Alan Pardew was asked if he could give his Newcastle players assurances about his own future yesterday – that he would not be tempted to take the England position when Fabio Capello leaves at the end of the European Championship. He thought it was a joke.
It took a repeated assertion of where his lot is right now, 13 months after he walked into what was supposed to be a bear pit, to get any sort of a response. "My future is very much here," he said. "I'm absolutely loving it at the moment. I haven't considered any other issue outside this football club and I won't. It's important for me that the players know I will be here trying to take this club forward."
Of more pressing concern on Tyneside is that those key players are alongside their manager when the transfer window closes at the end of this month.
Last January was, by Pardew's own admission, his most difficult period at the club. By the time the window shut, Andy Carroll, a player he repeatedly said he wanted to stay, had gone. It took a week for Pardew and the club to clear their heads and deal with the blow. "When Andy left it was as disappointing a week as I have felt here," the manager admitted recently.
It is why there is a huge reluctance to avoid talking about the new spine that has taken Newcastle to within four points of a Champions League position. Tim Krul has had a revelatory first full season as first-choice goalkeeper. Fabricio Coloccini continues to emerge as a centre-half of resolve and a captain who leads by example. Cheick Tioté protects his back four like few in the Premier League and Yohan Cabaye's stunning free-kick against Manchester United on Wednesday was further proof that Newcastle picked up a bargain when they paid Lille £5m for his services last summer.
And then there is Demba Ba, the centre-forward who has scored 15 goals in his last 16 games following his transfer from West Ham. These are key figures who are catching the eye and Pardew knows well their role in the club's resurgence. This is a month, though, having learned from bitter experience, in which he will say little about their qualities. "I'm trying to keep them," he vowed when asked to expand upon their strengths.
Moulding the dressing room, and indeed the training ground, to his wishes has been a lengthy procedure that has involved high-profile departures. It has not been easy and there was genuine delight when Pardew faced the media after defeating Manchester United on Wednesday night. "It was a great victory for us to beat the champions and we deserved it," he said. "You need bravery and we had some outstanding individual performances. We have had an outstanding season but this is the first time we have really turned over one of the top teams."
That said, Newcastle have stood tall against the top six this season (with the possible exception of Liverpool last week) and Wednesday's result was no accident. The technical aspects inside this complicated football club are good, there is a growing confidence amongst the players and staff, and when his big names play Newcastle are proving the season's surprise package.
"I see a lot of good things on the pitch which I like to see," he said. "I think we can change tactics, we have different strengths to the squad which give us that armoury and we haven't approached every game with the same gameplan.
"We can tweak our system, and you need good players to do that. You need to have a training ground with an environment where you can do it, too. If you have disruptive influences or you don't have a focus, then you can't do it. I have been in that situation at certain clubs. I couldn't ask for any more from the players. They have been absolutely brilliant. They deserve the credit."
Now he must steel himself for the fight to hold on to some of them. Tioté in particular has been the focus of repeated speculation: his contract length is not a problem (he has signed a new six-and-a-half year deal) but his powerful performances naturally attract interest. He will not play again for Newcastle this month, having flown off to the African Cup of Nations, but there is a growing sense of optimism inside St James' Park that he will return when the competition finishes. Perhaps significantly, Tioté is happy and settled.
Similarly for Krul and Cabaye, the timing looks all wrong for a move. Krul has waited patiently for his opportunity and Cabaye believes in the kind of team spirit that Pardew has engendered so much that he likens his former Lille team-mates to a family. "In 20 or 30 years' time we will meet up and they will still be my brothers," he said.
Any move for Ba would surely be rebuffed and then there is Coloccini, who has 18 months left on his existing deal, with talks ongoing. If they prove successful, the message it sends out may be as important as the contract itself.
£85m of Toon talent
Cheick Tioté Defensive midfielder. The Ivorian shows the strength and desire to dominate games. Estimated market value: £25m
Tim Krul A keeper with a presence. Has made some key saves this season and is aiming to make himself Netherlands No 1. EMV: £10m
Fabricio Coloccini A favourite with fans. Has shown true spirit to come through the trauma of relegation so well but his contract is running down. EMV: £10m
Demba Ba Has 15 goals in his last 16 games and his all-round game makes him an obvious target. EMV: £25m
Yohan Cabaye Central midfielder who can do it all: score, create and work. EMV: £15mReuse content