IT would not be a party without presents, and Newcastle United were indebted to a big slice of Yorkshire generosity to ensure their big night at St James’ Park did not end up falling a little bit flat.
Sheffield United’s grisly old bruiser Chris Morgan does not look like the present buying type – you can not giftwrap a meaty elbow to the chops, after all – but until he grabbed a handful of Andy Carroll’s shirt just before half-time Tyneside’s big party had lost its way slightly.
Maybe it was the fact the entertainment had not turned up as promised.
United, so irrepressible on their own patch since the turn of the year, found it difficult to tune in after seeing promotion clinched without kicking a ball just before 7pm.
Chris Hughton’s men have not been in the business of backslapping this season, but their moratorium on self-congratulation was understandably lifted just before kick off.
One by one United’s players filed out of the dressing room with grins as wide as the River Tyne as Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity’ – the song the squad has adopted as its promotion anthem – rebounded around a bouncing St James’ Park. With the job done, United struggled to raise themselves for what had effectively become a dead rubber.
However, Hughton’s revolution has been rooted in good old-fashioned professionalism and hard-work, and they kept plugging away until Morgan’s mistake provided them with an opportunity snatched gratefully by their deserving striker Peter Lovenkrands.
Relief gave way to rapture as the Dane coolly slotted home the penalty, and suddenly the party which had been billed before the game was ready to begin. We should have expected nothing else. Sure enough, a glorious second arrived courtesy of Kevin Nolan’s acrobatic right boot and United could revel in their rediscovered Premier League status.
How this bumper crowd enjoyed it. Doling out praise liberally, they acclaimed their quiet, unassuming manager with two lusty chants as the game wound towards its satisfying conclusion.
Hughton, a dignified and ego-free coach who neither needs nor craves the limelight, still looks a bit uneasy when his name is chanted, but at least he is learning to embrace the acclaim.
He gave the stadium the wave it craved after the final whistle before switching his attention straight back to matters at hand. We should have expected nothing else – he has a title to lead United to, and an unbeaten home record to protect.
It was appropriate St James’ Park rather than one of the Championship’s more far-flung venues played host to the promotion homecoming.
A support torn asunder by the trauma of relegation realised what really mattered in celebrating the life of one of the region’s greatest sons, Sir Bobby Robson, and that sense of unity and purpose has been nourished by the efforts of their team over a gruelling Championship campaign.
Whether it was defiance, a sense of loyalty or players who seem to care that have inspired them, there is no question Newcastle’s fans have been a tremendous force for good this season. Amid talk of boycotts, discontent and deep-seated disenchantment, they continued to turn out in numbers and that created a sense of momentum that carried United to the promotion they deservedly clinched last night.
It is a bond that must be maintained in the Premier League next season, when there will inevitably be difficult days at St James’ Park. There was a bit of a dress-rehearsal last night when the Blades nudged themselves in front of a lacklustre United on 22 minutes. United have not made a habit of giving away easy goals but Richard Cresswell’s header was just that, the striker rising above a static Fabricio Coloccini to burst Newcastle’s bubble.
As United continued to toil unproductively, there were a few groans but most were drowned out by the encouragement that has underscored this uplifting season.
The team responded, rebounding from their disappointing start to record an astonishing 17th home win of the season.
Hughton knows positivity will be a potent weapon in the Premier League.
It began with the Brisbane Road battering - key points on the road to promotion
JULY 25 – Leyton Orient 6, Newcastle 1
IT may seem perverse to choose a defeat, and a pre-season one at that, but the team spirit which has served the Magpies so well this season was forged at Brisbane Road.
After a good start to the pre-season, the humiliation by League One opposition prompted an instant clear-the-air post-mortem between the players. Those not completely committed to the cause were quickly sold, and the survivors formed a siege mentality which has served them well throughout the campaign.
AUGUST 8 – West Bromwich Albion 1, Newcastle United 1
LIVE on television away to another relegated side on the opening day of the season, all eyes were on the disjointed, managerless Magpies after a summer of turmoil. West Brom’s opening goal, created when Shola Ameobi missed the ball and instead kicked Steve Harper’s head, leaving the goalkeeper concussed, did not bode well. However, Newcastle fought back in the second half to claim a point and deliver a message to their many doubters.
SEPTEMBER 26 – Ipswich Town 0, Newcastle United 4
BACK-TO-BACK away defeats at Blackpool and Peterborough United raised the question of whether Newcastle were flat-track bullies, imperious at home but flaky away. On an emotional evening as both clubs celebrated the life of Sir Bobby Robson, United’s answer was emphatic, Kevin Nolan hitting a hat-trick to set the tone for his and Newcastle’s seasons.
NOVEMBER 2 – Sheffield United 0, Newcastle United 1
THE big wins might be the most fun, but it is on nights like this cold Monday in South Yorkshire when champions emerge. Ryan Taylor’s deflected goal and an outstanding performance from Harper saw Newcastle regain their place at the top of the table in the face of an onslaught from the always physical Blades.
JANUARY 2-23 – FA Cup run
WITH more than enough on their plate in the league, Newcastle’s Cup run was mercifully short, but it kick-started Peter Løvenkrands and Andy Carroll into the goalscoring form which powered their team over the line. Løvenkrands’ hat-trick against Plymouth Argyle came against the backdrop of his father’s death, while Carroll’s double at West Brom showed he had come to terms with his arrest for alleged assault in December.
JANUARY – Transfer window
THE question in every transfer window Mike Ashley presides over is will the reclusive owner back his manager with cash? In January the emphatic answer was six signings. Chris Hughton showed his toughness by refusing to automatically snap up the loanees who had served him well. Danny Simpson was made to sweat, Zurab Khizanishvili sent back to Blackburn and United had turned their back on Marlon Harewood before injury settled matters. The new men lifted United’s home form from functional to thrilling, the team scoring 18 goals in their next four games.