Newcastle United 2020/21 season review: A draining campaign that ended on a high
(Photo by David Klein - Pool/Getty Images)

By Harry Roy, Alex Wood, Liam Ryder and Dan Wright

A proposed takeover rumbling on in the background for over a year; the first major coronavirus outbreak of any Premier League club; a training ground bust-up that was plastered over the back pages of national newspapers; rumours of a dressing room 'mole'; and a head coach who survived the sack after winning only two games in 20 – all the hallmarks of a season that is still, after all of that, considered relatively normal at Newcastle United.

In a season – on and off the field – that has been tiresome for the fanbase, The Magpies actually came into the campaign with a lot of momentum behind them, including an apparent in-house target of a top ten finish after Bournemouth pair Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser were signed in the summer.

After an impressive start to the season, it soon unravelled for Steve Bruce and his players after a tricky Christmas period saw them begin to slip down the league table.

They were soon looking over their shoulder at the bottom three after a mid-season capitulation saw them fully engaged in a survival battle that was not part of the plan.

Notably, after main relegation rivals Fulham won away at Liverpool, and Newcastle were thumped by Brighton, supporters feared the worst as the club looked to be sleepwalking to a third season in the second tier of the Mike Ashley era.

But, The Toon miraculously pulled themselves to safety with impressive victories over the likes of BurnleyWest Ham and Leicester to end up finishing a whopping 17 points clear of the bottom three – something that looked improbable after that damning defeat on the south coast at the end of March.

Transfer business

The summer transfer business done by Newcastle saw the club spend £35 million – with the two main expenditures of that money being Norwich City left-back Jamal Lewis for £15 million, and Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson for a £20 million fee.

It is safe to say that Wilson justified his transfer fee, making 17 goal contributions in 26 games. Whenever he did lead the line, you always felt he would find the back of the net. Without him at club, The Magpies would probably playing Championship football next season, it is that simple.

Lewis, on the other hand, left supporters disappointed and wondering whether a loan move to the Championship would be best for him next season.

The left-back was playing week in, week out until February when Matt Ritchie returned to the side and took over playing in a wing-back role which is not Lewis’ natural position.

It must be said that Lewis still has his place in this team and proved a good attacking option at times, but others, the Northern Irish international has so far looked out of his depth. 

Newcastle also brought in two proven Premier League players on free transfers in Ryan Fraser and Jeff Hendrick.

Fraser had a bit of pressure on him when he arrived, as many know there is a quality player inside the 28-year-old – added with the opportunity to rekindle the lethal combination he had at Wilson at Bournemouth on Tyneside.

The Scottish international had not kicked a ball in the league since March when he arrived – and it was clear to see that him being idle for such a long period of time really impacted his fitness, featuring just 18 times this season for Newcastle.

Hendrick was a man that featured heavily early in the season, playing a mixture of centre midfield and right midfield. However, his place in the team was lost by players who stepped up or were brought in.

Hendrick looked good in spells and had a goal in him, but his place in this Newcastle squad is now sorted – a bench player who can come into the team when needed. 

The only bit of business The Magpies hierarchy made in January, after a busy summer, was a deadline day loan move for Arsenal midfielder Joe Willock.

Newcastle's history of loan deals has not been great, but the signing of Willock proved pivotal to the club surviving the drop this season.

Willock stepped up when his team needed him the most and provided the side with crucial goals and points, scoring in seven games straight, a feat that has only been done by five other players in Premier League history.

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A solid start filled with inconsistency 

Newcastle United and the opening day of the season don’t typically go well together, however there was something different about their start to the 2020/21 campaign.

Their first opponents, West Ham United, don’t exactly have the best of records when it comes to match day one either having lost their previous four opening day fixtures and that number became five when The Magpies ran out routine 2-0 winners at the London Stadium at the start of a somewhat surreal season with behind closed doors games a regular occurrence.

The trip to East London gave the debutants a chance to impress and they certainly didn’t disappoint with both Callum Wilson and Jeff Hendrick getting their names on the scoresheet against David Moyes’ men who would eventually end up in a Europa League spot come the end of the season.

The next game – after a home win in the Carabao Cup against Blackburn Rovers  was just what Newcastle deserved on a day where they were dominated yet again and played off the park, this time by Brighton and Hove Albion.

Neal Maupay inspired The Seagulls to an easy three points as he scored one from close range, before adding a second from the penalty spot shortly after.

A late strike from Aaron Connolly wrapped up the three points for the side who were promoted to the top flight with United in 2017 meaning that they had failed to beat Albion since promotion having done the double of them in the second tier.

After a thumping 7-0 victory against Morecambe, and then a nail-biting victory on penalties over Newport County in the fourth round, Newcastle progressed to the quarter-final stage of the League Cup.

In between those cup ties was another poor showing at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where Bruce’s men improbably snatched a controversial late point from the penalty spot after Lucas Moura had put Jose Mourinho’s team ahead in the first half.

October began with three points for Newcastle with a much-improved showing against Burnley. Allan Saint-Maximin inspired United to a 3-1 win with the Frenchman scoring the opener and superbly assisting the second for Wilson, whilst running the visitors’ defence ragged for 90 minutes at St James’ Park on a wet Saturday night. How former Sunderland man Phil Bardsley never received his second yellow card is still beggar’s belief.

And then it was back down to earth following the first international break as Manchester United trounced The Magpies 4-1 two weeks later, despite Luke Shaw’s own-goal giving Newcastle an early lead in the game.

Similarities could be drawn between the away trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers and the previous fixture on the road at Spurs with Newcastle taking a point late on.

It was Jacob Murphy who came up with the goods in the dying moments on this occasion as he caught Rui Patricio out at his near post with a curling free-kick after it looked as if Raul Jimenez had secured the three points for his side with an excellent 80th minute strike. No one would have complained about the outcome if that were to be the winner.

Newcastle’s inconsistent form continued into November with a strong showing against a good Everton side being followed up by flat performances against Southampton and Chelsea.

A brace from Wilson helped Newcastle on their way against The Toffees at St James’, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s late goal being mere consolation in this 2-1 defeat.

Che Adams and Stuart Armstrong led Southampton’s social media admin to ask the Premier League to ‘stop the count’ as The Saints topped the standings midway through the third month of the season. It’s fair to say that statement didn’t age particularly well as Ralph Hassenhüttl’s men finished in the lower reaches of the table.

A controversial own goal from Federico Fernandez and a Tammy Abraham goal gave Chelsea a comfortable away victory a week later as we edged closer to the midway point of the season, with The Magpies sat in a comfortable 12th place after 13 games played.

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Relegation worries arrive at the halfway stage

As we started to reach the mid point of the season, it was clear to see that this run of fixtures firmly cemented Newcastle’s name amongst the favourites for relegation. 

It was during this time that the pressure really started to mount on Steve Bruce as The Magpies struggled for points.

An embarrassing draw at home to ten-man Fulham, defeat to the Premier League’s basement club Sheffield United and other abhorrent displays against Aston Villa and Arsenal were noteworthy low points of this run.

The period ended with defeats against Manchester United and Chelsea that coincided with Scott Parker's side showing some signs of improvement meant that The Toon were firmly in relegation trouble.

The turning point in Newcastle's torrid run of form seemed to arrive when Bournemouth coach Graeme Jones was hired to join Bruce’s coaching staff – and the impact he had was clear to see very early on.

The 2-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park featured his trademark diamond-like formation and it was a much-improved performance. Jones has since been appointed by England boss Gareth Southgate to assist in preparations for The Three Lions’ upcoming European Championships.

Despite that important win at Everton, after 25 games, The Magpies sat precariously above the drop zone in 17th place, just three points clear of Fulham.

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An end of season run that no one saw coming

With the final ten games of the season looming, Newcastle were staring directly at the prospect of relegation – and as the crucial six-pointer against Brighton moved closer, the gap to the bottom three was just one point.

With The Magpies game in hand against the league leaders Manchester City too, many were left thinking this is the most crucial game of the season. 

The game at Brighton was a disaster – a 3-0 thrashing that was by far the lowest point of the season, which saw fans and media alike calling for Steve Bruce to leave the club.

To everyone's surprise against Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle grabbed a well deserved draw that seemed to be beginning of the rise of loanee Joe Willock – who grabbed that crucial equalising goal – whose parent club happens to play for Spurs' arch-rival, Arsenal.

The Magpies moved into their next game against Burnley with some momentum behind them – and they did not disappoint, grabbing a much-needed victory that was all down to second half substitute Allan Saint-Maximin, who scored and assisted minutes after being introduced.

The win moved Newcastle three points clear of their most dangerous challengers in Fulham, who were handed a massive blow to their survival hopes after conceding a last-minute winner against Wolves.

A Champions League-chasing West Ham was next for Bruce's men – a game that saw them continue their fine recent form..

Newcastle took the lead, and then immediately found themselves a man up when Craig Dawson received his marching order for a second-bookable offence.

Joelinton doubled United's lead before the interval, but David Moyes' Hammers side pulled themselves level in the second half despite being down to ten-men.

But Willock once again became the hero, scoring the winner just two minutes after Jesse Lingard equalised from the penalty spot.

The Magpies with that vital three points extended their gap to Fulham to nine points – with The Cottagers dropping two points in the very last minute of the game away at the Emirates Stadium.

It was vital that Newcastle picked up points when they did, as they faced the improbable task of Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester and Manchester City in their next four fixtures.

Liverpool was a simple game of sitting behind the ball with ten men and watching Jurgen Klopp's side pepper the goal with endless chances.

The champions were far from as dangerous as they were last season when they won the title – and similar to the sides around them that had picked points up at Anfield already this season, you felt watching that Newcastle could snatch a result if they get a chance.

That one chance came, and Callum Wilson put it away in the dying-embers, but VAR ruled the goal out for a very controversial handball decision.

It looked like Newcastle were leaving Merseyside empty handed, but that man again, Joe Willock struck with the last-kick of the game to grab The Toon a well deserved point.

Despite going into the next Arsenal game feeling like a win was very much possible – added with their opponents playing a crucial Europa League semi-final in between this game – Newcastle were dreadful and well beaten by The Gunners.

Up next was the improbable task of facing Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, a match for The Foxes that was probably their biggest game of the season to date, with Brendan Rodgers' side looking to cement a spot in the top four.

Yet what came was a shock to everyone, the best Newcastle performance we had seen in years, a thumping 4-2 victory that not even Steve Bruce will have seen coming – leading Matt Ritchie to scream "Oh, I do love playing away!" after Wilson notched his second goal of the game. 

When newly-crowned champions Manchester City arrived on Tyneside, Newcastle were virtually safe, prompting a fast-paced and entertaining game of football which ultimately concluded in The Toon losing the game, despite being in front twice.

The last two games were against the already relegated Sheffield United and Fulham – and both side were brushed aside with relative ease.

Two wins, two clean sheets and another two goals for record-breaker Willock, whose stock continued to rise in a black and white shirt.

The 2020/21 Premier League season will not be a campaign that Newcastle fans will look back in particular fondness.

But in the end, finishing in 12th above the likes of Wolves, Southampton and Crystal Palace must be deemed a small win under the current ownership of the club – where survival is the only objective.

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Player of the season

Allan Saint-Maximin

This was a close one between the popular Frenchman, and the club’s top scorer Callum Wilson, but Saint-Maximin just edges it.

Yes, he has had his injury problems – making just 25 appearances this season – but that only makes his influence on the side even more visible.

Newcastle have looked a different team entirely when he has been fit and in the squad – added with his determination to constantly bring the ball forward.

He has also added more goals and assists to his game during the 2020/21 campaign, which has only shown even more how important he has been for The Magpies and Steve Bruce this season.

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Most improved player of the season

Jacob Murphy

Going into this season it seemed like Jacob Murphy did not have a future at St James’ Park, but he came into the side in an unfamiliar right-wing back position and was a huge part of the side’s upturn in form that saw them finish in the top 12.

He scored two goals in his 26 appearances this season, with the second of those being a vital strike in the 2-1 win at Turf Moor that proved to somewhat of a catalyst in the run that saw United finish 17 points clear of the bottom three.

Having previously been sent out on loan to the Championship in order to gain first-team football, this has been a breakthrough season for Murphy who showcased what can offer to the side going forward.

Honourable mentions must also go to Matt Ritchie, whose Toon career looked to be over in January before he came back into the side to great effect.

Karl Darlow is also worthy of a mention as he did a sterling job between the sticks before eventually being replaced by first choice goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.

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What to expect in the summer

This summer for Newcastle United is expected to be – as always – nothing but quiet; with a summer transfer window and the conclusion of the Saudi-backed takeover court case both set to come during this three-month spell away from matters on the pitch.

It is no exaggeration to say that this summer has the potential to be the biggest in the club’s history – with Mike Ashley seeking to win an arbitration case against the Premier League to eventually push through the takeover of Amanda Staveley’s consortium.

Ashley – after the consortium publicly pulled out of the deal last year – has since launched two legal cases against the Premier League, one in the arbitration courts and the other being in anti-competition law, with the sole purpose of selling the club he has now owned for over 13 years.

The uncertainty of the future surrounding the club is set to roll on through to July when the arbitration case – to prove that the Public Investment Fund, which make up 80% of the consortium, are a separate legal entity from the Saudi Arabian government – is set to get underway.

If Ashley's legal team, headed by Nick De Marco QC and Shaheed Fatima QC are successful, it is set to pave the way for the consortium consisting of PIF, PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers to be completed.

If it is bad news for the club and they lose the case, Newcastle United are set for the foreseeable future under Ashley, a gross outcome for a set of supporters that are desperate for change.

Despite the takeover rumbling on in the background, it is business as usual for the current regime when it comes to the upcoming transfer market, with the club set to make a number of new signings this summer.

Newcastle are set to make signing Joe Willock on a permanent deal their number one priority – but whether Arsenal are willing to part ways with the 21-year-old is unknown at this stage.

If The Gunners are willing to sell, whether the club are willing to pay the required money to sign him – expected to be over £25 million – is also another question.

It may mean that Willock returns to Tyneside on another loan deal – something which may be the most viable option for both sides.

One deal that already looks close to a conclusion is a move to bring in Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer.

According to The Sunday Mirror, Newcastle have won the race to sign the Norwegian defender for a cut-price of £6 million due to the player being out of contract next summer.

If The Magpies are successful in their pursuit of Willock and Ajer on permanent deals, it is almost guaranteed that next to no more money will be spent.

In a similar vein to last summer, it is expected the club will explore the loan and free-agent market – with moves for out of contract pair Andros Townsend and John Lundstram already being rumoured.

Whilst trying to add to their squad, Newcastle may have a tough job on their hands trying to keep hold of star-man Allan Saint-Maximin, who will no doubt have admirers from top European clubs.

Some players that are expected to depart the club this summer are the likes of Andy CarrollChristian Atsu and Henri Saivet, who are all out of contract and will free up some much-needed space on the wage bill to bring in fresh recruits.

But no matter what happens this summer, one thing you can bet on is that it will be far from dull on Tyneside before Premier League action kicks off once again in August.

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