ONE of the biggest drawbacks of the off-field situation at Newcastle United is that any assessment of the club’s performances has become the footballing equivalent of a zero-sum game.

What is given to one thing is taken away from another, so in the eyes of some supporters – not all by any means, but if social media is any sort of gauge, then a significant minority – any praise directed at Steve Bruce for his achievements this season immediately implies a lessening of the criticism being directed at Mike Ashley.

Acknowledge that Bruce has done well, so the argument goes, and you are also implicitly acknowledging that Ashley was right to appoint him. Keep the thread going, and not only are you implying that Ashley was right to usher Rafael Benitez through the exit door, you are also giving Newcastle’s deeply unpopular owner a free pass for all the wretched decisions he has made throughout his 13-year reign.

It is, of course, nonsense. Yet it is a mindset that has taken root this season, and which continues to colour the way in which Bruce is judged. On Wednesday, Newcastle produced arguably their best performance of the season as they thrashed Bournemouth 4-1. “He’s doing a better job than Rafa,” exclaimed pundit Stephen Warnock on Five Live. “Bruce is a Championship manager – no more, no less,” was one comment I received from a fan on Twitter when I pointed out the quality of Newcastle’s display on the south coast. “So in other words, the typical Ashley appointment”.

Why should it be so hard to take a step back and judge Bruce purely on the merits of how his side have performed this season? It is not his fault he was asked to succeed Benitez, and the constant comparisons with his predecessor have long become tedious. Similarly, it is not his fault that his ‘dream job’ means having to work under Ashley. Just because you disagree with what one is doing, it does not follow that you have to dismiss the efforts of the other.

Given everything he has to deal with this season, I would argue that Bruce has done a good job. Not an excellent one by any means – last Sunday’s team selection, tactics and insipid first-half performance in an FA Cup quarter-final are a major black mark against him – but a solid six or seven out of ten.

True, it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time in the autumn when it looked like Newcastle would be relegated, and much of the Magpies’ football in the first half of the season was exceptionally hard to watch. Dour, conservative and generally risk-averse, it was hard to warm to Bruce’s Newcastle during the winter months.

Yet the 59-year-old will argue, with some justification, that the end justified the means. September’s five-goal thrashing at Leicester City was such a chastening experience that something clearly had to change, and to Bruce’s credit, he accepted that a desire to play on the front foot would have to be temporarily shelved in order to shore things up at the other end of the field.

They weren’t attractive to watch, but November and December’s one-goal home wins over Bournemouth and Southampton proved crucial victories, before January delivered the 1-0 win over Chelsea that was perhaps the ultimate rope-a-dope success.

Suddenly, Newcastle were up to 12th, and Bruce felt emboldened enough to release the shackles. Five at the back was abandoned for a flat back four, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron were positioned on either side of Joelinton and instructed to attack, and rather than sitting back and willingly ceding possession to the opposition, Newcastle became a side actively looking to get on the ball.

The opening hour of the FA Cup win at West Brom before lockdown provided a tantalising glimpse of what Newcastle’s attackers were capable of when allowed to play on the front foot, before last month’s post-lockdown victory over Sheffield United represented another step forward.

Wednesday’s swashbuckling display on the south coast was an undoubted seasonal high, and Bruce deserves considerable credit for changing tack so successfully as the campaign has evolved.

He has dealt with the constant questioning of his position magnanimously, and clearly loves being in charge of the team he supported as a boy. He is popular with his players, and in his careful handling of Joelinton in particular, has proved himself an astute man-manager.

He has helped develop Saint-Maximin into a potent attacking asset – admittedly with some decent raw material to work with – and has taken Newcastle to the 42-point mark with six games remaining. That is an achievement that should not be underestimated, and while there is still some uncertainty as to how European qualification will work because of the Manchester City situation, the fact that Bruce’s side are within three points of a possible European spot at this stage of the season is quite remarkable.

The key question over the next few weeks will be what happens next. If the Premier League blocks Amanda Staveley’s attempts to take over at St James’ Park and Ashley remains in charge, it can be assumed Bruce will also remain in his current role next season. But what if Staveley is successful?

It has long been thought that Bruce would be moved aside for a ‘bigger-name’ boss, perhaps a Mauricio Pochettino or even a returning Benitez, but should that still be regarded as a given?

Surely, after all he has done this season, retaining Bruce should at least be considered as a viable option? Given the amount of upheaval that would be inevitable if a takeover occurred, might a degree of continuity in the dug-out not be desirable? Or in a zero-sum world, does Bruce forever have to be associated with the Ashley regime?