Success proves class will always prevail
A sold-out St James' Park will celebrate in style this afternoon as Newcastle United's players lift the Championship trophy. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson identifies ten reasons why the Magpies have finished at the top of the table. 1. Retention of key players last summer WHEN Newcastle were relegated on the final day of last season, there was a fear that a financial meltdown could result in the sale of up to a dozen big-name players. Some did leave, most notably Michael Owen and Mark Viduka, who were out of contract, and Obafemi Martins, Habib Beye, Damien Duff and Sebastien Bassong, who were sold for a combined fee of around £25m, but the anticipated firesale failed to materialise. The likes of Fabricio Coloccini, Jose Enrique, Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan remained to form the core of an experienced group of senior players who performed crucial roles throughout the campaign. Retaining them was a gamble, as Newcastle's wage bill is the highest ever operated by a Championship club. But it was a gamble that worked. 2. Timely squad strengthening in January WHILE Newcastle started the season with the most talented squad in the Championship, injuries had begun to take their toll when the transfer window re-opened at the start of January. Chris Hughton recommended that a handful of players were signed to assist in the promotion push and, to his credit, Mike Ashley came up with around £5m to fund the acquisitions. Mike Williamson arrived to bolster the defence a crucial move given Steven Taylor's subsequent injury and Danny Simpson's loan move from Manchester United became a permanent switch. Wayne Routledge has also had a considerable impact since joining in January, and the timely injection of new blood halfway through the season was a major factor in Newcastle's success. 3. Existence of a strong team spirit WE wanted to show our supporters that we're Newcastle United, said Kevin Nolan, when asked to describe the bond that has driven this season's title triumph. Together, on and off the pitch. We've got a lot of young lads in our team and people are always going to make mistakes, but if somebody's not doing something right, we tell them. We keep it in-house. This club hasn't had that sort of philosophy for a long time. In many ways, the starting point for Newcastle's turnaround came in the dressing room at Brisbane Road, in the immediate aftermath of July's 6-1 friendly defeat to Leyton Orient. Harsh words were exchanged, and anyone wanting to leave the club was asked to raise their hand. From that point onwards, a new Newcastle was born. 4. Strong back four and goalkeeper FOR the best part of a decade, it's been hard to make a case for Newcastle's defence. Not any more. This season's tally of 21 clean sheets is already a club record and goes a long way to explaining why the Magpies have conceded five less goals than any other team in the division. Steve Harper has been rock solid between the sticks, chipping in with saves at crucial moments, while Coloccini has been comfortably the best centre-half in the division. Throw in the much-improved Enrique and the dependable Simpson, and you have the basis of a defensive unit that should be capable of surviving in the Premier League next season. 5. Clinical attackers who have scored all season THE Championship is full of sides who can pass the ball effectively in midfield. Get into the final third though, and they invariably struggle. Newcastle's greatest strength has been their ability to put the ball in the back of the net, and they boast three strikers who would walk into any other side in the division. Andy Carroll, Peter Lovenkrands and Shola Ameobi have spent the season competing for the role of leading striker, and all three have proved far too good for Championship defences to handle. They have all been overshadowed by a midfielder though, with Nolan's 17 goals making him Newcastle's Player of the Season by a considerable distance. 6. A deeper squad than any other team in the division NEWCASTLE'S first-choice XI is the best in the Championship, but the club's fringe players have also made a difference by successfully plugging the gaps that have inevitably arisen during the campaign. The likes of Nicky Butt, Ryan Taylor, Tamas Kadar and even Fabrice Pancrate have all made useful contributions along the way. Hughton has also used the loan market cleverly, with Marlon Harewood, Zurab Khizanishvili, Patrick van Aanholt and Fitz Hall all performing useful cameos at various stages of the season. Newcastle's depth of talent has been impressive, as underlined by the largely unheralded return of Joey Barton, a player who would be a superstar at any other Championship club. 7. Chris Hughton's emergence as a manager of substance AT the end of last season, you would have got long odds on Newcastle supporters ending the current campaign serenading the talents of a manager who had failed in two separate caretaker spells. Indeed, even when Hughton was formally appointed as permanent manager last October, there were major doubts about his ability to handle the pressures that would inevitably come his way. He has been a revelation though, quietly holding things together in the dressing room and slowly imposing his authority on a squad that contains a number of big names. We've had a players' committee and if Chris has something he wants to share with the lads, he'll come to us, said Nolan. But if Chris comes in and says No, that's not right, this is what we do', then that's it. It's finished, no matter what we say. Make no mistake, when Chris wants something, he gets it. 8. The St James' Park effect IF Newcastle avoid defeat against Ipswich this afternoon, they will have gone through an entire league season unbeaten at home for the first time in 103 years. The achievement reflects the quality of the Magpies squad, but also underlines just how hard it is for other Championship sides to play in front of 45,000 passionate supporters at a packed St James' Park. To put it bluntly, most teams simply aren't used to it, and it isn't hard to find examples of opponents who have frozen in front of the Gallowgate glare. Cardiff collapsed in the opening ten minutes, Barnsley were bewildered as they lost 6-1 and Scunthorpe's management chose to rest half of their first-choice XI. The fans have been our 12th player all season, said skipper Smith. 9. Some rare off-field stability WITH the club on the market, no permanent manager in place and a host of big-name players set to leave, last summer could hardly have been a more chaotic period for the Magpies. Ashley's failure to find a buyer was interpreted as a disaster nine months ago, but in hindsight it actually proved the best thing that could have happened. There have been setbacks along the way the Kevin Keegan tribunal ruling and St James' Park naming rights fiasco were especially embarrassing events but, on the whole, Ashley has kept things on an even keel. He will never be loved, but most Newcastle fans are willing to give grudging praise for his efforts and financial support this season. 10. The weakness of the rest of the league WHILE Newcastle deserve considerable credit for their success this season, it must be posited against the weaknesses inherent in the rest of the Championship. This is not a good division, and perhaps the true extent of the club's progress will not be evident until they have played a handful of matches back in the Premier League. The likes of Nottingham Forest, Cardiff, Leicester and Swansea, who are poised to contest the play-offs, are average sides at best, and it is hard to see how any could survive in the top-flight. You can only beat what is put in front of you of course, but Newcastle have undoubtedly benefited from the weaknesses of others.
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