Steve Bruce was there the only time Newcastle played in a League Cup final. It was sufficiently long ago that Bruce, now 60, was a ball boy at Wembley in 1976, so far back that the victors, Manchester City, could go 35 years without a trophy after that and still become the joint most successful club in the competition’s history.
Bruce is in the minority of Newcastle fans, old enough to remember when they actually won a major trophy, in the 1969 Fairs Cup. He is the exception in other respects, the Newcastle supporter managing the club, the one of their own many of the faithful dislike. Last season’s Carabao Cup provided a snapshot of his reign.
Even in reaching the last eight, taking Newcastle close to a first semi-final of any competition for 15 years, their run ended in wretched underachievement that damaged Bruce’s standing. They were dismal in defeat to Brentford, then a Championship side, delivering the sort of lacklustre display that meant there could be no hard-luck story.
And so to another cup campaign that could offer respite from the Premier League or compound problems that have been apparent in the top flight. Newcastle against Burnley is the battle of the pointless, two sides who must deem weekend fixtures against Southampton and Leeds respectively as bigger games.
There is a difference in mentality. Burnley’s dire record in knockout competitions under Sean Dyche — their conquerors include Lincoln, Burton, Accrington and Port Vale — has rarely been an issue. “We have never not shown any importance of the cup competitions,” Dyche said but inquests rarely follow their early exits.
Newcastle have higher expectations. Bruce has to set his sights higher. Both managers will bring in squad players but, considering how stretched Burnley’s resources are, that may make Newcastle favourites.
“We will be making changes because there are a lot of lads who need to play and get some minutes under their belt but we will be very, very strong,” Bruce said. He has ruled out the injured quintet of Martin Dubravka, Karl Darlow, Paul Dummett, Isaac Hayden and Jonjo Shelvey.
The fact he is without two goalkeepers, with Dubravka absent for another eight weeks, means he may name four in his 25-man squad for the Premier League after the transfer window closes. Bruce is likely to loan out Matty Longstaff and could give Joe Willock a second home debut after buying the midfielder from Arsenal but lamented an inability to fund further deals.
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“Most people have been able to trade, but I’ve been unable to do that,” he said. “We haven’t been able to sell. As for bringing somebody in permanently, I can say that’s probably not going to happen.”
Newcastle can be the division’s unhappy continuity club. Supporters wish owner Mike Ashley would sell and many would rather see another manager. Bruce, who has been linked with Leicester’s Hamza Choudhury and is looking into loan deals, wishes he had new players to call upon. And their situation rarely seems to change: with every year, the wait for silverware ticks on.
The list of clubs who have tasted glory since Newcastle last did includes Wigan and Wimbledon, Oxford and Luton, Swansea and Stoke, Coventry and Portsmouth. Newcastle’s last FA Cup final was in 1999; since then, Bruce has taken Hull there.
Under Ashley, infamously, cups were not a priority. Bruce’s rhetoric has been different. “If Hull is capable of getting to a final and maintaining its Premier League status, then a club like this can too, surely?” he asked in 2019. “You only have to win four or five games to get there.” But, time and again, that has proved beyond Newcastle.