GIVEN the number of senior players that were absent, Steve Bruce was willing to give his Newcastle United side a free pass in the wake of Wednesday’s five-goal humiliation at Manchester City. However, as he prepares to head to Watford this lunch-time, the Magpies manager admits he will be furious if an otherwise successful season ebbs away to nothing in the final four games.

“We’ve got four games to play, let’s try to finish the season off strongly and see where that takes us,” said Bruce. “It’s been difficult. It’s been a long, tough gig for everybody, but we’re towards the end, so let’s finish it off with that little bit of pride that the team has had all year.

“The players have been terrific since I walked through the door, and everybody writes them off. There’s a nucleus - unfortunately, we were missing a lot of that the other night – but there’s a nucleus which demands of each other. Because of that, I’m sure we’ll be better (at Watford) than we were in the week.”

Bruce’s players could hardly regress from the display they turned in at the Etihad, and the presence of some leading lights who missed out on Wednesday should help.

Jamaal Lascelles will return to skipper the side at centre-half, while Bruce will scrap the unsuccessful experiment of fielding Fabian Schar at the heart of midfield. Miguel Almiron will start after being an unused substitute in the week, while Allan Saint-Maximin will also return after he was left out of the squad entirely three days ago.

“Down the spine of your team, you always need someone like Jamaal,” said Bruce, who has accepted that Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden are unlikely to play again this season. “Yes, he made a mistake (against West Ham), but you can count on one hand the number of mistakes he’s made this season, which is vitally important for a centre-back. He has those leadership skills and a great determination to win, so of course you need people like that.

“At the other end, we’ve got Allan and Almiron, and they are always going to be a threat to anybody. Look, we had a bad night against one of the top, top teams and when you’re down to the bare bones you need everything to go your way. We should have done better, so we have to respond and the players know they have to.”

Whereas Newcastle have already guaranteed their Premier League safety, Watford head into today’s game just one place clear of the drop zone despite their vital midweek win over Norwich.

“Watford are big, strong and powerful, and they’ll be looking at this as their cup final,” said Bruce. “They’ll be looking at us and thinking, ‘What a chance we’ve got’’, so we have to guard against that. We’ve had a couple of awful results this season and always responded in the right way.”

Newcastle (probable, 4-4-1-1): Dubravka; Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Rose; Saint-Maximin, Shelvey, Bentaleb, Ritchie; Almiron; Gayle.