The last time Steve Bruce managed Aston Villa a disgruntled supporter threw a cabbage at him. In an unfortunate slip of the tongue, Bruce once described it as “unsavoury”.
The absence of fans spares him from a sequel on Friday night although, were a crowd present, Bruce would be in greater danger from the Newcastle public.
A run of 18 games that has contained just two wins means his popularity ratings in his native north-east are plummeting.
For the first time this season, Newcastle could end a weekend in the drop zone. They are threatened with a third relegation of the Mike Ashley era and a third of Bruce’s Premier League career; the first two, with Birmingham and Hull, were more forgivable. “The buck stops with me. I understand that, totally,” Bruce said.
Fulham’s surge has reshaped the division. “All of the bottom six or seven, we're all nervously looking over our shoulders, I'd think,” Bruce added. “We’ve all got to get to the magical figure, whatever it is.”
A recent return of 10 points from 48 scarcely bodes well but Bruce argued Newcastle were on course for better times.
“The top 10 was [a target],” he said; instead, his successor Dean Smith has taken Villa there. Bruce reflected: “When I analyse the season, and now’s not the particular time, but we were going along very, very nicely until Covid hit, and then the injuries to big players. It’s been a real, big problem to handle. So that’s what it is. That’s what we’ve been dealt with.”
Those injuries have sidelined his three main attackers: Callum Wilson, Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin have scored 59 per cent of Newcastle’s goals. “We hope that by the end of the international break, they’ll be there or thereabouts,” Bruce said, though that means each will miss next Saturday’s clash with relegation rivals Brighton.
In their absence, the top scorer in Bruce’s team last week was Jeff Hendrick, who has had one shot on target since the opening weekend. On-loan midfielder Joe Willock has more goals in this season’s Europa League than any of Newcastle’s available players do in the Premier League.
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Dwight Gayle, United’s best fit finisher, was only a substitute, in part because a system with split strikers in wider roles may not suit a specialist predator. Yet Joelinton’s season – one goal from 31 shots – is so predictably lamentable that there is a case for Gayle, even out of position.
Perhaps injuries will prove a great leveller and Villa are again without the talismanic Jack Grealish. At least Bruce has had a quieter build-up after last week’s revelations of a training-ground bust-up with Matt Ritchie led him to talk of “treason” in the camp.
But, a week on from the supposed sedition, more than two years after a particularly strange use of a vegetable, Bruce once again needs a victory.