WITHOUT a goal in 2010, and playing for a title-chasing side which has not won away since early December, there would be plenty for Kevin Nolan to worry about if the midfielder was the worrying kind. Fortunately for Newcastle United, he is not.
The Merseysider’s confidence is well founded. He remains his club’s leading scorer and the Magpies are still in pole position to win this season’s Championship. More than statistics, he can point to the mental strength and unity shown by his side as reason enough to keep his hand away from the panic button.
As one of the leading voices in a dressing room brought visibly closer by the adversity of relegation, Nolan’s calmness not only reflects the mood of his team-mates, but also influences it. And while some in the stands might be fretting about the gradual erosion of Newcastle’s imposing lead at the top of the table this year, Nolan is much more relaxed thanks largely to the attitude of those around him.
“It’s obviously a different kettle of fish because this is the Championship and that was the Premier League but we’ve probably got better characters, better team spirit, better togetherness than this club has had for a few years now. I think that’s what you see,” reflects Nolan, who despite a recent dip in his own form, seems certain to face Coventry City at St James’ Park this evening.
“When we’re not playing well, when the chips are down, we stick together and grind out results. We’ve managed to do that and we’re where we want to be. We were absolutely delighted to go top of the league again on Saturday and it meant we could have a nice flight home afterwards to think about the game, the wrongs we did, and hopefully put them right against Coventry.
“We’re not worried about our away form, I’m certainly not. There’s a lot of people outside the club making issues about it but if we can continue to do what we’re doing at home we know we can grind results out, like we did against a very good Swansea side. If we can get results like that from now until the end of the season, we know it will change for us.
“We’re absolutely delighted to be where we are. We know it’s not finished, we know we’ve got 16 games still to play, but we’re going to fight for every point and hopefully come the last day of the season, we’ll be sitting pretty at the top.
“We’re not worried about anyone else around us, we’re just concerned with what we do. At the end of the day we’re here to do a job and hopefully we’re doing it the right way.”
As an advert for flowing football, Newcastle’s 1-1 draw in South Wales – earned courtesy of an 87th-minute equaliser from striker Andy Carroll – was not a good one. But as an exhibition of the kind of backbone so sadly lacking in the club’s sad slide out of the Premier League, it could scarcely have been better.
“We absolutely robbed the point at Swansea to be fair,” admits Nolan. “We proved we’ve got a bit of grit and a bit of determination. When it’s not going our way we’ve got to stick at it. The only thing Swansea didn’t do is finish it off and they were punished for it.
“People say if you want to win promotion you’ve got to grind out results and that’s what we’ve done.”
Nolan last found the net on Boxing Day, his 11th strike of a prolific first-half of the season.
His goals played a massive part in setting the ball rolling for a Newcastle side who could have been feeling sorry for themselves after relegation. As his goals have dried up, Carroll and Peter Løvenkrands have helped maintain that momentum with purple patches of their own.
If Nolan’s goals were important, they pale into insignificance compared to his leading contribution to the no-holds barred pre-season conversations where the players set their own high standards for the coming campaign. Rigorous self-analysis comes easily to a 29-year-old who will not allow his calmness or Chris Hughton’s kind words about him today to cloud the issues.
“I’m not really worried about not scoring because we’re playing really well at home,” he says. “I was very disappointed with my game at Swansea, I thought I was poor by my standards but hopefully I can put that right in the next few weeks. If I start putting the ball in the back of the net and helping the lads out then fair enough but I’ll always take three points before me scoring.”
It is the kind of attitude which explains eloquently how Newcastle have broken the cycle of under-achievement to emerge as genuine title contenders.