Harper lays relegation pain to rest

'To bounce straight back is fantastic,' says Newcastle goalkeeper after promotion

Steve Harper finally exorcised the ghosts of relegation as Newcastle bounced back into the Premier League at the first attempt on Monday.

The 35-year-old goalkeeper, the only survivor of Kevin Keegan's first reign as manager at St James' Park, cut a forlorn figure at Villa Park on 24 May last year when a 1-0 defeat confirmed the unthinkable for the Magpies.

But a little more than nine months on, Harper and his team-mates are back having secured promotion and the estimated £60m jackpot it will bring. They were already up before Monday night's game against Sheffield United but celebrated their achievement in style with a 2-1 success.

Harper said: "It's fantastic. We will have a good summer now. The memories of last May are still very vivid from Villa Park.

"But to bounce back at the first opportunity is fantastic, and if we can go on and win the league, it will have been a cracking season."

Owner Mike Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias will sit down during the coming weeks and decide how best to go about the process of establishing the club back in the top flight.

That is a mission which will be carried out on a budget, and the wild ambition and free spending which accompanied their last promotion in 1993 will be tempered by a sense of realism this time around.

An instant return to the big time may have been the very minimum requirement for a club which played in the second group stage of the Champions League just seven years ago, but it is an achievement nonetheless after a summer of uncertainty which left many onlookers predicting anything but a successful campaign.

Much of the credit for the fightback must go to manager Chris Hughton, who started the campaign as caretaker for the third time, but ended it having proven his own credentials.

Harper said: "He deserves all the plaudits for what he has achieved. To have united this club – not just the dressing room, but this club – and bounce back at the first opportunity, if that doesn't entitle you to a crack at management in the Premier League, then I don't know what does. He and [coaches] Colin Calderwood and Paul Barron deserve a lot of plaudits, and I am sure they will get them."

Harper, along with fellow senior professionals Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith and Nicky Butt, were pivotal in the formation of that dressing-room bond as big names jumped ship in the wake of relegation, and it was perhaps fitting that it was Nolan's 15th goal of the season which ensured the celebrations on Tyneside went with a swing.

Sheffield United initially refused to stick to the script and Richard Cresswell headed them into a 22nd-minute lead.

But Peter Lovenkrands' 45th-minute penalty set the scene for Nolan to win it 17 minutes from time.

Asked about the contrasting emotions between Villa Park in May and St James' last night, Nolan said: "It seems a million, million years away.

"But what we have done as a club and what we have done as a squad and as a staff and as a fan base, what we have done together has been absolutely brilliant.

"But we have still got a Championship to play for and although it's a two-horse race now, it's going to be a test and we are looking forward to that."

It was an emotional night too for Lovenkrands, who like Nolan, took his tally for the season to 15 goals. The Dane, whose father Bent died in January after a long illness, said: "It means a lot.

"What I have been through, it's been hard, but it makes it all worth it when you experience something like that."

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