WHAT is success at Newcastle United? It is a question that gets to the heart of the crisis that has engulfed Steve Bruce in the last few weeks, and that in truth has dominated discussions that have taken place throughout the Mike Ashley era.

Should Newcastle be challengers for the top four, as they so memorably were in the Kevin Keegan years? Should they routinely be competing for a place in Europe, as was the case under Sir Bobby Robson and for at least some of Alan Pardew’s time at St James’ Park? Or given the financial changes that have taken place in the Premier League in the last few years, is simply surviving in the top-flight a reasonable enough achievement? And if it is, should it matter what type of football is being served up along the way?

Clearly, it is impossible to assess those questions without acknowledging the backdrop of the Ashley regime. Were Newcastle under different ownership – the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, for example – ambitions might be very different. With Ashley in charge, a 17th-placed finish always feels like something that will be regarded as an acceptable return.

Yet even accounting for the financial constraints imposed by Ashley, and the lack of ambition emanating from the boardroom, is Bruce setting the bar high enough as he talks of the need to ensure Premier League survival. What is realistic with the current squad? And as he prepares to take his side to Aston Villa tomorrow looking to end a nine-game winless run in all competitions, is Bruce falling short of what should be considered the minimum requirements?

“What do you gauge as success?” Bruce asked himself, yesterday. “I gauged success last year as matching Rafa’s tally of points and of where we finished, because that’s where we are at this particular moment.

“We are in the bottom half of the Premier League and have been there for the best part of 15 years. What’s realistic for where we are? In between 11th and 16th, is that realistic? Can we aim towards the top ten? We’re three, four points adrift of that. Would that be an achievement? In my eyes, probably yes.

“We are where we are. We will try to keep edging towards where I want to take us, which is probably towards the top ten. I’ve said that since I walked through the door. At this particular moment, we’re four, five points off it and we’re on a bad run. It’s time to keep working hard and hope things change.”

Newcastle are eight points adrift of tenth position ahead of this weekend’s matches, but increasingly, supporters are more worried about the gap separating them from the relegation zone.

There is currently a seven-point safety cushion to Fulham, who are currently sitting in 18th position, but whereas Newcastle are on their worst run of the season, most of the teams below them are showing signs of improved form.

Burnley moved level on points with the Magpies when they won at Liverpool on Thursday night, Brighton have lost just two of their last eight games in all competitions, Fulham were on a six-game unbeaten run prior to losing narrowly to Chelsea and Manchester United, and a Sam Allardyce-inspired West Brom showed renewed signs of life when they won at Wolves last weekend.

Once this evening’s game has finished, Newcastle will have reached the halfway point of their season. They are currently on 19 points, and if they were to double that tally in the second half of the campaign, they would finish on 38, which is generally regarded as the target for safety.

Worryingly, though, they have picked up just two points from the last available 21. Nevertheless, Bruce remains convinced they will secure their survival.

“I’m quietly confident we will achieve that (staying up),” said Bruce, who is set to add Bournemouth first-team coach Graeme Jones to his senior coaching team. “We did it quite comfortably last year, so we know that the group of players are capable of doing it again.

“I’m quietly confident we will achieve what we have to achieve, our first aim."