GIVEN the source of the coronavirus outbreak that has brought Newcastle United’s Premier League campaign to what could well prove a premature end, it is somewhat ironic that the story of the Magpies’ season also began in China.

When Newcastle’s players flew to the Far East to compete in the Premier League’s flagship pre-season tournament, they did not have a manager. By the time they returned, Steve Bruce had been installed as Rafael Benitez’s successor and had just about negotiated China’s visa regulations to take charge of his first game.

In the main, everything that has happened since has been coloured by a personal assessment of Bruce’s worth. If you were against the 59-year-old’s appointment from the start, regarding him as a marked downgrade on Benitez, you probably regard the season as a failure, a tortuous trawl through a series of unattractive matches spent almost exclusively in the bottom half of the table. If you were willing to give Bruce a chance, you might well conclude he has made a decent fist of making the most of what is available to him, pointing to a tally of 35 points from 29 matches and a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup as proof of progress.

As ever, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Bruce has made mistakes when it comes to tactics and team selection, and Newcastle’s lack of attacking ambition, especially when they were playing with five at the back, infuriated many supporters. The struggles of Joelinton in particular have shone a light on the club’s often-disastrous recruitment record, which continues to be a source of major concern.

Yet if the season was to resume any time soon, Newcastle would probably need to win just one of their remaining nine matches to be certain of avoiding the drop and would be looking forward to a first appearance in the last eight of the FA Cup for 14 years. Even Bruce’s staunchest critics would surely have deemed that an acceptable return at the start of the season.

Things did not go well back in August and September, with Newcastle winning just one of their first seven league games. That was an unexpected success, with Joelinton’s first-half strike securing a 1-0 win at Tottenham. The fact the winner remains the only league goal scored by the Magpies’ club-record £40m summer signing says much for just how badly he has performed for much of the season. Part of that is undoubtedly down to a lack of service, but Joelinton’s lack of success in front of goal suggests Newcastle erred badly when they agreed to shell out such an astronomical fee to sign him from Hoffenheim. Bruce’s acknowledgment that he is “not a natural striker” merely added fuel to the fire.

With Joelinton misfiring at one end, things went badly awry at the other when September’s trip to Leicester’s King Power Stadium resulted in a 5-0 thrashing. Given Leicester’s results in the first half of the season, and the fact Newcastle had to play for more than 45 minutes with ten men following the dismissal of Isaac Hayden, perhaps, in hindsight, the defeat was not as bad as it initially appeared. It clearly rocked Bruce though, persuading him that his players were incapable of adopting the kind of front-foot, high-pressing style he wanted to introduce.

In response, he mimicked much of what Benitez had nurtured in the previous campaign. Newcastle reverted to a five-man defence, and immediately became more solid. Bruce stationed two defensive midfielders in front of his three centre-halves, but while the screen made the Magpies hard to break down, it made them even less threatening in the final third.

Yet as autumn turned into winter, results improved. The first game after the Leicester debacle was a 1-0 home win over Manchester United, with Geordie youngster Matty Longstaff’s match-winning strike bringing the house down at a raucous St James’ Park.

November’s 3-2 win at West Ham United showcased Allan Saint-Maximin’s counter-attacking qualities - the Frenchman would develop into one of the breakout stars of the campaign – and sparked a run of 13 points from six matches that briefly lifted Newcastle to the giddy heights of tenth place in the table.

While Joelinton and Miguel Almiron were still misfiring, the Magpies’ centre-halves could not stop scoring. Remarkably, seven different defenders have scored a league goal for Newcastle this season.

Things began to stall over the festive period, but United’s resilience was one again evident in January as a last-gasp home win over Chelsea was followed by an even more dramatic night at Everton, when Florian Lejeune’s two stoppage-time strikes secured the unlikeliest of 2-2 draws.

By the time they had come back from the dead at Goodison, Newcastle had seen off Rochdale in the third round of the FA Cup, with Almiron’s goal at Spotland ending a 12-month barren run and proving the catalyst for a series of improved showings that would see the Paraguayan emerge as his side’s key performer in the second half of the season.

The January transfer window proved somewhat underwhelming, although loan signings Danny Rose, Valentino Lazaro and Nabil Bentaleb have all made a positive contribution in the last six weeks. Perhaps of more long-term relevance is Newcastle’s insistence that they were willing to pay £35m for Lille’s Boubakary Soumare, only for the attacking midfielder to reject a move to Tyneside. If nothing else, that at least suggests there is money in the pot for the summer.

February began with a desperate goalless draw with Norwich, which was followed in the league by a now customary thrashing at the Emirates. The final game before matches were suspended was a key one though, with Saint-Maximin’s winner against ten-man Southampton lifting Newcastle to the 35-point mark. If the season resumes and is played to a conclusion, the Magpies should not go down.

Might they make it to Wembley? We will have to see. But after shaking off the effects of a dramatic comeback from Oxford United to win in extra-time at the Kassam Stadium, Newcastle produced arguably their most exciting attacking display of the campaign as they triumphed 3-2 at West Brom to book an FA Cup quarter-final place.

The draw could have been kinder, but a home tie against reigning champions Manchester City at least offers the tantalising possibility of progressing to what would be a first FA Cup semi-final at Wembley since 2000.

We will have to see whether that last-eight game is ever played, with the footballing world currently speculating about what will happen next as the coronavirus outbreak worsens. So many questions, so many contrasting views. A bit like trying to make an assessment of where Newcastle find themselves as Bruce approaches the end of his first year in charge.