KEVIN Nolan has epitomised Newcastle United this season. Devastated by the pain of relegation and stung by the personal criticism which followed, the midfielder has been at the vanguard of the dressing room renaissance.
There have been better players in the Magpies side this season, and certainly more eye-catching ones, but none have done more than Nolan to help banish the bitter memories of last term.
Nolan’s 13 goals have grabbed the headlines in terms of his contribution on the pitch and they were priceless at the start of the campaign, when Newcastle needed someone to inspire an early-season recovery.
Those goals will have ensured he received plenty of floating voters when he was named Championship Player of the Year earlier this week, but that accolade was warranted for a variety of reasons. Nolan has arguably done even more behind the scenes, away from the media glare, to help rebuild shattered confidence and fractious team spirit. It is his character and personality which have shone in the background, a light around which others could rally in the darkness.
Even when he was still trying to come to terms with United’s inability to stay up last summer, he never had any regrets about signing.
He even felt guilty about it, given the disasters that had occurred in his time on Tyneside, but he was adamant he would stay to put things right.
And that is what he, and Newcastle, have done, forging a collective will which has allowed their individual quality to emerge in a division which was determined to embrace them, strangle them and ultimately keep them.
“I’ve said it before, but a lot of us had our pride stung by what happened last season,” said Nolan, who will never tire of talking about the strength of team spirit at St James’ Park.
“It hurt and there was a lot of emotion involved.
“We wanted to put that right and that is what keeps us going still, we will never throw in the towel in games.
“We knew it was going to be tough at Boro, Gordon Strachan has got them moving in the right direction and they play in his own image if you like. They have his attributes and they really got stuck into us, but we’ve been used to that this season. They way we have adapted to cope with it has been fantastic. We are a tough bunch and we have shown that sort of resilience all through the season, which is why we’re top of the league.
“We have such a determination not to get beat and we keep doing it so we have got to be doing something right. Even when we’re not at our best we come away with something. It was a good point as well with Forest losing.”
Nolan has never shirked a challenge and, with 38 appearances to his name, he has played more games than anyone else this season. Hampered by a heel problem, the 27-year-old might be tempted to ask for a rest, but there is no sign of that. He explained: “You won’t hear me asking for a rest. I want to play in every game between now and the end of the season.
“This league is tough and demanding, but I’m feeling pretty good.
“I’ve had a bit of a problem with my heal the last few weeks, but hopefully I can get over that and go into the run in fully fit.
“We’ve obviously got players coming back and it’s going to be a very interesting last 11 games. Joey Barton is coming back and he will want to get back into the side.
“There is going to be even more competition for places and who knows, maybe I will get that rest. I want to be involved and I don’t want to miss out on anything.
“The manager knows I haven’t been 100% fit these last few games, but he has asked me to do a job and I’m happy to do that.
“I’ve missed one game through suspension and I want to be involved in every single one of the 11 that our left.” It says much about his enduring celebrity that few players have been talked about more in recent weeks than Barton. Considering he only played six games before foot surgery – and was dropped from the starting line-up before the first at West Brom following a row with Chris Hughton – Barton has been a periphery figure. Some would argue that has been a good thing given controversy tends to follow him like rats to the Pied Piper, but Nolan is happy to have him back, both as a team-mate and a rival.
“Everyone knows what Joey is like, although you probably know more than me about the past,” he said.
“He is a good lad and it’s going to take him another week or so to get back, but it looks like we are going to have him for the final push and that’s great.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating for him, it always is when you’re injured for four or five months. It takes its toil on you, sitting on the sidelines watching the lads playing and preparing for games.
“He is desperate to be involved again and we can’t wait to have him back. He played a big part at the start of the season when are backs were against the wall to an extent and he can have a big part to play in the run in as well.
“We’re not going to make it easy for him to get back in, but I’m sure when he does get back he’ll stay there. We’ve got to keep producing good performances and results, it’s only good and positive for us that we’ve got the lads coming back.”
Where there were once negatives, there are only positives at Newcastle United, even when Barton is concerned.