KEVIN Keegan has praised the way his experienced players helped keep Newcastle United together following three long months without a league win.
Newcastle finally remembered how to celebrate a victory following their vital 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Fulham last weekend, a result which means they are now six points clear of the drop zone.
Nevertheless, it has been a difficult and testing period for both manager and players as a disastrous run of just four points from a possible 39 threatened to send United crashing down to the Championship.
The Magpies are still not out of trouble just yet with seven games left to play, but the win over Fulham has lifted the gloom and Keegan is confident it will act as a springboard for the rest of the season.
“Whilst the win doesn’t mean we’re out of danger it takes the pressure off everyone at the club,” said Keegan, who will welcome the players back on to the training ground this morning after rewarding them for Saturday’s first win since December with two days off to enjoy the Easter break.
“The players’ abilities have been questioned and my ability as a manager has been questioned but that’s what you lay yourself open to if you don’t get results. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but it was just a feeling of relief after waiting for so long for that win.”
Confidence has rarely been more fragile at St James’s Park during the Premier League era, but nerves were settled on Saturday by Mark Viduka’s early goal and Keegan has pointed to the presence of his senior players as the main reason why Newcastle have managed to halt their slide down the table.
Keegan has been thrilled with the impact his highest profile player, Michael Owen, has had in recent weeks, with the England international taking his goals tally to eight for the season against the Cottagers, but he is not the only one who has had an influence behind the scenes.
He explained: “I see Michael Owen and Nicky Butt as two key players. You don’t want one leader when you go out onto the pitch. I always say to two or three of them that they have to lead.
“We’ve got some young guys and we’ve got some players who have never played in the Premier League before. We’ve got a left-back from Spain, Jose Enrique, who did well there, but this is a different league.
“We’ve got a right-back, Habib Beye, who has played a lot of games in France, but this is different. So you look at your Nicky Butts, Michael Owens and Alan Smiths, who know the Premier League and you try and use their experience to help the others.” The one piece of bad news from the Easter weekend was an injury to Brazilian centre-back Claudio Caçapa, who could be missing for the next five weeks.
However, the loss of the 31-year-old has been offset by the return of the versatile defender Peter Ramage to reserve team action last week following a cruciate knee ligament injury, while reserve team skipper
David Edgar also came off the bench against Fulham. Those two will provide cover for first-choice pair Steven Taylor and Abdoulaye Faye.
Keegan insisted the latter was as good as anyone against Fulham as the team kept its first clean sheet since the goalless draw against Bolton in his first game back in charge on January 19.
Keegan added: “Steven Taylor is another player who will become a leader in the team but he’s still young. As for Abdoulaye Faye, I thought he was as good as anyone on the pitch on Saturday. Everyone will talk about Michael and rightly so, and maybe Viduka, but Faye was excellent for me.” Meanwhile, former Newcastle misfit Marcelino is set to return to the Premier League when he becomes Liverpool’s new Spanish scout.
The centre-back managed just 17 league games in nearly four years following a £5.8m move from Real Mallorca and is generally regarded as one of the club’s worst signings of recent years because of his dubious injury record.