The arrival of a new year always offers the opportunity to look optimistically towards the future. After a 2020 he describes as “difficult to say the least”, Newcastle boss Steve Bruce was happy to do just that when he spoke with Sky Sports on New Year’s Day.
However, with his captain Jamaal Lascelles and key player Allan Saint-Maximin still suffering the effects of coronavirus and set to be absent again when Newcastle host Leicester on Sunday in an empty St James’ Park, the reality is the turning of the calendar hasn’t erased the challenges of the past year.
The impact of coronavirus is of course wide ranging and well beyond the boundaries of football, but for managers it has presented new, unique problems to solve – and they won’t be going away any time soon.
From guarding the health of their players, to reimagining fitness plans through a shortened pre-season, and then navigating a condensed fixture schedule, coaches have been forced to re-evaluate their approaches. It’s been far from easy, explains Bruce.
“I think most managers will say the same, it’s been difficult to say the least. But then again, in life, all of us have suffered,” Bruce told Sky Sports from Newcastle’s training ground, ahead of his first session of 2021.
“I don’t think there will ever be as bad a year for everybody concerned. We’re still in the thick of it at the moment and will be for at least a couple of months until everybody has this vaccine. So it’s been very difficult.
“Difficult to manage, no real break, no break for the players, so you’re trying to manage their way through it, and with it all is a fixture schedule which is pretty daunting when you look at it. In December and January, I think we play something like 15 games, which is pretty hard going.
“It was certainly the most unique year of my managerial career. And the big attraction for anybody going to Newcastle is the wonderful support we have. We’re fortunate to usually get 50,000 every week, but it’s certainly affected us and we’ve all had to come to terms with playing behind closed doors.”
Steady progress the goal for 2021
A tough year looked set to end on a particularly sour note for Bruce and Newcastle when they were beaten by Championship side Brentford in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup three days before Christmas. With Manchester City and Liverpool next up in the Premier League, the chances of finishing 2020 positively seemed slim.
But, after receiving what Bruce describes as a “justified” but “pretty horrific” fallout to that cup exit, his players, in his words, “rolled their sleeves up” in defeat to Man City before being rewarded for another battling display with an impressive point at home to Liverpool.
The intensity doesn’t drop off, with tough tests against Leicester and Arsenal in the FA Cup next up, but Bruce has taken encouragement from that Liverpool performance – in his eyes, Newcastle’s best of the campaign – and believes it confirms his side are moving in the right direction.
Despite the difficulties of this unusual season, Newcastle have 19 points from their first 15 games – the same return they had at this stage last season.
“We knew this was going to be a difficult period and we needed to have a really good response [to losing to Brentford],” he said.
“We let ourselves down in the cup tie, we didn’t play well enough on the night. The one thing you then need to do is go and put on a performance again. And I couldn’t be any more pleased with the way we performed against Liverpool.
“It’s arguably the best we’ve played all season, against the champions of this country, European champions, Club World Cup champions…
“Our running stats were also among the biggest of the season, which pleased me, because certainly Covid affected us in terms of people being fit. It looks like we’re over that now.
“Overall, we’ve done OK. We finished last season 13th and I said, ‘can we edge towards the top 10?’ That has got to be the aim. Of course, for all the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, you’re always looking over your shoulder so we must be wary of that as well.
“I’ve said from day one we’re not going to have instant change automatically because that’s where we are at the moment. But little by little, we’re always looking towards improving and getting better. Steady progress.”
Targeting loan options in January
The New Year also brings with it the opportunity to refresh the squad in the January transfer window.
With coronavirus landing a huge financial blow on clubs throughout the country, spending seems likely to be more conservative this month, but Bruce is on the lookout for opportunities, with short-term options a possibility.
“We’re like most other clubs, we’ve been hit badly financially in terms of Covid, so I can’t see it being very, very busy at all in January,” he said.
“Last year we made the squad better by adding three loan signings, which gave everyone a lift at the time, so we’ll be looking at that market in particular and whether there’s anybody out there we could maybe get on loan to make us better.
“We’ve got a nice balance to our squad at the moment but it’s my job to keep on improving us, so we’ll see what we can do.”
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But more immediately Bruce’s focus is on Leicester. Brendan Rodgers’ side have been superb on the road this season, winning seven of their eight away games, and have won on their last four trips to St James’ Park.
The in-form Foxes complete a run of three games which could hardly have been tougher for Newcastle over the festive period.
That workload may force some rotation in Newcastle’s XI, although ‘keeper Karl Darlow will once again be key after his heroics against Liverpool.
“If there’s a better goalkeeper at the moment, I’m yet to see them,” says Bruce of the shot-stopper, before adding his players should have confidence in what they can achieve after holding the defending champions.
“The three days have helped us recover slightly but it’s now the third game in a week, so I’m looking at what we do,” said Bruce. “As soon as the Liverpool game finished, it was on to Leicester and ‘how can we disrupt Leicester, how do we set up, do I put two or three in for fresh legs?’
“I’m mindful the players who played against Liverpool will be chomping at the bit, so it’s getting that balance right. But that’s what we get paid for, those decisions, let’s hope I make the right one.
“As for Leicester, away from home, maybe it suits them better because they can play slightly on the counter-attack and if you leave spaces in behind, Jamie Vardy, who seems to be getting younger rather than older, is as good as you’re going to play against as a centre forward.
“He’s bright and alive but right the way through the team they’ve got some very good players.
“However, if we play like we did against Liverpool then we’ve proved we can match anybody in the league.”
With that confident mood to kick off the New Year, Bruce headed out to the training pitch hopeful of getting off to a good start in 2021 on Sunday…
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