• Laurence Taylor

2020/21 season review

Fans were fearing the worst for the 2020/21 season when a takeover by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers was called off after they ran out of patience with the Premier League's fit and proper test four days after the end of the prolonged 2019/20 season. The lack of transfer activity throughout August wasn't helping but despite his contract expiring at the end of July and his lack of game time (even with Nabil Bentaleb underperforming), 20 year old Matty Longstaff agreed a new two year deal. We also signed Jeff Hendrick on a free transfer after he rejected a new deal at Burnley whilst Dan Barlaser and Jacob Murphy were given chances in pre season, having been on loan at Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday respectively in 2019/20 and Henri Saivet also featured despite clearly having no future here. August also saw loan moves confirmed for Jake Turner to Morecambe, Tom Allan and Mo Sangare to Accrington Stanley, Freddie Woodman to Swansea City and Kelland Watts to Plymouth Argyle.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that we had to play all our friendlies against EFL sides, the first of which saw us beat Crewe Alexandra 3-0 at Queen Ethelburga's Collegiate thanks to goals from Andy Carroll, Christian Atsu and Federico Fernandez. Carroll scored again as we beat Barnsley at our training centre as Jacob Murphy netted the winner from the spot but we then lost 5-1 to Middlesbrough at their training centre with Jamaal Lascelles sent off as Allan Saint-Maximin netted our only goal. Things got worse as our only friendly at St James' Park saw Sam Clucas score the only goal as Stoke City came away with a 1-0 win but within the space of three days afterwards, we signed three players with Premier League experience, Callum Wilson joined from Bournemouth for £20m with Ryan Fraser also signing after his controversial departure from the Vitality Stadium and Jamal Lewis came in from Norwich City for £15m. Meanwhile, the club confirmed in a statement than the takeover bid was wrongfully rejected by the Premier League and that all relevant options would be considered. Loan moves to La Liga were also confirmed for both Florian Lejeune, who joined ex Magpies teammate Joselu at Deportivo Alavés and Yoshinori Muto, who joined Lejeune's old club Eibar.

Our first league game of the season saw Wilson and Hendrick both net debut strikes as we beat West Ham United 2-0 at the London Stadium, Fraser would also score on his debut as we beat Blackburn Rovers 1-0 in the Carabao Cup second round. The first league home game of the season, however, was a complete disaster as we were beaten 3-0 at home by Brighton & Hove Albion as Neal Maupay netted twice in the first eight minutes before a curling strike from Aaron Connolly killed us off. Three days later, we got a morale boosting 7-0 win at Morecambe in the Carabao Cup third round with Joelinton, who was given a lot of criticism for his display against Blackburn, scoring twice whilst Miguel Almiron, Jacob Murphy, Isaac Hayden and Jamaal Lascelles also netted and a Samuel Lavelle own goal wrapped things up.

Despite being dominated by Tottenham Hotspur with Karl Darlow pulling off save after save to ensure that Lucas Moura's first half finish being the only time the hosts found the net, we managed to come away with a draw thanks to a controversial VAR decision to give us a stoppage time penalty, which Callum Wilson converted. The fourth round of the Carabao Cup saw us travel to Newport County, who had caused numerous cup upsets under manager Michael Flynn and came close to one when Tristan Abrahams gave then the lead as he took advantage of an error from new back-up goalkeeper Mark Gillespie, who had re-joined from Motherwell twelve years after we released him but a brilliant strike from Jonjo Shelvey took the tie to penalties and we won only our second ever penalty shoot-out. A 3-1 win over Burnley on a rainy night at St James' Park meant that we went into the October international break on a high with Allan Saint-Maximin opening the scoring then assisted Callum Wilson for his first goal at St James' Park, Wilson then scored a penalty, which was won by ex Bournemouth teammate Ryan Fraser. More loan moves in October saw Lewis Cass join Hartlepool United, Elias Sorensen join Almere City and Jack Young join Tranmere Rovers, meanwhile Dan Barlaser completed a permanent move to Rotherham United and 21 year old Peruvian Rodrigo Vilca was signed for the U23s from Deportivo Municipal with Bradley Cross and Florent Indalecio also linking up with the U23s after successful trials.

After Manchester United were hammered 6-1 by Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, there were high hopes of another home win against Ole Gunnar Solksjaer's outfit but despite a Luke Shaw own goal giving us an early lead and Karl Darlow saving a Bruno Fernandes penalty, the visitors ran out 4-1 winners thanks to three goals in the last ten minutes (including stoppage time) after Harry Maguire's first half equaliser. After being named in the final 25 man squad, Jacob Murphy was given his first Premier League start since December 2018 in the trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers and earned us a 1-1 draw with a superb late free kick before a Callum Wilson brace gave us a 2-1 win over an Everton side, who had started the season with thirteen points from their first six games but we came crashing back down to earth with a 2-0 loss at Southampton before the November international break. The club confirmed that they had issued arbitration proceedings against the Premier League regarding the failed takeover, two days before another 2-0 loss, this time at home to Chelsea, which is when I started calling for Steve Bruce to leave but we did get a 2-0 win in our next game as late goals from Callum Wilson and Joelinton gave us all three points at Crystal Palace.

Before the Palace game, Bruce had confirmed that there were three positive COVID-19 tests and this number rose over the weekend, meaning that our training centre was closed and the game at Aston Villa was postponed. We were able to return to training the following week and then beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 as Miguel Almiron opened the scoring after twenty seconds before Jacob Murphy assisted Dwight Gayle, who was also on loan with the Baggies in the 2018/19 season, to win the game for us after Darnell Furlong's equaliser as Isaac Hayden filled in brilliantly at centre-back despite having hit badly by COVID-19 and missing the Palace game. Federico Fernandez returned to the side after recovering from COVID-19 but could not prevent a humiliating 5-2 loss at Leeds United with Marcelo Bielsa's side scoring three times in the final fifteen minutes of normal time despite Jeff Hendrick's first half opener and Ciaran Clark's second half equaliser. Our third consecutive game against a newly promoted side saw another drab display as we got a lucky penalty, which Callum Wilson scored to give us a 1-1 draw against Fulham as Joachim Andersen was sent off. We faced another West London club in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals in Brentford but we became the fourth Premier League to lose to Thomas Frank's side in the campaign after a miserable display at Griffin Park.

After recovering from COVID-19, Fabian Schär returned to the starting XI for the daunting trip to Manchester City on Boxing Day whilst Javier Manquillo was back on the bench after also recovering from the disease. We were comfortably beaten 2-0 in a game that was considered a write-off with the majority of fans expecting a hammering but Matty Longstaff did put in a good display as he made his first start of the season and he started alongside Isaac Hayden against as we held league leaders and defending champions Liverpool to a goalless draw thanks to a magnificent defensive display as Jürgen Klopp's side drew their first blank of the season. Hayden was suspended for our first game of the new year as we hosted Leicester City with both Longstaff brothers starting but despite us losing 2-1, at least it was nowhere near a repeat of the horrible afternoon we had against Brendan Rodgers' side a year previously whilst Andy Carroll finally scored his first goal of his second spell at the club. Martin Dubravka and Jamaal Lascelles returned to the starting XI for the FA Cup third round trip to Arsenal and despite Callum Wilson not featuring in the squad, we came so close to winning it late in normal time as 18 year academy graduate Elliot Anderson had a shot blocked in stoppage time before Bernd Leno denied Carroll a chance to put home the rebound straight afterwards. However, Emile Smith Rowe had a red card overturned before he opened the scoring in extra time and then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sealed the win for Mikel Arteta's side.

The first transfer activity of the January window saw Rolando Aarons join Huddersfield Town, who had hoped the sign the 25 year old on EFL transfer deadline day in October but paperwork issues meant he had to stay on Tyneside despite being left out of the Premier League squad. After some improved displays, it was hoped that we could end our winless run as we travelled to bottom side Sheffield United but Ryan Fraser was sent off after receiving two yellow cards and a Billy Sharp penalty gave Chris Wilder's side the first win of the season on another disastrous night for us with banners being pictured outside St James' Park and our training centre calling for Steve Bruce to resign. Things got worse for us as we suffered our second loss away to Arsenal in ten days, this time losing 3-0 despite going into half-time at 0-0 before the rescheduled game with Aston Villa resulted in another loss thanks to first half goals from Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traoré. We did at least see Allan Saint-Maximin return to the squad after suffered long-term effects from contracting COVID-19 in November, there were signs of improvements in the second half of the 2-1 loss at home to Leeds United three days later as despite Jack Harrison making it 2-1 shortly after Miguel Almirón's equaliser, we did at least look like getting something but it just wasn't to be. The winless did come to an end in our next game away to Everton thanks to a second half double from Callum Wilson whilst Joe Willock joined on loan from Arsenal on deadline day with DeAndre Yedlin leaving for Galatasaray. Achraf Lazaar also left the club after agreeing to have his deal terminated before joining Rob Elliot at Watford a week later.

We had another frustrating night to begin February as despite Jonjo Shelvey's first league goal of the season giving us the lead against Crystal Palace, quick-fire goals from Jaïro Riedewald and Gary Cahill gave Roy Hodgson's side a 2-1 win but we did our first home win in six attempts as Willock opened the scoring on his debut against Southampton and a double from Miguel Almiron gave us a 3-1 half-time lead. The Saints did gain real belief of a result when James Ward-Prowse halved the deficit with a wonderful free kick before Jeff Hendrick picked up a second yellow card but despite that and injuries to Callum Wilson, Javier Manquillo and Fabian Schär, we held on for the three points. However, we were dragged back into the relegation battle after losing 2-0 at Chelsea and 3-1 at Manchester United before Rúben Neves' header gave Wolverhampton Wanderers a 1-1 draw on Tyneside. To make matters worse, Saint-Maximin and Almirón both came off injured against Wolves and our next two games ended in draws - 0-0 away to West Bromwich Albion (no surprise when it's Sam Allardyce vs Steve Bruce) and 1-1 at home to Aston Villa as Jamaal Lascelles scored his second goal in three games to save us a point at the death. My least favourite game of the season came the following weekend as Isaac Hayden's campaign came to an end against Brighton & Hove Albion and Graham Potter's side beat us 3-0 for a second time this season with our chances of staying up looking increasingly grim.

Steve Bruce changed to a 5-3-2 formation against Tottenham Hotspur after the international break and despite many fans (myself included) being against five at the back, it started to get us results as Joelinton netted against Spurs for a second season running and despite Harry Kane's quickfire double giving José Mourinho's side the lead at half-time, Joe Willock came on to equalise against his parent club's rivals and give us a deserved 2-2 draw. Another crunch game at Burnley saw us go into half-time 1-0 down thanks to a Matěj Vydra finish but Allan Saint-Maximin came on and changed the game with an assist for Jacob Murphy before an identical run and finish to the one he scored against Sean Dyche's side in October as we ran out 2-1 winners to go six points clear of the drop zone. The Frenchman's run led to Issa Diop's own goal to give us the lead at home to West Ham United before Joelinton scored for a second home game running to make it 2-0, despite Diop scoring another at the Leazes (this time for his side) and a Jesse Lingard penalty to make it 2-2, Willock once again came off the bench to score at the Gallowgate as we ran out 3-2 winners. Despite Mohamed Salah's brilliant third minute opener in our trip to Liverpool a week later, we completed an unbeaten April as after Callum Wilson had a goal controversially ruled out by VAR, Willock once again came off the bench to score as we earned ourselves a point with Steve Bruce earning the manager of the month award.

Our first defeat in five games came as Arsenal beat us 2-0 on an afternoon where we just did not get going and Fabian Schär picked up a stupid red card in stoppage time and coming on for his return from injury (assumably to gain match fitness with the game dead and buried) but we made up for this with a 4-2 win at Leicester City as Willock scored once again after being given a start, having been ineligible against his parent club before Paul Dummett headed home for his first goal in over five years. Callum Wilson scored his first two goals since returning from injury to put the result beyond doubt although the hosts got two back with goals from Marc Albrighton and Kelechi Iheanacho. We gave Manchester City a guard of honour after they sealed the title shortly before their trip to St James' Park and we certainly gave them a good game as Emil Krafth scored his first goal for us but João Cancelo equalised before a wonderful flick from Ferran Torres gave them the lead. Joelinton netted from the spot to make it 2-2 at half-time before Joe Willock made it 3-2 after seeing his own penalty saved, however, Torres scored twice more to give the champions a 4-3 win. The last home game of the season against Sheffield United was moved to allow 10,000 fans to attend and Willock matched Papiss Cissé's record by scoring in a sixth consecutive game as we won 1-0 and he matched Alan Shearer's record with a seventh goal in seven games as we beat another already relegated side in Fulham on the final day with a Fabian Schär penalty sealing a 2-0 win.

I think we're all happy to see the back of this season where the football just hasn't been good enough, hence why Steve Bruce still needs to go despite a good end to the campaign but regardless of what happens off the pitch in the summer, I look forward to hopefully seeing over 50,000 fans at St James' Park on matchdays again and our chance to finally see Callum Wilson play for us after he missed the final three games through injury.

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