Steve Bruce would have received the full extent of St James’ Park’s jeers last week when Southampton visited was it not for the fact almost ten thousand fans decided not to go.

To stay at home might come across as a brash course of action to take so early into the season. But for supporters, those first couple of matches were pivotal in knowing whether the good form at the tail-end of the last campaign actually meant anything.

Graeme Jones’ arrival as assistant manager in January saw a moderate turn in results; at least Newcastle kept a familiar formula, using the 3-5-2 formation instead of constant readjustments. The football was never seamless but they did at least resemble a side with an understanding of how to approach opposition: Newcastle won five of their final nine league games and lost just two, averaging 1.88 points.

Bruce had a chance to continue whatever prevailing method that had been found at the start of this year, and yet Newcastle have reverted back to the same old. Everything seemingly improved upon has returned to square one, back to Brucie basics.

Some of the most anti-Bruce voices last season decided that a lot of the points he accrued was mostly down to luck. Their controversial penalty against Tottenham early in the campaign, their late game-winning goals against Everton and Chelsea, garner points for Newcastle despite their performances. Well if luck was the reason for Bruce’s successes last season, he’s certainly without it now. Newcastle’s number one, Martin Dúbravka, remains out injured. COVID struck Karl Darlow during the summer meaning he could not be offloaded in exchange for squad improvement as per his wage bill.

Meanwhile, more pressingly, Newcastle have conceded three penalties in four games; Southampton’s goal-winning spot-kick in the 96th minute being particularly gutwrenching. It’s only early in the season but the matches played so far speak of a team who, similar to last campaign, need an inspired fine run of form to pull themselves out of an impending relegation battle.

When there are so different sources of angst within a club, it’s hard to collectively galvanise protest against a single one: that’s why there’s been so much struggle to organise a tangible method of conveying discontent at present. But fundamentally, for the here and now, Bruce is the one choosing the team and setting out the ill-fated tactics.

Of course, there’s no denying the overriding pinnacle of decline is most personified by Mike Ashley, the owner so tight with money Bruce could not afford the full amount to get Axel Tuanzebe on loan this summer, while Joe Willock, their only signing, is being paid for in instalments.

But even under Ashley, for all his apathy, ineptitude and lack of spending for the last window and countless others before that, Newcastle possess a squad that is capable of forging more than what they are now – a club sat in 17th looking downwards. For all Ashley’s negative impetus at the club, he cannot be blamed for single-point start.

With so much emphasis on the transfer market nowadays people have started to believe that player purchases during the summer will inevitably dictate a team’s final position in the league table. But that would not explain how Farhad Moshiri’s Everton have not earned a place in Europe in four years, or how Arsenal, the biggest spenders of this window, are in the midst of a nadir. And likewise, how Leeds have delivered excellent finishes despite their tepid spending, their recent Daniel James deal withstanding.

Fans’ displeasure of Bruce’s appointment and the premonitions that he would send the team down in his first season meant that the bar was set too low and he was able to achieve relative success without really doing much at all.

Every player has regressed under him (apart from Javier Manquillo, the Spanish right-back Bruce seldom uses.) The football played is laborious and dour, held up only by the sporadic jolts sparked by Allan Saint-Maximin, Joe Willock, Callum Wilson, and to a slightly lesser extent Miguel Almiron, who’s often played out of position.

The team’s only constant appears to be offering every club possession of the ball – whether against a ten-man Fulham at home or away to Man United – while relying on scoring via the break. Meanwhile, Bruce’s system of asking wing-backs to pin back with caution rather than roam into the box strips the formation of one of its best purposes.; the 3-5-2 is now acting as a 5-3-2 and is hugely ineffectual.

For the restrictions Ashley has put in place – the club not allowed to buy players over a certain age, the ridiculous loans-only policy – fundamentally the club still have a good enough side to compete this season.

It’s been 92 games and a 30.4% win percentage for Bruce. Other than Graham Potter, there’s not manager who’s been at their club since 2019/20 season with a worse win record. How much time do you need to imbed your philosophy? To effect change? Over two years seems a fair amount.

Within the confines of the Ashley era, Newcastle won’t be leading a title charge any time soon. And it must be noted the lack of support he gave Bruce this summer window is nothing short of disgraceful.

But, what’s also true is that the removal of the current manager in place of someone with a modern tactical blueprint will undoubtedly catalyse the club much further forward than they are.

Perceptions can change. There’s no denying Bruce was disliked from the get-go, but no coach is doomed from the start just because the support is against them. David Moyes has shown that; Rafa Benitez too.

The takeover has disappeared to the background for now and so Newcastle remain in Ashley purgatory as they have done for the past 14 years. But even as they roam such torrid terrain, there’s no reason why there could not be any sense of enjoyment under a new coach.

And as luck would have it, this time Bruce won’t be saved by a stadium of empty seats.

JACQUE TALBOT – @jac_talbot