With three league games to go, Newcastle United lie in 13th place. Given what a chaotic summer it was a year ago – Steve Bruce was only appointed three-and-a-half weeks before the season opener against Arsenal – most Magpies’ fans would have taken that. Surely? But that does not make it a successful season.
As much as Bruce intends to take the club forward, how much further can the Magpies truly go in this state of limbo this summer? Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, said last month he would ‘like the process to conclude shortly’ but, at this rate, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this incredibly complex saga could yet rumble on after the season finishes later this month.
Of course, coronavirus has affected every club’s budget but if Newcastle are to move forward, the Magpies need to know who their owner(s) is/are going to be in the medium term.
The staff and players have done well not to let the uncertainty affect their performances since football restarted behind closed doors but if this strange state lingers on, it could yet have an adverse effect that goes far beyond a 2-1 defeat against Watford.
“Newcastle don’t know what kind of player they can go for until we know more about whether the takeover can happen,” Alan Shearer said ahead of Saturday’s game at Vicarage Road.
While Newcastle have suffered back to back defeats at various points this season, that was not necessarily a foregone conclusion at Watford.
A disappointing defeat at Norwich in August was followed by a memorable win against Spurs eight days later while a 5-0 mauling at the hands of Leicester preceded a 1-0 victory against Manchester United in October.
But, with just four games to go, and Newcastle 15 points clear of the relegation zone, how would the black-and-whites respond to that 5-0 hammering at Man City on Wednesday?
Even during his side’s six-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, Steve Bruce was steeling himself for what he referred to as ‘the crash’, which the Magpies’ head coach admitted ‘happens very quickly at Newcastle’.
With safety long secured, was the motivation there for the players to go again at Vicarage Road against a side fighting for their lives?
Newcastle were certainly boosted by the return of Jamaal Lascelles, Miguel Almiron and talisman Allan Saint-Maximin to the starting line-up as Bruce made five changes from the team that were trounced at the Etihad.
While Javier Manquillo and Dwight Gayle also came back into the side, Bruce persisted with his training ground experiment as Fabian Schar kept his place at the base of the midfield ahead of Nabil Bentaleb and Matty Longstaff, recognised midfielders who both face an uncertain future at the club.
“What we’ve all had to do really with the amount of games in the space of time is hope that you can keep a few of them fit,” Bruce said ahead of the game.
“We’ve obviously still got a few missing but we’re delighted that we’ve been able to freshen up the team, especially at the top end of the pitch, which hopefully will give us a big lift today.”
Ahead of the game, a moment’s silence was held in memory of Jack Charlton, the Ashington hero who conquered the football world with England, after the former Newcastle manager died at the age of 85.
Charlton visited Vicarage Road on numerous occasions and was in the dugout when his Newcastle side contested a thrilling 3-3 draw against Watford in 1984.
Given how many goals have been scored in games involving Newcastle since football restarted behind closed doors, you could not necessarily rule out a similarly high-scoring game.
Newcastle made a bright start to the game and showed real intent. Although talisman Saint-Maximin was seeing plenty of the ball out on the right, the Magpies were looking particularly dangerous from set-pieces.
Ben Foster was soon forced into action to keep Almiron out from close range after Jonjo Shelvey’s corner made it all the way to the Paraguay international at the back post.
That chance seemed to spark Watford into life and just a few minutes later, at the other end, Lascelles hooked the ball off the line after Danny Welbeck’s effort struck the post.
Just as Watford were growing into the game, the visitors broke the deadlock. Ritchie’s corner was flicked on by Federico Fernandez and tapped in by Gayle.
The Newcastle striker has been in great form since the lockdown – scoring three goals in his last five league games – and perhaps there are few players in this squad who would have gambled and anticipated Fernandez’s header quite like that. It is a poacher’s instinct.
Gayle, given a rare run of Premier League starts up front, was playing with confidence and a deft lay-off soon set Saint-Maximin clear 10 minutes before half-time but Foster made an important stop to deny the Frenchman.
Although Newcastle were in the ascendancy, there were still a couple of hairy moments for the visitors at the back. At one point, Lascelles urged Danny Rose to ‘f****** clear it!’ while Will Hughes’ free-kick caused a scramble inside the box just before half-time before the Magpies eventually dealt with it.
Watford will have taken heart from that and, re-energised after Nigel Pearson’s half-time team talk, the Hornets were soon level after Kiko was felled by Ritchie inside the box. Skipper Troy Deeney duly stepped up to equalise from the spot.
Goals change games and, all of a sudden, Newcastle looked nervy. Fernandez’s attempted clearance was blocked by Hughes and fell to Deeney, who was denied by Dubravka.
Newcastle’s outfield players were just not offering their goalkeeper enough protection and Watford were finding it all too easy to bypass the Magpies’ midfield and get into dangerous areas.
On the hour mark, Danny Welbeck’s shot was blocked and landed on the root of Dubravka’s net – much to the relief of Newcastle’s bench.
The momentum was with Watford but Bruce resisted making his first change until the 72nd minute, when Joelinton replaced Ritchie in a like for like swap, before Nabil Bentaleb and Emil Krafth entered the fray a few minutes later in place of Gayle and Rose.
The shake-up seemed to further unsettle Newcastle’s already nervy defence as Manquillo moved over to left-back.
The Spaniard struggled to deal with livewire Ismaila Sarr and gave referee Craig Pawson an easy decision to make when he naively put his arm around the forward inside the box. Another penalty was awarded and Deeney, again, made no mistake from the spot.