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Newcastle's defeat to Arsenal was no disaster - some of the reaction has bordered on embarrassing

Steve Bruce faces a huge task to win over the Newcastle fans
Steve Bruce faces a huge task to win over the Newcastle fans Credit: ACTION IMAGES

Newcastle United has always been an emotional football club, prone to wild swings in mood and outlook, but only now does new manager Steve Bruce truly understand how toxic it has become.

Rarely has the reaction to a defeat been more hysterical than the one that followed the loss to Arsenal on Sunday. For some, it bordered on embarrassing. A few of the accusations made in the immediate aftermath of the defeat were horrendously over the top. It was absurd.

A new manager, in his first competitive game, having taken the job less than four weeks ago, with the players already on a pre-season tour of China, felt the full force of the fury, as though he had been in the role for months and this was the latest in a long line of abject failures.

When fans turn on a manager, there is normally a reason for it. Things build up over a period of time, frustrations and disappointments mount and anger rises until it is impossible to contain. For a section of Newcastle’s support and other observers, it took 90 minutes on the first weekend in August for things to turn ugly.

It was, in many ways, the perfect storm. The weather was grim, torrential rain, tensions were already high as supporters, still angry about the loss of the old manager, Rafa Benitez either bickered among themselves over whether to take part in a boycott to protest against owner Mike Ashley or turned up to support the team through gritted teeth.

The atmosphere was subdued, the mood irritable and grumpy. There was no joy for the first match of the season, just arguments and conflict. 

It was a grey afternoon for Steve Bruce on his Newcastle managerial debut Credit: CAMERASPORT

This is the poisonous atmosphere people warned Bruce about when he took the job. Newcastle United is in the midst of a civil war, the fragile peace broken as soon as owner Mike Ashley failed to persuade Benitez to sign a contract extension.

It is why other managers stayed away, but Bruce still wanted it so, does he deserve sympathy? Maybe not, he could have stayed at Sheffield Wednesday and ignored the emotional pull of taking his dream job in charge of his hometown club, but he wanted it too badly. Bed made, now lie in it.

If it carries on like this, though, it is going to turn into a nightmare for him and everyone else. 

“Clueless Bruce helps bring on opening day defeat ” screamed the headline in prominent fanzine The Mag. 

Accusations levelled at him elsewhere included claims the players did not know where they were supposed to be playing, the situation so chaotic and confused that the manager was solely responsible for the defeat.

On social media, the most vocal critics of the Bruce appointment claimed the performance was one of the worst they had seen, that the formation was all wrong and Bruce has no idea about tactics. Relegation is now a certainty. 

Those of us who have stuck up for Bruce - yes I’ve known him a long time - and urged people to judge him on performances and results, well they had done so, after one game, and he was hopelessly out of his depth, proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that he is a terrible appointment in every way, shape and form. 

If only Rafa was still here… but he is not, he is in China. He has gone, but still dominates most of the talk on Tyneside. It is not healthy, it is likely to be self-destructive, but it is difficult to see it ending any time soon.

And breathe….

So, in case you missed it, Newcastle lost 1-0 at home to Arsenal on Sunday at the end of a miserable game, played in persistent rain. They had started pretty well, holding their own against the team that finished fifth in the Premier League last season and reached the final of the Europa League.

Newcastle started brightly against Arsenal but couldn't find a way through Credit: GETTY IMAGES

They created a few chances in the first half, new striker Joelinton glancing a header wide, having already danced through the middle of the Arsenal defence and shot straight at the goalkeeper. Jonjo Shelvey went close too as Newcastle tried, and occasionally succeeded, in taking the game to the Gunners.

Newcastle, though, were awful in the second half, disjointed and stodgy, losing both their central midfielders Shelvey and Sean Longstaff and, although Jetro Willems had played their for Eintracht Frankfurt last season and came on, he is more of a wide player, It gave the team an unblanced feel and it showed.

There were three individual mistakes in the build up to the goal scored by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a poor pass from Paul Dummett, a failure to come towards the ball by new signing Willems and then a rush of blood by captain Jamaal Lascelles who left the striker completely unmarked. 

Newcastle never looked like equalising. It was disappointing, but it really was not the disaster that people seemed to want to turn it into.

When people are willing a manager to fail, what chance has he got? If there is no real support for the team at home, what hope does it have? 

More than 40,000 Geordies defied the boycott, but they were flat and dispirited long before the team lost their cohesion and attacking impetus. Maybe they should have stayed away too and sent an even stronger message to Ashley. I may be wrong, but it seemed as though too many did not really want to be there. 

Empty seats at St James' Park on Sunday Credit: ACTION IMAGES

This is Ashley’s doing, not Bruce’s, but everyone will suffer in the long run. This season already has echoes of the 2008/9 campaign, when Kevin Keegan quit complaining about boardroom interference in transfers, won a court case for constructive dismissal and exposed Ashley for the slippery, stubborn and callous owner he is. 

Newcastle had four managers that campaign - Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton and Alan Shearer - and were relegated in May.

Others say Bruce is just another Steve McClaren, who was sacked in March 2016, the team relegated with Benitez in the dugout three months later.

Maybe he is, but how can you possibly tell after less than four weeks in charge, after one competitive game? 

After all, Arsenal beat Newcastle twice last season and their record against the top six last term was played 12, lost 11. If you are going to constantly compare Bruce to Benitez, it works both ways. 

Benitez’s plan against the best teams was to defend with 11 men behind the ball, to keep the scoreline respectable. He was praised for it on Tyneside, playing for goal difference was clever. He was attacked elsewhere, someone - one of the shock jock pundits - even called it anti-football, an embarrassment, and everything a Newcastle team should not be. Those of us who covered or followed the team, stuck two fingers up and hailed Rafa’s tactical genius.

Bruce lost 1-0 to Arsenal, trying to play on the front foot, but take him off and shoot him may as well have been the cry from his most rabid detractors on Tyneside.

There have been a handful of times over the many years I have been covering North East football when the reaction to a result has stunned me. 

Booing a team that had drawn at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and finished fifth under Sir Bobby Robon - paving the way for his sacking four games into the following season after he had taken the club from the brink of relegation into the Champions League -  was the biggest one. The fallout from Bruce’s first defeat is not far behind.

Newcastle supporters are brilliant, most of the time. But they have been bruised and battered by Benitez’s departure, let down and hurt and they want to take it out on someone. Ashley is the target, but Bruce is caught in the middle and, at some point, the two will have to be separated if things are going to get better on the pitch.

Bruce was not a popular choice, he may fail as Newcastle manager, but there is no way of telling that on the basis of what happened on Sunday afternoon. If things carry on like they this, if the reaction to every defeat is as hysterical as it was this weekend, Bruce and Newcastle are doomed already.