Newcastle: ready for the big time again?

Hughton's side could win promotion this weekend after a season of blood and sweat but little scandal. Tim Rich reports on the fightback of a team that seemed destined to 'do a Leeds'

Easter is a time for rebirth and the resurrection of Newcastle United will be confirmed either at Peterborough today or – more likely and more appropriately – on Monday in the surrounds of their own great cathedral on the Tyne.

To those who thought that a club wallowing in debt and self-pity would make the downfall of Leeds United seem like a minor stumble, this campaign has been an eloquent and strangely understated riposte.

What has been so remarkable about the revival of Newcastle has been the utter lack of fuss at a club where the captain, Kevin Nolan, compared being a player to being on the set of EastEnders. The alleged training ground fight between Andy Carroll and Steven Taylor that left the latter with a fractured jaw might in another season have been seen as an example of an institution hopelessly at odds with itself; just as the on-field scrap between Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer five years ago was held up as the symbol of a dressing room spiralling out of control.

Instead, Newcastle simply moved on and beat Nottingham Forest, the team most likely to deny them promotion. They will go up earlier in the season than the side Kevin Keegan drove to the Premier League in 1993 or the one that revolved around the talents of Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley that he captained to promotion in 1984.

For this, the modest, unassuming, coffee-drinking figure of Chris Hughton must take enormous credit. When Newcastle were relegated at Aston Villa last May after a performance devoid of fight or belief, under Alan Shearer, they faced a banner asking: "Who's Your Next Messiah? Ant and Dec?"

In the end, they were salvaged by one of the least messianic or charismatic figures ever to take the helm on Tyneside. And this was precisely what they required. If Newcastle gather at St James' Park on Easter Monday to take on Sheffield United having won promotion, Hughton is as unlikely to write in his programme notes that his next goal is to take the Premier League title from Manchester United – something Keegan did in 1993 – as he is to grab a microphone and start serenading the Milburn Stand.

"The reason why it is this way is obvious," Nolan reflected. "Chris did not have a job at the start of the season. Chris, Colin [Calderwood, his assistant], the coaching staff, the medical staff who came away with us on our pre-season tour, did not know they would still be in a job the next day. Every morning when they woke up, they did not know whether they would be sacked and a new manager brought in.

"The players knew we had to join forces and build something that would work, so that if Chris did get the job there would be a structure in place. We had to manage the situation between us."

Pre-season was appalling. In the week of relegation, Shearer and the club's owner, Mike Ashley, had met to discuss Newcastle's response. Shearer thought the meeting went well but, as Ashley flew off, he was never to see or speak to his former employer again.

The club had made a third of its non-playing staff redundant, sometimes in the casual, offhand manner that seems to be the norm with these sackings. For every pound it earned, 75p went in wages. The club itself was up for sale and had released a new away kit in yellow and orange stripes that bore more than a passing resemblance to a deck-chair. In the days of Keegan such kit launches would be accompanied by queues snaking around the club store on Eldon Square. There were less than half-a-dozen waiting for this one.

It was in this strip that Newcastle went to Leyton Orient in July for a friendly and lost 6-1, a humbling as deep as they had endured anywhere. Days later Sir Bobby Robson, who had managed the club into the Champions League and remained its spiritual mentor, died. His memorial service at Durham Cathedral was relayed to the crowds at St James'. It was a turning point of sorts.

In Nolan's view, the debacle at Brisbane Road led to a closing of ranks, a realisation that enough was enough. "The media frenzy afterwards was ridiculous and we said we had to get away from all that," he said. "Getting beaten 6-1 was a shambles but it brought a few things to light for the lads. All the reports that we were going to do a Leeds, it sort of spurred us on. It showed who wanted to be here and who didn't. But we talked in the dressing room afterwards – it had to be done there and then."

And now, nine months later, at London Road, Peterborough, at a ground almost as unassuming as Orient's, that resolve has reached journey's end.

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