Newcastle United 1 – Almiron 57’

Leeds United 2–Raphinha 17’ Harrison 61’

And so here we are again. Another game in this unrelenting season, this largely joyless anti-football season where our continued absence from grounds takes away the thing we love yet offers us a little distance from the pain it inflicts. Another opportunity to win, another opportunity to lose, another opportunity to ‘respond’.

We’re always responding to something it seems. One man not responding this week was Steve Bruce, who banned both the local and national media from his pre-match press conference – a petty, thin-skinned response to a largely balanced critique from journalists who have given the man in charge every chance to prove he deserves this job.

For once, a response would be nice against a side we have traditionally enjoyed barnstorming games against and hold no little enmity for.

We owe them one. Our last encounter with Leeds in December resulted in a chastening 5-2 defeat at Elland Road, as we were outfought, outthought and outplayed by a finely-tuned machine running at maximum efficiency. We were embarrassed that night, make no mistake. By the end we more closely resembled a spineless bunch of strangers than a Premier League side, leaving vast swathes of the pitch unmanned for our opponents to waltz upfield with little regard for what lay behind them.

That defeat in West Yorkshire marked the start of a ten-game winless streak. You know, that ‘difficult run’ we find ourselves in, the one which has seen us draw two and lose eight. The one which has seen us score once from open play after the Leeds game. The one that ‘a number of other teams are experiencing’ in the bottom half of the league, which now appears to have become our sole ambition under this manager. Gone are the hopes of ‘progress’ and ‘pushing on for the top ten’, replaced with empty platitudes of ‘rolling our sleeves up’ and ‘finding that bit of confidence’.

So forgive me if I wasn’t exactly enthused about the prospect of this game. How could you be enthused about watching us right now? Yet here I am, alongside untold scores of others, tuning into BT Sport on a Tuesday tea-time, hoping, praying even (if that’s your thing) for any crumb of comfort, any semblance of a strategy, any evidence of a plan that will reverse this seemingly relentless march towards oblivion.

After making a whopping 12 personnel changes across the last two starting line-ups, not to mention yet another change in system, today Bruce picked a four at the back formation out of the hat. His way, the gloves are off and all that. This saw Ryan Fraser and Jacob Murphy return to the team in place of the benched Andy Carroll and Javier Manquillo. Karl Darlow retained his place despite a couple of recent errors, with Isaac Hayden at right back, and Fraser, Almiron and Murphy playing in support of the loneliest man in the world, Callum Wilson. Our midfield duo comprised of Jeff Hendrick and Jonjo Shelvey, two men who have the mobility of a tortoise against a team full of hares. No, I have no idea why either.

We came up against an out-of-form but well-rested Whites team, lining up in their usual 4-1-4-1 system with players having clear direction on their position and role, which has been drilled into them on the training ground by an ambitious and front-foot manager. What a novelty, eh?

The first half started in a fragmented fashion. Fabian Schar received treatment for that pesky shoulder, whilst Leeds were forced into a defensive reshuffle with Struijk replacing the stricken Llorente, but once the game settled down, it took the visitors no time at all to rip through Newcastle.

Murphy was easily dispossessed near halfway, burgundy shirts flooded forwards and after a couple of passes, Raphinha found himself in an acre of space on the edge of the box to pick his spot and fire the ball past a helpless Darlow. Tactically, it was an awful goal to concede, highlighting our naivety when caught in possession and inability to defend the counter-attack.

The response from the home side? Non-existent. A few half-chances (if we’re being generous) were created, with Lascelles heading off-target from a corner and Fraser slashing high and wide from a Murphy cross. Wilson was fouled in the Leeds half to give us a free-kick in a decent position. The outcome? A wild Jonjo Shelvey shot from distance that was as pathetic as it was laughable as it found its way into the second tier of the Leazes. His presence in the side remains a complete mystery given he contributes little in attack and is a liability defensively.

But Leeds remained the dominant force, enjoying 63% possession in the first half. From our corner (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), Leeds went straight up the other end and had a shot blocked, before Raphinha got in behind our defence all too easily, and rather than square it for Patrick Bamford to tap in, hit the post from a tight angle. A warning for the second half and another example of how easy we are to play against. It doesn’t matter if you have four or five at the back – if you are not well coached in how to defend these situations, you will concede goal after goal.

One imagines Bruce told the players to just go for it in the second half, likely fearing the backlash at yet another horrendous performance and for his hopes of continuing in the job. Whatever was said at the break did breathe new life into Newcastle, who emerged for the second half with refreshed attacking impetus. Early set pieces were won and wasted, before finally…A GOAL! And what a great goal it was too. The ball was won back high up the pitch by an aggressive Hayden tackle, Shelvey played it to Wilson who cushioned a delightful pass into the path of the onrushing Almiron, who made no mistake from point blank range. Game well and truly on after such a lacklustre first half showing.

Yet, the old cliché of you’re at your most vulnerable when you’ve just scored rang true again, as Leeds came right back. The dangerous Raphinha moved infield, dinked a wonderful pass over the top of the Newcastle defence for Harrison, standing in acres of space and with time to fire a lovely strike across Darlow and into the far corner. Now Newcastle would have to do what they hadn’t done since the return game against Leeds to get anything out of the game – score two goals.

And to our credit, we gave it a good go. Shelvey had a chance to find Wilson after a barnstorming run from Schar but saw his pass intercepted, and Murphy hit a shot just wide from distance. Bruce introduced his trump card in the shape of Saint-Maximin just after the hour mark, and the Frenchman was at his exuberant best with direct running at the heart of the Leeds defence. One run attracted three defenders, leaving ASM to find Lewis inspace, but his shot was screwed wide via a deflection. From the resulting corner, Lascelles had yet another header, this one shaving the top of the bar on its way over.

Schar continued to exert a real influence on the game with driving runs out of defence, forcing a save from Meslier and getting the team up the pitch. That unfortunately was our last chance of a hectic second half, as Newcastle succumbed to yet another defeat, this time against a team we’d expect to be competing with to avoid relegation. The reality though is much different, as Leeds look every inch a Premier League side despite being in their first top flight season since 03-04. Newcastle on the other hand are going backwards in their fourth consecutive campaign in the league.

Bruce will likely come out fighting in his usual style, hanging on to the improved second half performance as evidence that he is turning the ship round and better days lie ahead. That would ignore the shocking first half effort, which followed the template of recent games as we huffed and puffed with no ideas or invention. You simply cannot expect to win games in this league defending like we do, and with so little creativity in attacking areas. We are now winless in 11 games in all competitions, with a tricky run of fixtures coming up.

Much like the Black Knight in Monty Python, Bruce will no doubt proclaim this defeat a mere scratch or flesh wound, when in reality it is yet another critical blow to our chances of remaining a Premier League side next season. The longer our deluded Head Coach remains in post, the worse our prognosis of survival becomes, a terminal decline surely setting in with every passing game.

It will seemingly require action from our wantaway owner and his cadre of sycophantic yes men to put him out of his misery, given Bruce’s regular proclamations of ‘fighting on’ and ‘never walking away from a challenge’, despite obvious evidence to the contrary in his career. When that decision will come, only Ashley will know, but for a man with infamous repute as a high-stakes gambler and a painfully protracted takeover bubbling away in the background, delaying the decision much longer will surely count as the biggest punt yet during his 14 years of owning the club.

There is a sense of doom over the club at the minute which has overtaken on-pitch events, and it feels like only the manager’s departure will begin to clear it. There is no more time to waste.

CRAIG SHAW – @Shawzey15