AS Steve Bruce watched on from the sidelines at Villa Park last night, his mind might well have wandered back to an evening on the same patch of turf in October 2018. Back then, as his Villa side stretched their winless run to ten matches, a frustrated supporter leapt over the hoardings to hurl a cabbage at him. The following morning, he was dismissed.

With supporters still banned from attending matches, Bruce has not had to deal with the anger of Newcastle’s fans at first hand over the last couple of months. But as his side were racking up their own ten-game winless run at the weekend, a group of black-and-white diehards defied lockdown rules to tie a banner to the gates outside St James’ Park demanding a change of manager. Never mind a cabbage, most Newcastle supporters simply want to issue Bruce with a P45.

How long will Mike Ashley continue to delay what increasingly now looks like the inevitable? With rumours that a takeover deal could be successfully resurrected in the next couple of months continuing to swirl around St James’ Park, Newcastle’s current owner is understandably reluctant to throw good money after bad by paying off Bruce and his coaching team. Thanks to a series of clauses in Bruce’s contract, the expense would be considerable, but with every game that passes under the current regime, so the likelihood of Newcastle careering into the Championship for what would be a third time in 13 seasons increases.

Bruce might claim otherwise, insisting the second-half return of Allan Saint-Maximin and Ryan Fraser at Villa Park offered “cause for encouragement”, but the mounting evidence suggests his Newcastle side have entered into a terminal decline from which they are showing no signs of being able to escape.

This month’s calamitous defeat at Sheffield United was supposed to be the nadir. Leaving Bramall Lane, Bruce pledged to start doing things ‘his way’. Well, since then, Newcastle have lost 3-0 at Arsenal and gone down 2-0 at Aston Villa. Suffice to say, ‘Bruce’s way’ seems to be an even more depressing continuation of what had been going on before.

Last night's failure to trouble Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez means the Magpies have now managed just one goal from open play in their last 776 minutes of football. It is a dreadful record, and while Bruce might have tinkered with his line-up in the last two matches, pairing Andy Carroll with Callum Wilson in a two-pronged attack, the fact his side remain completely bereft of an attacking threat highlights the scale of their problems.

There has been a lot of talk of tactics in the last few weeks – Bruce reverted to a five-man defence against Villa to no avail - but increasingly, Newcastle’s problems look much more basic than issues of formation or style.

This is a side that is either unwilling or unable to do the basics anymore. While Villa’s players hassled and harried from the word go last night, Newcastle’s stood off passively inviting their opponents to do as they pleased. Not for the first time, Jonjo Shelvey was the worst culprit, and it is impossible to fathom why Bruce continues to put so much faith in both Shelvey and Jeff Hendrick. While he might have limitations in possession, at least Matty Longstaff runs around.

With Shelvey and Hendrick strolling around in midfield, an Ashley-related joke is apt. What do Newcastle and Sports Direct have in common? Neither of them want to close down.

There is no urgency in Newcastle’s play, no sense of needing to do more to try to arrest the current slump. In an echoing empty stadium, the Magpies’ players don’t even shout at each other.

So, after Ollie Watkins headed Villa into the lead at the weekend, profiting from an error from Fabian Schar and hesitation from Karl Darlow, it was only a matter of time before the hosts extended their advantage.

A second goal arrived shortly before half-time, with Bertrand Traore stroking home via the underside of the crossbar, and alarmingly for Newcastle, that was that in terms of a competitive encounter.