There has been a distinct lack of transfer activity at Newcastle United this summer, but adding to the pre-season pressure is a complicated game of chess that is playing out among the club’s GK Union.

Keepers are usually low on Steve Bruce’s list of concerns, such is the depth and health of that department at the club, but back-to-back bouts of bad news for Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow in July threw a massively unwanted spanner into the works.

Dubravka, who endured a very public and painful conclusion to his Euro 2020 campaign, was dealt a further blow immediately after the tournament when he was informed he’d need another operation on his foot.

The Slovakian is due back in the UK next week. As per Covid regulations, he will have to isolate, and not until that period of isolation is over will Newcastle’s medical team be able to assess his foot and gauge his recovery.

READ MORE: The Chronicle has produced a comprehensive guide to the Magpies' new season - here's how to get your copy

The domino effect that foot injury has had on Newcastle’s GK Union has been awkward to say the least. Dubravka’s bad news scuppered Freddie Woodman’s season-long loan to Bournemouth. He was recalled to Newcastle’s pre-season training camp in mid-July and left staring at the possibility of starting the season as either Newcastle’s No.2 or No.3 keeper.

Woodman wanted to build on last season’s loan success at Swansea: 45 league games, 20 cleansheets. At 24 he needs to be playin,g not warming up Karl Darlow or Mark Gillespie.

He probably discussed that very topic with both Darlow and Gillespie when he sat next to the pair for dinner on 16 July. The following day Darlow tested positive for Covid and Woodman and Gillespie were forced into isolation for ten days, in-line with protocols, despite him and Gillespie recording negative results.

In an ideal world, Steve Bruce would have had a fully fit Dubraka as his No.1, backed up by Darlow with Gillespie the standby No.3. This would have freed-up Woodman for another season-long loan, developing his experience and proving the potential he displayed when he first played for Newcastle’s reserves 10 years ago aged just 14.

A fit Dubravka and Darlow would have also enabled the rapidly developing Dan Langley to also go out and be tested on loan, at League One or League Two level ideally. The giant 20-year-old has quietly impressed in the last 18 months but has only played 30-odd U18 and U23 games in the last five seasons. He needs minutes at a decent level, but it doesn’t look like he’ll get them.

Newcastle Goalkeeper Dan Langley
Newcastle goalkeeper Dan Langley

Karl Darlow was hospitalised by his Covid bout and unless he can rally in time to play some minutes in the final pre-season game at home to Norwich on Saturday 7 August, he won’t feature in the West Ham season-opener. Given the experiences of some of the squad with the virus last Christmas, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be risked, with a slow return to football the sensible course of action.

That leaves Steve Bruce to pick between Woodman and Gillespie for the Premier League curtain-raiser. The Toon boss cannot afford any mistakes in front of 40,000+ Newcastle fans, but by the same token, he doesn’t have a great deal to go on when it comes selecting Woodman or Gillespie.

Neither have played a minute in the Premier League. Woodman is the younger by five years, and has 88 Championship games, and 19 Scottish Premier League games to his name. Geordie stopper Gillespie is seen as the cooler, calmer of the two but has never played above League One level in England, and has 52 Scottish Premier League appearances on his CV.

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Against Rotherham and Burton both played 45 minutes, with Woodman playing the first half in each. That’s a small clue as to what Bruce is thinking. If one were to play the full 90 against Norwich and come through the game unscathed (physically and performance-wise) we will know who will play v West Ham.

If both play another 45 each it will indicate Bruce still hasn’t made his mind up. There wasn’t much to pick between the two keepers’ performances at Rotherham and Burton. Woodman conceded a header in the Rotherham game, opting to stay on his line rather than attack a very decent cross into his box that beat Jamaal Lascelles and allowed Micheal Smith to score against his boyhood club.

In terms of morale, Woodman is probably not in the best place right now. By contrast, Mark Gillespie is a well-known and well-liked member of the Newcastle squad whose job it is to bring energy, positivity and professionalism to the squad, but he wasn’t expected to pick up Premier League minutes when he re-signed 12 months ago.

Long-term, Woodman was ear-marked for the Premier League. Whether he is up to it, or ready for it, we don’t know. Neither does Steve Bruce. It’s a huge judgement call that could set the tone for a big season ahead.

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