Brighton at home at 5.30 on a Saturday. Our sixth game of the season, and our already beleaguered manager titled the game a cup final. The saddest thing about it is that he was completely right. I wrote in this week’s Special newsletter (sign up free at to receive this every Saturday) that I agreed with Bruce that this weekend’s game was crucial for us.

Spirits on Tyneside had been slightly lifted by the news that Carroll and Saint-Maximin were fit enough for the bench which we all hoped might improve the attacking impetus of a side struggling massively to create chances. After a couple of pints in town, beginning at the brilliant Central Bar at the end of the Tyne Bridge, I trudged up to St James for my first game this season feeling a bizarre mix of nerves and apathy. No excitement, no confidence, just a nervous misery that we needed to win but probably wouldn’t.

The performance was worse than I ever expected it could be. The first half was a disgrace. I don’t remember us ever stringing together more than three passes, we were camped securely inside our own half for near enough every minute and Brighton utterly dominated the game. They controlled possession absolutely and we only made it to half time level through their seeming unwillingness to shoot.

Within that first half there are reports that Hayden ran to the bench to tell the manager that ‘it’s not working’ and Schar questioned Bruce on either his own or Manquillo’s position. That’s pretty much as bleak as it’s possible to be – players questioning position and overall setup in the middle of the game. Bruce made a change and moved to four at the back, something we’ve spoken about quite a bit on the podcast. Willems moved into centre mid for the first time since the first seconds of his debut and, frankly, the whole thing continued not to work. I think it’s possibly the worst half of football I’ve ever seen from an NUFC side.

The atmosphere, other than the first 15 minutes, was utterly turgid and the number of empty seats came as a real shock. We’ve had attendances like this before under the Ashley regime but I can’t remember ever seeing so many empty seats in the Strawberry Corner. For years it’s been difficult to even get a single seat there but there were lots of sizeable gaps, presumably from people that have just decided not to come back. I think that might be the thing that depressed me most from Saturday, seeing the empty seats of people who have sat near me for years.

You’d think that the lads would have received a rocket from Bruce at half time and would at least come out with the bit between their teeth. No, more of the same. There was a small amount more fight and shape but, if looked at without comparison to the utterly dreadful first half, that second half performance was shocking in its own right.

Saint-Maximin came on with a bit of spark and attacked his man well. I think he’s a quality player and if we can keep him fit will be a real attacking weapon for us this season. He consistently beat his man and moved into threatening areas but without support from the rest of the lads he never really created a decent chance for us to score.

Carroll coming off the bench raised the crowd for the first time since the opening quarter of an hour but we got what could be expected from a striker that’s been injured for months and barely played for the last four years, lots of effort but little application. To be clear, that’s not a criticism of Carroll as he could hardly have been expected to come on and win the game for us in his first appearance since March.

Needless to say we didn’t score. Brighton dominated the second half without ever really threatening our goal and should be really disappointed they didn’t return to the south coast with all three points. They’ve controlled the possession and tempo of the game for near enough the entire 90 minutes and other than Schar’s brilliant goal line clearance haven’t threatened to score once. I think they’ll likely be right in the mix with us come the end of the season.

There are only a couple of mild positives to take from this weekend. A point, first of all, is always better than zero, and eventually we’ll forget just how bad the performance was and think at least we didn’t get beat. Saint-Maximin is lively and exciting to watch. Schar played well again and looks to have picked up pretty much where he left off last season and he’ll only get better once Lejeune is back in the side. And thinking with my heart rather than my head, it was great to see Andy Carroll back in black and white. It’s a huge if, but if we can keep him fit he’ll be great for us this year.

However, it was all in all an utterly dreadful day at St James and a really worrying performance. It was a must win game against a side we should beat at home and we looked inferior in every department. We now roll in to an in form Leicester (a), Man United (h) then Chelsea away and could well be staring right down the barrel of relegation after just nine games. Oh, and we’re now the bookies’ favourite to go down. Difficult to argue against that.