STEVE BRUCE expects Karl Darlow to prove a capable understudy for Martin Dubravka if the Premier League season resumes at the start of next month – and will stick with the second-choice shot-stopper for Newcastle United’s FA Cup matches if the tournament is played to a conclusion.

As things stand, the Premier League schedule is due to restart on the weekend of Saturday, April 4, with Newcastle’s first game after the current suspension introduced in the wake of the coronavirus crisis due to take place at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium.

The Magpies’ last game before the shutdown was introduced saw them claim a 1-0 win at Southampton, but goalkeeper Martin Dubravka suffered medial ligament strain in the game at St Mary’s.

Had Newcastle played against Sheffield United last weekend, Dubravka would have been unavailable, and while the Slovakian is one of the few players currently reporting for duty at United’s Little Benton training ground and he begins his rehabilitation programme, he is not expected to be fit for at least a month.

It could be even longer if surgery is required, but either way, Darlow will find himself between the sticks if Newcastle are given the green light to play at Bournemouth.

The 29-year-old, who is contracted to the summer of 2021, has endured a frustrating campaign, with his only senior involvement coming in the FA Cup.

He has started four of Newcastle’s five FA Cup games, and has already been pencilled in for the quarter-final against Manchester City, if it takes place once the football schedule resumes.

Darlow has successfully seen off Rob Elliot in the battle to establish himself as Newcastle’s number two, and while further competition could arrive next season if Freddie Woodman returns from a loan spell at Swansea City, Bruce is clearly a big admirer of the Northampton-born keeper.

“Karl’s played in the cups, and played very, very well,” said the Newcastle United boss, who has instructed his fit first-team players not to report to the club’s training ground until the situation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak becomes clearer.

“We’re very, very fortunate that we’ve got three or four good goalkeepers.

“The kid at Swansea (Woodman), who we’re monitoring, is doing very, very well, but Karl is very, very decent.

“I see him every day and he’s a very good goalkeeper, so if he gets his chance, I have no problem that he’ll be a very good deputy for Martin.”

The life of a second-choice goalkeeper can be a lonely one. Whereas outfield players tend to get snippets of action as a substitute even if they are not a regular first-choice, their deputies can go months at a time without getting their gloves dirty.

It takes a certain type of character to be able to cope with such lengthy periods of inactivity, while knowing they could be called upon at any second if injury strikes, but if Darlow needs any advice, he can turn to one of the senior members of the Magpies’ coaching staff.

Steve Harper spent 20 years on Newcastle’s books between 1993 and 2003, but managed just 157 league appearances for the club spread over the course of two decades as he found himself perennially cast as the bridesmaid, but rarely the bride.

Harper initially found himself as a back-up to Pavel Srnicek when he first broke into the Newcastle squad, and was then number two to Shaka Hislop.

He was Shay Given’s deputy for the best part of a decade, and while he edged out the Irishman to play in the 1999 FA Cup final under Ruud Gullit, he quickly found himself back on the bench in the following season.

Harper is now a first-team coach at Newcastle and a goalkeeping coach with the Northern Ireland national team, and Bruce is happy to see him passing on advice to the likes of Darlow and Elliot.

“Steve went three or four years (without playing a league game), yeah,” said the Magpies manager.

“Even though, at the time, he was an absolutely terrific goalkeeper.

“I remember him having a spell (on loan) at Huddersfield, where he was talked about as the next England goalkeeper.

“I think his loyalty towards the club here at Newcastle maybe got in the way of his own personal career, because he could quite easily have been a number one anywhere else. But the loved the club that much.”