WHEN the story of Newcastle United’s 2020-21 season is written, precious little will be mentioned about football. Saudi Arabian investment funds, Premier League arbitration hearings, anti-competition claims, Covid outbreaks, ‘moles’ in the dressing room, rows at the training ground. Plenty has happened over the course of the last 12 months, it just hasn’t really translated into anything particularly exciting or entertaining on the pitch. Not for the first time, charting Newcastle’s fortunes has felt like tuning into a sporting soap opera rather than watching a football club go about what is supposed to be its primary function.

As ever with the Magpies, Mike Ashley’s ownership has cast a cloud over the whole of the campaign. The collapse of Amanda Staveley’s proposed buyout last summer threatened to draw a line under the seemingly interminable takeover talk that has swirled around Tyneside for the best part of a decade, but instead, it merely served as the catalyst for a new round of wrangling and political intrigue.

The battle lines have been drawn, with Ashley launching two separate actions against the Premier League, one in the arbitration courts and the other under the umbrella of the anti-competition laws, and the current Newcastle owner clearly feels there is still a chance of resurrecting a deal involving Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund if the Premier League can be persuaded to give the green light via its owners and directors’ test.

The problem is that the uncertainty has blighted everything else that has happened at St James’ Park, with Ashley’s focus trained on his legal battles rather than the equally pressing issues of squad improvement, academy development and infrastructural investment. For most of the last 12 months, Newcastle has felt like a club in limbo, and that is unlikely to change until the takeover situation is conclusively resolved one way or the other. If the Saudis come in, the future could be transformed at a stroke. If the deal collapses once and for all, Ashley will have to make some difficult decisions about what happens next. Either way, at least the current deadlock would be broken.

With Ashley emotionally detached from the day-to-day running of the club, Steve Bruce was left as the public face of Newcastle United, and as the season unfolded, so plenty of supporters decided they did not like what they were seeing.

Some have modified their stance slightly in the face of the recent improvement that hauled the Magpies away from the bottom three, but as the booing that followed Wednesday’s win over Sheffield United proved, Bruce would not win a popularity contest amongst the fans. That could have serious repercussions if full houses return next season.

Does the Newcastle boss deserve a more positive reaction? He has guided Newcastle into 15th position with one game remaining and has undoubtedly had to overcome some significant obstacles this season. However, for large parts of the campaign, the football his side has served up has been awful and he has shown very few signs of improving the players at his disposal. As a result, the verdict on his performance has to be lukewarm at best.

Bruce will point to the first third of the season as the period when he was taking his side in the right direction. Newcastle started the campaign reasonably brightly, winning four of their first ten league games as Callum Wilson hit the ground running following his summer move from Bournemouth.

The last of those first four wins came at Crystal Palace at the end of November, a game which proved to be the Magpies’ last before a major outbreak of Covid struck. The training ground was shut down for a fortnight, and a number of Newcastle’s key players, most notably Jamaal Lascelles and Allan Saint-Maximin, took months to fully recover. It would be wrong to say that Covid wrecked Newcastle’s season, but it certainly had a major debilitating effect.

The second third of the season, either side of Christmas and the New Year, was a write-off, with the Magpies barely winning a game as their form plummeted off a cliff. December’s 5-2 thrashing at Leeds was an embarrassment, as was the feeble Carabao Cup quarter-final exit that followed at Brentford a couple of weeks later. Having constantly talked up the importance of the cup competitions, Bruce watched his side pass up a great opportunity of glory without even the semblance of a fight.

January’s defeat at Sheffield United was another low point, and when Newcastle slumped to 17th position after losing at Chelsea in February, relegation was a very real threat. For ten minutes or so at the start of April, when Fulham were briefly winning at Aston Villa, the Magpies found themselves in the bottom three, but just as they were staring into the abyss, so they began to turn things around.

Joe Willock was the catalyst, along with the returning Saint-Maximin and Wilson, as Newcastle finally found a way to play on the front foot. Wins over Burnley and West Ham played a crucial role in lifting the Magpies to safety, along with the dramatic last-gasp draw at Liverpool, and by the time Bruce’s side produced their best performance of the season to claim a 4-2 win at Leicester at the start of this month, their survival was guaranteed.

Wednesday’s return of spectators was an important emotional milestone, and if Newcastle can win at Fulham on Sunday and match last season’s 13th-placed finish, Bruce will trumpet the achievement as an acceptable return.

Plenty of supporters will disagree, but ultimately, it all feels somewhat irrelevant when posited against the bigger picture. This summer’s courtroom battles will determine Newcastle’s fate, with events on the field following on from there.