STEVE BRUCE feels the three-month footballing lockdown has enabled Dwight Gayle and Andy Carroll to return to full fitness with a point to prove in the remainder of the season.

The two Newcastle United strikers combined to impressive effect after leaving the substitutes’ bench last night, with Carroll setting up Gayle for the opening goal in Newcastle United’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa.

Ahmed Elmohamady’s late headed equaliser denied the Magpies what would have been a second win in the space of four days, but the draw nevertheless lifts Bruce’s side to 13th position, 12 points clear of the bottom three with just seven games remaining.

Gayle’s slotted finish resulted in his first Premier League goal for more than two years, with his last strike coming as Newcastle beat Chelsea on the final day of the season in May 2018.

Like Carroll, the 29-year-old has suffered an injury-plagued year, but Bruce is hoping the enforced lay-off has finally enabled the duo to shake off their issues.

“All of the squad are going to be important because we’re going to pick up a few niggles,” said the Newcastle boss. “It’s great to have the two of them available.

“I’ve said all along with Dwight, week after week, that it would be great to have him back fit. It’s exactly the same with Andy.

“They’ve both been plagued, but hopefully the three months off has done them the world of good. I was delighted with the way they linked up. All through his career, we’ve always known Dwight was a goalscorer. I’m pleased for him tonight.”

Bruce is a long-term admirer of Gayle, and described the striker in glowing terms when he first took over on Tyneside last summer.

Had Gayle remained fit, there is a good chance he would have started the season in the first time, but he broke down during Newcastle’s pre-season tour of China and has not really been able to return to full fitness since.

Last night’s appearance was only Gayle’s 13th outing of the season, but having repeatedly insisted he would not be allowing him to leave on loan in January, Bruce is delighted to have a player with a proven goalscoring record at his disposal.

“I’ve said on record that I’ve tried to buy him three times,” he said. “If you’re looking in the Championship, the first one on your list was always Dwight Gayle because of his natural finishing.

“I was disappointed when I came in over in China and he got injured. I’ve said all along that I want him to stay fit because as you saw with the way he scored his goal today, he’s got that crucial thing of being able to score. He’s got the knack, and when you’ve got that, it’s invaluable. Let’s hope he stays fit.”

Gayle was not the only substitute scoring last night as Elmohamady netted for Villa after also coming off the substitutes’ bench.

The 32-year-old has a long association with Bruce, with the Newcastle manager having plucked him from the relative obscurity of the Egyptian domestic league when he first signed him for Sunderland in 2010.

Bruce signed Elmohamady permanently after an initial loan spell at the Stadium of Light, and subsequently took him to both Hull and Aston Villa. He therefore had a wry smile on his face after the identity the person responsible for Villa’s equaliser became clear.

“Of course I think a lot of Elmohamady,” said Bruce. “I think I’ve signed him three times. He did well for me at Sunderland and did very well for me at Hull. He did a very decent job at Aston Villa too – but maybe I should have left him in Egypt all those years ago!

“How often does it happen? But we’re disappointed in the nature of it. It’s the first goal we’ve conceded in five games, so to not see it through and concede a goal like that, we’ve got to be disappointed.

“If someone had said in these awful times we’d have taken four points from our first two games back, I would have accepted it, but we’re disappointed we didn’t see it through.”

Newcastle’s next game pits them against Manchester City in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Sunday, and Bruce will be nervously awaiting an injury update in the next couple of days.

Isaac Hayden and Matt Ritchie both picked up problems that resulted in their substitution in the second half, and while the injuries should not be too severe, the pair would have to be major doubts for the weekend.

“They’re both soft tissue,” said Bruce. “We’ll have to wait and see, but the pair of them are genuine and honest, so for them to come off…

“We hope we’ve caught it and it’s more precautionary, but of course you have to err on the side of caution and we’ll have to see how they are.”