AS ever with Newcastle United, any discussion about what might or might not happen over the course of the next 12 months is best divided into two parts. Events off the pitch, and events on it. What happens in one sphere will have a direct influence on the direction of travel in the other, although at this juncture, the signs are not particularly positive in either. So far, this is not shaping up to be a particularly happy new year on Tyneside.

Will 2021 be the year when Mike Ashley finally cedes control of the club? That is the £300m question (or there or thereabouts), with the strength of Ashley’s desire to sell up and leave matched only by the level of difficulty involved in actually getting a deal over the line.

Ashley’s ongoing legal action against the Premier League, which is running in parallel to another legal challenge mounted by a consortium of Newcastle fans, has the potential to be a game-changer, although sources close to the Premier League insist the governing body is confident its current position will be upheld by any future arbitration hearing.

Ashley is clearly still confident that Amanda Staveley’s Saudi Arabia-backed consortium is willing to rekindle its interest if the Premier League shifts its position with regard to the involvement of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, so assuming that is the case, ongoing geopolitical developments in the Middle East could be significant.

In the last few days, the Saudi Arabian state has begun what appears to be a gradual process of reengagement with Qatar, a move that could remove some of the broadcasting piracy issues that have dogged the proposed purchase of Newcastle from the start. If diplomatic normalcy prevails, a major obstacle to Premier League ratification of a Saudi-backed buyout could be removed. Only at Newcastle could the political machinations of the Middle East have a direct influence on who plays up front in a football match.

Clearly, if Staveley’s consortium finally secures the keys to St James’ Park, Newcastle’s position changes at a stroke. Investment will flow, the squad will improve, ambitions will be reset. The same could also be true if an alternative buyer emerges from the woodwork, although while such an eventuality can never be ruled out, it does not appear to be on the cards at the moment.

The alternative, of course, is that the status quo endures and Ashley remains in charge for another 12 months. Given the Sports Direct boss’ refusal to incur any further debt while he is looking to sell up, that is something of a doomsday scenario amid a backdrop of plummeting income while supporters continue to be locked out of St James’.

If Ashley stays at the helm, get ready for more of the same, which will mean Steve Bruce remaining responsible for trying to elicit improvement on the pitch while investment remains limited.

For all that a large section of Newcastle supporters have turned against their manager, Bruce’s position will not be under serious threat unless the Magpies get sucked into the heart of the relegation battle. After a run of five Premier League games without a victory, such an eventuality is a distinct possibility.

The eight-point gap currently separating Newcastle from the bottom three provides a degree of comfort, although it should be noted that it will immediately be reduced to five if Fulham win their game in hand.

In that context, next Tuesday’s trip to Bramall Lane to face a Sheffield United side that have not won all season increasingly looks crucial. Win, and Newcastle will take a giant step towards Premier League survival. Lose, and the second half of the season could become extremely fraught indeed.

Many supporters will argue that scraping to survival should not come anywhere close to being the limit of Newcastle’s ambition, but with the FA Cup draw having been far from kind – the Magpies’ interest in the competition could be over by Saturday night given they head to Arsenal in the third round – Bruce faces a major challenge if he is to transform the final four months of the season into anything other than drudgery.

He keeps saying he wants his side to be more adventurous and “better on the ball” in the final third, but there is precious little sign of his hopes coming to fruition. Newcastle tend to be well-organised, committed and resolute – all commendable qualities. Every now and then, they are capable of frustrating one of the big boys, as was the case in last month’s draw with Liverpool. But they rarely look like cutting loose, and remain hugely reliant on Callum Wilson when it comes to scoring goals.

With this month’s transfer activity likely to be restricted to a couple of loan additions at best, keeping Wilson fit is essential. Without their leading goalscorer, Newcastle would be a lost cause.

They have a chance if Wilson is in the side, although they badly need to improve the standard of their service in the final third. Allan Saint-Maximin’s return will hopefully help. It is surely time to give up on Joelinton, while Jonjo Shelvey might also have run out of chances.