There’s a semi-famous clip that does the rounds every so often on Toon Twitter – typifying a Newcastle United side showing determination and challenging for every ball.

You’ll most likely know already, but it’s from the 2-1 win against Leicester City in April 2018 and it seems so alien now that it may as well be from another era rather than just under three years ago.

It’s particularly striking when you compare it to the opening stages of our woeful loss at the hands of rock-bottom Sheffield United this month. One particular clip, highlighted in the excellent analysis by Jamie Carragher on a recent Monday Night Football, showed the Blades comfortably stroking the ball around in the final third without any suggestion of being under pressure, as the hosts racked up pass after pass before fashioning a chance. It’s an incredible watch for all the wrong reasons.

As well as providing a snapshot of how far we’ve regressed from being an organised, well-drilled team who were, by and large, difficult to beat, it also offers an insight into the gradual eroding of that never-say-die team spirit fostered in the Championship and brought back into the top-flight under Rafa Benitez.

While the Spaniard arguably had less to work with on paper, thanks to a strong team spirit and a motivation to improve, Newcastle were more than the sum of their parts and enjoyed 10th and 13th place finishes on their return.

Achieved against the backdrop of another few thrifty transfer windows, it’s hard to look past the importance of team spirit and a squad working together to progress.

That’s not to say it was always sweetness and light under Benitez – he undoubtedly rattled cages with his ‘miracle to stay up’ comments and political point-scoring, which occasionally brought the squad into the firing line.

However, not only were those negative comments and reactions an exception rather than the norm, they laddered up to a long-term goal of maintaining that progress and moving the club forward.

Footballers are human. Generally speaking, like the rest of us in ‘normal jobs’, they want to buy into work, projects and people that will improve them and deliver positive results.

Now just transpose that atmosphere of striving to achieve more, even if it occasionally meant denigrating the quality of the squad, to the current climate of dusting ourselves down, rolling up our sleeves and finally doing things ‘my way’ – see also, repeating the same thing over and over before reverting to blaming anyone or anything else.

If the regression is now becoming blindingly obvious to those watching on, it must be clear to see internally too. And, to have the blame for that constantly shifted back to the squad must be a major de-motivating factor for any player.

Even the likes of Jonjo  Shelvey – previously an outspoken fan of Bruce’s, most likely due to the new bumper contract and lower-intensity training available under the current regime – incidentally, something Ritchie de Laet attested to during his time at Aston Villa – has seen his performances fall of a cliff.

That’s not to say that the stick is always preferable to the carrot. Footballing folklore is littered with examples of successful managers who enjoyed the easier life and passed that on to their players, reaping the rewards of a more relaxed approach.

However, when you take away that hunger and desire from this team, what you have is laid bare – a fairly limited team coached by a uninspiring and backwards coach, often bailed out by individual quality or, as was the case last season, generous servings of luck.

It’s far from the first time this has happened under the stewardship of Mike Ashley either.

The era of Barton, Nolan et al was another fine example of a strong-willed group eager to press ahead, under a popular, ambitious manager in the form of Chris Hughton. They were, of course, later either bombed out or sold off in place of more valuable talent, who were sold the dream of a stepping stone club.

We know what happened then and, in the midst of what appears to further evidence of waning team spirit and of Bruce having seemed to lose the dressing room, it’s clear as day that another relegation battle looms for the remainder of the season.

Ultimately, it’s a risk Ashley will continue to run so long as he underinvests in the squad, appoints underqualified coaches and generally runs a Sports Direct-esque ghost club, where staff lack motivation and desire.

This time, with whatever is or isn’t rumbling behind the scenes regarding the takeover, his next move, or lack of one, could be his most costly roll of the dice yet.

MATTHEW ROGERSON