Witch-hunts, bust-ups and a battle to beat the drop: Steve Bruce fights to keep his job at Newcastle United

Ahead of Sunday's crucial clash with West Brom, a toxic mix of catastrophic form, injury woes and training-ground rows have left Magpies manager on the brink

File photo dated 15-07-2020 of Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce with Matt Ritchie. Issue date: Friday March 5, 2021. PA Photo. Steve Bruce has insisted he will not walk away from Newcastle’s fight for Premier League survival after another tumultuous week on Tyneside. See PA story SOCCER Newcastle. Photo credit should read: PA Wire.
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When Dwight Gayle fired home a bullet header to earn Newcastle United a late winner against West Bromwich Albion back in November, manager Steve Bruce could not hide his pride.

It had been their first game in two weeks following a Covid-19 outbreak at the club and the tight 2-1 victory took them up to 11th in the Premier League – four points off a Champions League spot, 11 clear of the bottom three.

"Their effort and endeavour was spot on," Bruce said of his team after the match at St James’ Park, but with the caveat that no one was going "to get carried away yet”.

Fast forward three months and an altogether darker mood has enveloped Tyneside with a toxic mix of catastrophic form, injury woes, training-ground bust-ups, witch-hunts to find a club mole and a fan base calling for Bruce's sacking.

They face West Brom again on Sunday but, after a run of two wins from 15 games, the Magpies have slumped to 17th in the table and slap-bang into the middle of a relegation dogfight.

Third-bottom Fulham are now just three points behind and enjoy a superior goal difference, albeit having played a game more.

This crucial match against the Baggies – second from last, nine points adrift of safety and now managed by former Newcastle boss Sam Allardyce – comes at the end of a chaotic couple of weeks of intrigue and damaging headlines.

First, a story emerged in The Telegraph ahead of the 1-1 draw with Wolves that goalkeeper Karl Darlow was set to be dropped for Martin Dubravka. The only problem being that this appeared before anyone at the club had told Darlow and the reporter in question was considered a confidant of Bruce.

This week, the Daily Mail ran a story about a training-ground row between Bruce and Matt Ritchie in which the midfielder had allegedly called his manager "a coward" following comments made after the Wolves game.

Bruce had blamed Ritchie for failing to pass on tactical information after coming on as a second-half substitute that would lead to Wolves' equaliser. Defender Jamal Lewis, goalkeeper Martin Dubravka and striker Joelinton were also publicly criticised by their manager.

Ritchie would later apologise but the damage had been done. In his Friday press conference, Bruce insisted training ground rows "happen up and down the country, every other week at clubs ... but unfortunately when it's Newcastle, it gets blown up out of all proportion".

He added: "The journalist [who is currently banned by the club] has a source in and around the club who feeds him. It's disappointing and we are looking to try to find the culprit."

Bruce also said he found it "totally disgusting" the suggestion that he was thought to be the source of the previous week's story about Darlow. "I would resign tomorrow," he said. "It's not true and not fair on Karl."

To make matter considerably worse, injuries have ravaged Bruce's squad and he is currently without the key attacking trio of Allan Saint-Maximin, Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson.


Newcastle 1 Wolves 1: player ratings


Those three have accounted for 16 of Newcastle’s 27 league goals, as well as providing nine assists. Without them, the 60-year-old now has to find goals and flair from elsewhere.

So the spotlight turns to Gayle, Andy Carroll and record signing Joelinton, who have managed a paltry three goals between them all season.

It is safe to say the latter – a club-record signing in 2019 – has not enjoyed the most successful of spells since moving to England.

During his first campaign, when the Brazilian finished with just two goals from 38 league games, Bruce was forced to admit that his £40 million attacker was not a natural goalscorer or even an out-and-out centre-forward and would end up moving him out to a wider role.

"The great strikers, the goalscorers, all they're interested in is scoring a goal – Joe is not like that. He is more a team player," Bruce said.

His second season has followed a familiar path with one goal in 20 games. In January, Newcastle's record goalscorer Alan Shearer, now a pundit with the BBC, did not hold back in his assessment of the hapless attacker.

"He cost a lot of money and he finds it really difficult," Shearer said after the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. "His touch is really poor and he hasn't posed a threat. It's been really frustrating watching him. I actually feel sorry for him."

The fact Newcastle's goalscoring hopes could now hinge with a player who has found the net three times in 58 league games sums up the club's current predicament.

There are now 12 games to go and time is fast running out to turn around form and prevent a third drop down to the Championship in 13 seasons.

And feeling among supporters is that a change of manager is needed sooner rather than later.

The previous two relegations under Mike Ashley's controversial ownership, fresh blood was brought in too late to rescue an already sinking ship.

In 2009, Shearer was appointed with just eight games to go, while in 2017 Rafa Benitez came in with 10 matches left. Neither could save Newcastle from the drop.


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