Newcastle United have been plunged into an ugly civil war ahead of a crucial trip to West Bromwich Albion for a game that will have a huge bearing on whether they suffer a third relegation in the space of just 12 years.
For the second season in a row United will travel to the Hawthorns against a backdrop of reports of a bust-up between manager Steve Bruce and one of his players.
It is almost a year to the day since Bruce was forced to deny claims he had fallen out with winger Allan Saint-Maximin after his side had beaten the then Championship team in the FA Cup. There were claims then that some of the players had misgivings about the manager and his tactics.
Things appear to be even more volatile 12 months on after somebody leaked colourful details of a clash with Bruce and winger Matt Ritchie, which also included a damning appraisal of Bruce with suggestions several players want him to be replaced by new coach Graeme Jones.
Here, we reveal what has caused the friction and why the incident has led to a schism in the dressing room.
The start of a civil war
Telegraph Sport understands the fact the row between Ritchie and Bruce was made public, and in such detail, with quotes shared from the heated exchange, has angered the majority of players who remain loyal to the head coach.
When the story broke on Wednesday, several contacted club officials to deny they wanted Bruce to be sacked. Others contacted Bruce directly. They have also denied mocking him in a player WhatsApp group and have dismissed the idea that they all want Jones to take charge of the team moving forward.
Jones has been a popular addition to the coaching staff after he was appointed by Bruce last month, but he is also said to be embarrassed by the story which said he was in line to replace the man who brought him to Tyneside.
There have been unhelpful rumours Jones has been told he will keep his job even if Bruce is sacked. Bruce, though, is said to trust his fellow Geordie and does not believe he has a hidden agenda.
The players had a scheduled day off on Thursday and were not at the training ground but a team meeting will be held on Friday where accusations are likely to be levelled against those who are believed to be behind the leaks.
The main source of anger is that the source of the leak claimed, incorrectly, to speak on behalf of all of them. There is also dismay at the way the popular Jonjo Shelvey was attacked with suggestions he had been made to praise Bruce in a podcast interview last week, likening him to a prisoner being forced to speak against his will. Shelvey, who did the interview without the club’s prior knowledge, is said to be livid.
A number of players and staff believe they know who is responsible for leaking the story and the intricate details of Bruce’s row with Ritchie, but it is difficult to prove anything and they have denied they were responsible for previous leaks.
One disgruntled player is also understood to have previously criticised coaching staff in conversations with managing director Lee Charnley and owner Mike Ashley’s lieutenant Justin Barnes. Something Bruce referred to in his row with Ritchie. The club, though, backed Bruce’s judgement and did not act on the grievances expressed.
Bruce will also address the matter with the team on Friday but is thought to want to draw a line under things and try to ensure everybody’s focus is on the game against West Brom on Sunday. The most important thing will be the reaction at the Hawthorns.
The role of Matt Ritchie
Ritchie has always been a highly-combustible character and was annoyed by Bruce’s post-match interviews after Wolves scored a late equaliser last weekend to deny Newcastle a vital win.
Bruce implied Ritchie was partly to blame for the goal as he had failed to pass on instructions about a formation change. That left Newcastle without a right-back, which created the space for Ruben Neves to score with a header.
When Bruce asked to see him in his office, after learning of the Scotland international’s annoyance, Ritchie refused to leave the training pitch and called Bruce a “coward”.
That lit the fuse when Bruce was told about the “coward” phrase. As Bruce stormed out of his office and his rage exploded in Ritchie’s direction. The player quickly backed down when he saw how angry his manager had become. He has since apologised and both he and Bruce have made up, with all issues said to be resolved. Whether there is any lingering animosity remains to be seen.
Ritchie, though, has been frustrated for months and had agitated to leave in the January transfer window in order to return to former club Bournemouth. Bruce was willing to let him go initially, but when new players did not arrive in the window Ritchie was told he would have to wait until the summer.
To his credit, the player has knuckled down in training and there had not been any previous problems between the two before last weekend. Bruce has previously praised Richie’s professionalism and desire.
The role of Karl Darlow
Darlow was dropped by Bruce after making two errors in the 3-1 defeat at Manchester United in favour of previous first-choice goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. It was a call many fans and pundits had been urging him to make.
Telegraph Sport revealed that Darlow would be taken out of the team last week and it was widely believed, inside and outside of the club, that Bruce was the source for the story. We can categorically deny that was the case and Bruce expressed his anger at this newspaper for writing it which he said had caused him problems.
Darlow was upset because he felt the media had learned of his fate before he had been told and some teammates shared his sense of injustice. That has created tension which was further inflamed by Ritchie’s anger at his manager’s comments in the media.
It is not known whether Darlow is still annoyed with Bruce, although sources have said that matter has also been resolved amicably.
What happens next
Bruce’s position remains precarious and all that matters now is the result against WBA on Sunday. If Newcastle win, the scandal is likely to fade and the club will have eased their relegation worries.
It will be a huge test, not just of their ability, but it will also tell us if the team is still playing for Bruce. If the grievances against him are as serious as had been claimed it is difficult to see how he can continue.
If Newcastle lose to a relegation rival, the calls for Bruce to be sacked will reach a crescendo. When similar claims were made about him falling out with players, the team won two important games on the bounce, a 3-2 win over WBA to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and a 1-0 away win at Southampton that effectively ensured their Premier League survival.
Bruce needs a similarly positive response from his players a year later if he is going to survive.