STEVE BRUCE hopes to kick off his summer transfer business with the signing of Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer, and has pledged to do all he can to ensure he secures the maximum possible budget for his planned rebuilding at Newcastle United.

Bruce is hoping to make four or five targeted additions this summer, with a deal for Arsenal loanee Joe Willock at the top of his wish-list. Newcastle officials are set to hold an initial round of talks with the hierarchy at the Emirates in the next few days, although it is expected that discussions over Willock’s future could drag on for the majority of the summer, with Gunners boss Mikel Arteta having expressed a reluctance to sell in his final press conference of the season last week.

As well as attempting to secure Willock’s return, Bruce is keen to strengthen his defensive options with Fabian Schar and Federico Fernandez both due to reach the end of their respective contracts next month. Talks are under way with the duo’s representatives, but even they agree to extend their deals on Tyneside, Bruce would still like to add another centre-half to the ranks.

Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, who spent last season on loan at Bournemouth, has been mentioned as a potential option, but the preference at the moment is to secure a deal for Ajer, who is rated at around £8m.

The 23-year-old is set to leave Parkhead this summer, with Celtic’s dismal season expected to spark a major summer overhaul that could also see the likes of Odsonne Edouard, who has also been linked with Newcastle in the past, move on.

Newly-promoted Norwich City have also been linked with Ajer, but with Newcastle having sent a series of scouting delegations to watch the Norwegian this season, the Magpies’ interest is currently understood to be at a much more advanced stage.

It has been reported in Scotland that Ajer is keen to move to St James’ Park after spending more than five years with Celtic. He joined the Glasgow club as a teenager in 2016 after starting his career in his native Norway with IK Start.

Bruce’s desire to sign a new central defender suggests he would be willing to listen to offers for Florian Lejeune, who spent last season on loan at Alaves and is about to enter the final year of his contract with Newcastle. Similarly, the Magpies boss will be keen to engineer the permanent departure of Yoshinori Muto, who spent last term on loan at Spanish side Eibar.

Bruce was in a bullish mood after Newcastle finished in 12th position at the weekend, stating that he hoped the club’s strong finish to the season would make some of his critics “eat their words”, but he has struck a more emollient tone by admitting that finishing in the bottom half of the table should never be an acceptable state of affairs for the Magpies.

The North-Easterner clearly intends to remain at St James’ Park next season, and will be doing all he can to secure the backing of Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley in the transfer market this summer.

“I think at every club, you always want to succeed,” said Bruce. “Newcastle finishing 12th, that cannot be judged as an achievement. We’re pleased, don’t get me wrong, from where we were. But we’ve got to do better than that, and that’s my job, to knock on the door and make us better.”

It was only the start of last month when Newcastle briefly dropped into the bottom three as Fulham were winning at Aston Villa, and Bruce admits there were some difficult moments during a campaign that ultimately ended with the club finishing a remarkable 17 points clear of the bottom three.

He was always confident he would turn things around though, and has thanked his players and staff for their support and faith during the darker periods.

“Just at the right time, when we needed it, the team showed a certain resolve,” said Bruce. “My backroom staff, I can’t thank them enough.

“There’s been some dark times. We’ve all to dig in, really deep. There have been times when things have been bleak. I won’t forget them, but the way we finished, they’ve been fantastic. Let’s hope they continue next season.”