IN December 2015, Newcastle United manager Steve McClaren was under pressure. His side was mired in trouble in the bottom half of the Premier League table, most of his senior players were either out of form or seemingly disinterested in their club’s plight, and a majority of supporters were calling for his head. From nowhere, though, the Magpies scrambled back-to-back victories over Liverpool and Tottenham to climb three points clear of the drop zone. With Mike Ashley extremely reluctant to dismiss a manager he had helped appoint, McClaren’s job was safe.

February 2016, and McClaren’s Newcastle crashed to a 5-1 defeat at Chelsea that plunged them back into the bottom three. With the Magpies stuck in a seemingly inescapable rut, it was surely time for Ashley to act. Sensing the changing of the tide, Lee Charnley held a series of clandestine meetings with the Magpies’ senior players. ‘All is not lost’, he was told. ‘The manager still has our backing – we can turn this around’. Ashley held firm. McClaren took his players to a training camp in La Manga that was supposed to transform squad morale.

We all know what happened next. On returning from Spain, McClaren oversaw defeats to Stoke City and Bournemouth and was belatedly dismissed. Rafael Benitez was appointed as his replacement, but with just nine games of the season remaining, the Spaniard was unable to arrest what had become a deep-rooted decline. Newcastle were relegated by two points, and the common consensus was that Ashley had left it much too late to pull the trigger. Had he acted earlier, perhaps the Magpies would have avoided a spell in the Championship that had long-lasting effects that are still being felt today.

Fast forward to the present, and it is hard not to reflect on Ashley’s continued support for the embattled Steve Bruce without drawing parallels to the dog-days of the McClaren era. The similarities are becoming increasingly stark.

Like McClaren, Bruce finds himself presiding over a squad that is hurtling headlong down the table from a position of relative pre-Christmas security. Like McClaren, Bruce’s instinct when faced with plummeting fortunes is to batten down the hatches and try to grind out a result. It didn’t work five seasons ago, and on the evidence of Tuesday’s alarming 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United, it is not going to work in the current campaign either.

Unlike McClaren, Bruce is not having to contend with a weekly chorus of supporters calling for his head. That is only because fans are currently barred from attending grounds though. Had the away end at Bramall Lane been full on Tuesday night, Bruce would have been left in doubt as to his standing in the eyes of most diehards.

Crucially, though, like McClaren, Bruce continues to have the backing of his boss. The briefings that have been coming out of St James’ Park this week have stressed that Ashley does not want to dismiss his current manager. We are not in, ‘Bruce stays no matter what happens’ territory, but the strong indication is that Ashley’s instinct is to sit tight and hope things improve. Again, the parallels with the 2015-16 season are stark.

For all that he is portrayed as an unpredictable owner, Ashley has never been one for kneejerk managerial dismissals. Probably because it involves spending money. He sacked Sam Allardyce at a fairly early stage, but that was when he still had idealistic visions of what he wanted Newcastle to be, and he has subsequently conceded that he regrets his hastiness. Since then, managers at Newcastle have been reasonably secure, provided they have continued to do what they are told. Bruce, with his adherence to the party line when it comes to transfers and questions about the ownership situation, certainly fits that mould.

Of course, Ashley’s current intransigence is not simply a result of a general reluctance to change managers. The last six months have been played out against the backdrop of a takeover saga that continues to colour everything else that happens at Newcastle.

Ashley is pinning his hopes on an arbitration hearing forcing the Premier League to alter their stance when it comes to Amanda Staveley’s Saudi Arabia-backed consortium and their attempts to secure ownership of Newcastle. The legal action, which is accompanied by a separate legal case initiated by a group of Newcastle supporters, offers the possibility of an escape route for Ashley, whose desire to extricate himself from the mess he has created on Tyneside remains intact.

The legal wheels are turning, albeit slowly, with the geopolitical climate in the Middle East, with the Saudi Arabian state edging towards a restoration of diplomatic ties with Qatar, also creating an environment that is far more conducive to the Saudi Public Investment Fund being given the green light to gain control of a Premier League club.

With all of that going on, Ashley clearly feels it is not the right time to be scrambling around for a new manager. Yet, the ‘r’ word will not go away. If Newcastle are relegated, all bets regarding the takeover are off. It is hard to imagine the Saudi regime wanting to be involved with a Championship club.

Ashley is a self-confessed gambler, and having assessed the odds, he must currently feel that survival is more likely than the drop. Perhaps, with Newcastle currently seven points clear of 18th-placed Fulham, albeit having played a game more, he will be proved right.

Recent history, however, should serve as a warning. The danger signs flashing above McClaren’s head were ignored for far too long, leaving his replacement too little time to turn things around. By sticking with Bruce, is Ashley backing himself into another corner from which it will eventually become impossible to escape?