more characteristic of Newcastle and their struggling start to the campaign. However, results improved as favourable fixtures came their way and a stretch of five wins in eight matches lifted Newcastle to 9th place by Christmas. Dull football failed to entertain disillusioned supporters, but some started to believe Bruce may at least keep Newcastle safe from relegation.
Before the league’s suspension on March 13th, Newcastle sat in 13th spot – eight points off both 6th and 18th place – and had reached the FA Cup Sixth Round for the first time since 2006. Martin Dubravka was excelling in goal, the defence was improving and the Longstaff brothers’ obvious potential was showing. Things were really starting to turn around for the better. Even skilful duo Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin were starting to adapt to the English game and learning to better play in more restrictive roles in United’s rigid system.
Newcastle headed into this unprecedented shutdown likely to stay up despite their inability to score (their 25 goals scored is the joint-lowest in the league), but fans are more interested in off-field affairs than the issues on the pitch right now. The serious takeover talk heading into the suspension has excited supporters. Even loyal followers of the club with the most severe takeover fatigue are hopeful Mike Ashley’s turbulent time as owner is over. The consortium, spearheaded by financier Amanda Staveley and backed by the billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben, has been just as controversial as Ashley.
The takeover will see the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia take an eighty percent controlling stake in the club. The fund’s assets are worth over three-hundred billion US Dollars and the PIF is led by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known commonly as MBS), who accepted responsibility for the torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which is just the most known of many controversies surrounding MBS. Allegations that the club will be used for ‘sportswashing’ purposes to fix Saudi Arabia’s image and clear the Crown Prince’s name have been debated but, the takeover is seemingly a done deal. Anyhow, back to the review…
Player of the Season – Martin Dubravka
Ciaran Clark, Fabian Schar and Jonjo Shelvey have all impressed but goalkeeper Martin Dubravka has been Newcastle’s best performer this season.
The Slovak international has continued to shine since joining Newcastle in January 2018. He has held down the number one spot despite Benitez’s departure, with his new manager praising him many times this season for his crucial shot-stopping.
Dubravka, now 31, is the busiest goalkeeper in the Premier League. He has faced an incredible league-high 444 shots and is expected to have conceded at least 52 goals, but with another league-high record of 117 saves Dubravka has managed to concede only 41. Additionally, Dubravka has the fifth most clean sheets in the league (9 in 29 games) and a formidable 73.9% save ratio. There is no doubt that Dubravka is essential to Newcastle and should the Saudi takeover be completed, the last player needing replaced will be the one between the sticks.
Young Player of the Season – Allan Saint-Maximin
The dazzling Frenchman holds off the Longstaff brothers to take this award after an impressive debut campaign with Newcastle. He is also the irrefutable Signing of the Season for United.
Since signing for £20,000,000 on a six-year contract from OGC Nice, Saint-Maximin has become an instant fans’ favourite at St. James’ Park. His electrifying style of play and instant embracing of Geordie culture has gained him cult hero status in Tyneside.
Newcastle snapped ASM up despite allegations of an attitude problem and his lack of threat in front of goal. Bruce plays Saint-Maximin as a left midfielder in a 5-4-1 formation, so a lack of goals has not been too important, and his attitude has been brilliant. His love for tearing apart opposition defenders always has supporters off their seats, yet his first season at St. James’ hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Injuries may have limited ASM’s appearances but that hasn’t stopped comparisons being made with Wolves’ Adama Traore. ASM, like Adama, has one of the best take-on records in the league but concern remains over his final third decision making. Traore had faced the same criticism when he arrived in England but is now flourishing at the Molineux. Should Saint-Maximim be released into a less rigid system and train with the right attitude, there is no reason he can’t take the Premier League by storm.
Underperformer of the Season – Joelinton
One goal in 29 league games for a £40,000,000 striker… but is it his fault?
Joelinton arrived at St. James’ for a club record fee on a six-year deal and had big shoes to fill. Salomon Rondon’s superb loan spell was not made permanent and Ayoze Perez was sold to Leicester. The club record £40 million price tag has been unnecessary pressure for the Brazilian as he has struggled to be the squad’s only reliable centre forward option as all his deputies (Andy Carroll, Dwight Gayle and Yoshimiro Muto) have a combined total of zero league goals this season.
Joelinton, 23, is without a goal in over 30 hours of league football for Newcastle, but it is hard to place the blame only on the former Hoffenheim man. His winning goal against Tottenham in August looked to be a sign of things to come. However, the tall forward is isolated on his own up top with very little support and that hasn’t changed all season. Newcastle’s tendency to sit very deep and frequently take long shots doesn’t offer the forward much creative freedom, clear-cut chances or players around him to play off. Joelinton can still flourish at Newcastle but only if Bruce builds his side around the struggling number 9.
Goal of the Season – Jonjo Shelvey vs Manchester City (H)
“Oh, yes! Jonjo Shelvey! Anything Kevin De Bruyne can do, so can Jonjo Shelvey!”
Manchester City are leading 2-1 at St. James’ Park. Kevin De Bruyne has just scored a volley Tony Yeboah would be proud of. His 20-yard strike crashes in off the crossbar to all but seal a crucial three points for the Citizens. With two minutes of normal time remaining Newcastle have a free kick in front of the Gallowgate End. On the right wing, Christian Atsu is set to take the free kick. Step up, Jonjo Shelvey.
No City player is ahead of the penalty spot, all eleven of them are anticipating an aerial bombardment. Panic sets in as the defence realises Newcastle have a player lurking on the edge of the box unmarked. But it’s too late. Atsu rolls the ball to the edge of the box. Rodri rushes out but doesn’t get close. Shelvey has already whipped the ball past Ederson. United have their equaliser. St. James’ erupts, Shelvey wheels away in celebration. Newcastle hold on to snatch a vital point against the title holders and go on to pick up all six available points from their next two fixtures.
Moment of the Season – The Longstaff Brothers vs Manchester United
Newcastle have picked up victories against Tottenham and Chelsea, but the Longstaff brothers’ role in their October match against Manchester United makes this Newcastle’s season-defining moment.
Newcastle were on a four-match winless run and had not won any of their opening three home games. Steve Bruce needed a spark to get the fans back onside and the midfield pairing of the academy graduates Matty and Sean Longstaff did just that. Matty was making his Premier League debut and early on, he cannoned a half-volley off the crossbar that got the crowd firmly behind the team as chances kept coming.
After hitting the woodwork and almost grabbing an assist, Matty was rewarded: the debutant found himself running onto a lay-off and drilled the ball past a helpless David de Gea from twenty yards out. Sean wrapped his arms around his delirious brother as they celebrated in front of the famed Gallowgate End. Newcastle won 1-0 and Matty was deservedly awarded the Man of the Match award.
Moment to Forget – Teemu Pukki 3, Newcastle 2
Despite sitting 13th in the league and reaching the FA Cup quarter final, there have been numerous low moments for Bruce and his squad.
The lowest moment was at the beginning of the campaign. An understandable 1-0 opening day loss to Arsenal was followed up by a trip to face newly promoted Norwich. Newcastle fans travelled to Carrow Road confident but under no illusions. Fans were aware that if they couldn’t beat the Canaries, they were in for a long season.
It was a disaster. Shelvey netted a late consolation goal, but the damage was already done. Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki had ripped the boys in black-and-white apart. Cantwell grabbed two assists as Pukki netted a terrific hat-trick. Fans feared the worst was yet to come after the thrashing. However, things couldn’t get much worse, and the Magpies bounced back with a shock 1-0 win over Tottenham.
The club are now sitting mid-table with the takeover expected to be completed any day now. All Newcastle United fans can do now is wait. When Ashley goes and MBS arrives, a new era can begin.