Newcastle keen to make Aston Villa pay for taunts

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The Independent Football

How apt that Aston Villa should be the visitors as Newcastle United and their supporters welcome the return of Premier League football to St James' Park. After 15 months biting their lip, they can finally reply in person to those mocking banners unfurled at Villa Park.

"Sob on the Tyne". Yes, there were tears, but they have long since been shed and forgotten. A season as the Championship's flat-track bullies proved rather therapeutic. "Who's your next messiah, Ant or Dec?" Neither, actually, although their CVs have been kept on record, for future reference.

Damien Duff's own goal sealed Newcastle's demise in the sun-drenched West Midlands in May last year to provide a slapstick denouement to a miserable campaign where they had almost as many managers as victories, and regularly shot themselves in the foot.

Only three starters from that game are likely to figure from the outset for the hosts, whose 3-0 opening-game defeat at Manchester United proved a stark reminder that, in their absence, the Premier League has moved on apace.

It is difficult to draw too many conclusions from Old Trafford as to whether Newcastle have improved enough to achieve their stated aim of survival. After the first round of games, they were kept out of the bottom three by West Ham on alphabetical order. You were left with the distinct feeling that given a choice, Chris Hughton would have happily stopped the season then. "We'd take 17th," captain Kevin Nolan conceded. He added: "We must make sure we stay in the division and build from there."

Having been allowed to spend a little over £1m in the summer transfer market on three players, two of whom – Sol Campbell and Dan Gosling – are not fit to play today, there are serious fears among supporters that in his laudable attempts to keep the club's burgeoning debts in check, Mike Ashley has gone too far in the opposite direction.

There are concerns that the owner has effectively fitted a financial straight-jacket from which the manager will do well to extricate the club. With a little over a week of the current window remaining, it's unlikely that Ashley will allow a significant change of tack.

"We have a good squad and a good foundation to the team, and what the manager does in the transfer market isn't really any of our business," said Peter Lovenkrands, one of those survivors from Villa Park.

The Dane, the last Newcastle player to score in the Premier League at St James' Park in the 3-1 victory over Middlesbrough in May 2009, faces a fitness test on a groin problem before he can make his top-flight return. He added: "I'm happy with what we've got, it's up to the manager to fill any spaces. Nobody expected us to go to United and win so it's not put a downer on the spirit which was key last season."

Without significant addition to the squad, however, there remain question marks whether the much-vaunted team spirit will be enough to bridge the huge chasm which exists between the top two divisions.

Ignoring local boasts regarding the inclemency of the weather, August on Tyneside can be balmy, so if revenge comes this afternoon, it's unlikely to be a dish served cold. Not that retribution is uppermost in Hughton's mind. "There have certainly been no thoughts about that day from us," he said.

"I hadn't even thought about it until somebody asked. It's totally different now and that game won't be in the players' minds. The only thing we're focusing on is a good display."

Having had three spells as caretaker manager, Hughton is better placed than most to offer advice to Kevin Macdonald, whose two games unbeaten since the departure of Martin O'Neill have put him in the frame to be the long-term replacement. Hughton said: "I know exactly what Kevin's going through and he'll need no reminding how tough an environment it is. He's unbeaten in his first two games and they'll come at us in confident mood."

Macdonald will signal his intention or otherwise to run for the job next week. Newcastle have been waiting somewhat longer for their right of reply.