By Simon O'Rourke, Sport Correspondent
2020/21 season preview: Newcastle United
How hard is it to settle for more of the same when you were promised something bigger and better? The opportunity that knocked might have been the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to compete, the chance to dream, the chance for Newcastle United to be all that it wants to be. As things stand, that opportunity has been lost.
STORY OF THE SUMMER:
Well, the football was OK. They quickly took relegation out of the equation, then trudged unremarkably to the finish line. But that was just a sideshow. The real story was the never-ending story. The tale of the takeover that never happened, but never quite went away. It's engulfed everyone who works for, supports, or covers the club. It was a situation that posed difficult moral and ethical questions. Tyneside became a battleground for human rights issues, the geopolitics of the Middle East and the thorny issue of TV piracy and intellectual property rights. But, so far, it's all come to nothing. Well, maybe not nothing. Magpies fans now believe the unloved Mike Ashley really does want to sell the club. Most importantly, the way the supporters responded, with their pressure and petitions, when the group bidding to buy the club walked away, was remarkable. A reminder that fans, these fans more than most, can make their voices heard. Since then there's been disappointment, disillusionment and a profound lack of enthusiasm. Until this last week. Which leads us onto...
Humdrum and predictable, until suddenly something utterly unpredictable happened. The signing of Jeff Hendrick on a free was fine, but against the backdrop of the failed takeover, he and Mark Gillespie (a different third-choice goalkeeper) were not stoking the fires of enthusiasm. Then this week, Newcastle United, Mike Ashley's Newcastle United, did some well-thought-out, need-based, impressive transfer business. Wow. Usually, Mike's Magpies buy a bag of magic beans and see if it grows into something they can flog for a profit. That's tiresome and not good for team-building, but so be it, and as Steve Bruce pointed out this week, it's actually more or less what everyone does below the elite. But Newcastle has always been so dogmatic about it. No permanent deals over the age of 25, very few players with premier league experience, basically, hit and hope. So the signings of the battle-ready Bournemouth duo of Wilson and Fraser, alongside the young, promising, premier league ready Jamal Lewis, represent quite the change. It also represents a significant victory for Steve Bruce and his particular brand of persuasion and common sense. These signings have cleared away at least a few of the dark clouds.
Callum Wilson. It's a bit of a cliche, but Newcastle United loves a centre forward. Last season, it didn't really have one. Joelinton was, and is, one of the strangest signings I can ever remember. A hugely expensive punt on potential - but it's very difficult to actually understand what potential they saw. Andy Carroll can contribute, but he struggles to score these days his body is no longer reliable. Dwight Gayle did OK towards the end of last season, but he's not been first choice for a few years and he's injured again anyway. So it's over to you Callum. A seasoned (aged 28) England International striker. Newcastle needed him badly and they need him to hit the ground running.
Off the pitch, who knows? The rejection/non-rejection noise this week suggests we haven't reached the end of the never-ending story. On the pitch, sorry, but it's more of the same. Let's not reopen the Steve Bruce debate, but last season he and his team exceeded some very low expectations and in the end, it was fine. But "fine" is part of the problem. "Fine" is the glass ceiling on 13 years of Mike Ashley's ownership. "Fine" is avoiding relegation, staying on the Premier League gravy train, rinse and repeat. And in the absence of billionaires, fantasy football and new beginnings, "fine" is exactly where this Newcastle United is heading. I really like this week's new signings, but I still just see them as contributing to a slightly better version of "fine". So Newcastle fans can all jump on the existential roundabout once more and wonder if they've got the stomach for another brand new version of the same old story.