Ahead of a Championship campaign that promises to be more competitive than ever, Newcastle United stalwart Steven Taylor says he's raring to go.
With the North East giants likely to be a prize scalp for the rest of the division and in the midst of a selling spree that threatens to leave them short going into the new season, Taylor concedes he has his concerns.
Last season's relegation was played out against a backdrop of boardroom battles and an unrest which still simmers going into the new campaign.
Speaking at the launch of EA SPORTS FIFA 10, Taylor was in a candid and talkative mood as he spoke to skysports.com's Alex Dunn about what's been happening on Tyneside.
From an outsiders' perspective looking in it's difficult to perceive Newcastle as being anything but a club in crisis. What would you say the overall mood is like at St James' Park?
I think the main thing is stability and the club hasn't had that since the Bobby Robson era really. As a group of players, a small group of players, we've had to stick together. We know no-one upstairs is going to help us, that's for sure, so we've got to help ourselves. We've had to do it our way and overall, I think we've had a decent pre-season. We had one little blip, which was well documented, and now we're ready for the first game against West Brom.
Given the drama that invariably attaches itself to the club, do you think the players have been brought closer together via a siege mentality?
I think relegation brought us much closer together. Now we know we have to stick together. Last season, certainly at the start, you'd come into the dressing room and around the training ground and frankly, it was dead. Now you come in and it's buzzing. You've got the younger lads mixing in with the experienced players. The older heads are helping out the young lads and it shows that everybody cares. The players we've got left at this football club want to be here. They want to play for Newcastle United. We maybe didn't have that last year. It's brought us much closer and we've had more bonding sessions. It has helped, we didn't have enough of that kind of thing last year.
Do you think players not wanting to be at the club was a genuine problem last year?
I think if people aren't happy what's the point in them being here? We're trying to create a team and if you don't want to part of that suit yourself and go and train separately. And, in the past, players have done that. Now they're gone. We've got a group of hungry, united players now and they're all dying for Saturday. The only thing is we're playing later on Saturday so the wait is even longer. I think we're going to be right at it and raring to go from the traps.
Yesterday was a strange one. Joe Kinnear said he'd been offered a two-year deal, the club remained silent, and our sources told us otherwise. How frustrating is it for the players being in the dark?
As players we feel like the fans do - frustrated. We don't know ourselves what's happening. Whether we're being sold, whether other teams have put in a bid, we just don't know. Genuinely, we get told absolutely nothing. All we can do is get on with our jobs, train hard and play hard. We've got to look after ourselves and as part of a team. That's all we can do.
How did you get on with Kinnear personally?
The best things about him were his team talks, very inspirational. There was a lot of swearing going on but if you looked around at the lads they were always laughing afterwards. But he made it more enjoyable. He certainly had a bit about him. Old school, definitely old school. He didn't care about any other team, any other players. He made us feel great as players individually, and as a team.
Do you think, as Kinnear has suggested, Newcastle would have stayed up had he not experienced his health problems?
You can never say that. If we'd have got one more point we'd have stayed up. I think Alan Shearer was so close to doing that. He had to come and help us when it wasn't a good time at St James'. I think it's difficult to say what might have been, you can do that all day...
Talking of Shearer, in the past you've been a strong advocate of your former boss. Would a Shearer return to St James' be your ideal scenario?
It would be great to see Alan Shearer come back as Newcastle manager. He knows what the fans think, what the players think and what the club needs. What he was asking for, and that stuff got in the papers, just give him it. He knows what this club needs to get back up to the top flight. He knows what this club needs, he wants to rebuild and he wants to it his way. There's not too many bigger characters, he's been there, done it. I don't know why it hasn't been sorted. Only the chairman knows.
Chris Hughton has had to take the baton on yet again in a caretaker capacity. How do you think he's done in what are difficult circumstances?
It's unbelievable how well Chris and Colin (Calderwood) have done. They've been absolutely fantastic along with Paul Barron. The three of them together have been amazing and I don't know how really - they don't get told anything either. To be keeping the lads fit all summer, upbeat, it's some job. We've had a hard but enjoyable pre-season. There's been a few laughs along the way and they know how to put a smile on the lads' faces. The training sessions are enjoyable again.
What would you like Mike Ashley to do to get the club on an even keel again? Do you think now it's time for him to cut his losses, find a buyer and move on?
If he doesn't want to be here, he doesn't want to be here. For us, we need a manager. We need stability. That's all we ask for as players - let's get things sorted. We just have to stick together I guess, as I said before the dressing room is so tight now. We're looking after each other.
You've lost so many players already over the summer, do you think they'll be more departures?
You never know with the chairman. If an offer comes in, and it's a good offer, if you're a chairman you're going to listen. They'll probably sell, going off what's happened so far, but at the same time we need players to come in.
We've got to bring in players, we've got a very small squad to start with. As I said last year, we were very small in numbers for a Premier League side. We're even smaller this season. It's not right, but we've just got to get on with it. There's no point arguing - the team that gets picked for Saturday will have to go out there and put in a performance and get the result that we need.
What about your own future - last season you said 'If we stay up or go down I'm staying'. Is that a statement you stand by?
I think you've got to take up that mentality. As a group of players we've said we're here to stay. I've got two-years left on my contract and if a club comes in for me then it's a different scenario. You never what the future holds. As players you say 'I want to stay' but sometimes people get sold. You've just got to get on with it. I give 100 per cent every game I play regardless of what's going on. It's as simple as that.
As a local boy I imagine relegation pained you more than anyone. Has it given you an even greater incentive to get promotion at the first time of asking?
It's massive, you want to prove a point. Seeing Newcastle out of the Premier League for me, it isn't right. We're there for a reason, because we didn't perform last season. The league table doesn't lie. We've got to prove ourselves and hopefully get back to the top flight sooner rather than later.
After all the talk it must a relief to get back on the pitch?
Yeah massively. You have that stint of four or five weeks off and you do miss it. It's nice to have some time away to let your hair down and relax. But it's been difficult this summer, constantly being reminded of relegation. It's not been a nice time.
We've spoken about Newcastle losing a lot of players, but you must still be confident with the quality that remains?
We've still got the quality in the squad, there's no doubting that. If not easy with reduced numbers but it's brought us tighter together. We've just got to rely on not getting too many injuries that's all. I think we've got some great players here, people who actually want to be at the football club. That's the best thing about it, let's not forget there are still some top class players here. Having that kind of experience, players who have won stuff, has got to be a good thing. I think it should be good enough for us.
Which clubs do you think will be at the business end of the table, challenging for promotion?
I think it's too tight to say. It's definitely one of the hardest leagues to get out of. I looked at the fixtures and there wasn't a single game where I was thinking 'yeah, I fancy getting three points there'. The grounds you go to, the smaller ones especially, it's so difficult to get anything. We can't be carrying any passengers. If any of our boys think they've got an easy ride, they've another thing coming. We got took by surprise, but I think it was a one-off at Leyton Orient. It was a big kick up the backside for everyone. Since that game, and I look at it as a good thing, everyone knows now how difficult it's going to be. This is how it's going to be in the Championship.
It's fair to say Newcastle are going to be the club to beat this season, a prize scalp for the rest of the division. Are you prepared for that?
Everyone has now real realised it's not going to be all nice, pretty-pretty football. Everyone is going to think 'Newcastle United - they're a soft touch, let's get into them'. If they can keep the crowd quiet for an hour they'll be thinking 'we can get a result here'. But we know what to expect, we're ready for that and we need to make it a fortress at St James'.
It's us against the world and we know that. As soon as we lose a game everyone will be after us. They'll try and nail us every single game. When we win a game it'll be 'Oh, Newcastle have won' - when we lose we won't get too much credit. But we realise that and it's part and parcel of being a professional footballer for a club like Newcastle. If you don't like it, go and collect stamps or do another job - because you're in the wrong game.
With Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins all having departed the obvious question is who's going to score your goals? Are you confident you've enough firepower?
I think we've scored a couple in pre-season. We've got Shola, Andy Carroll, Xisco and also Kevin Nolan has played up there. There are talented young lads coming through too, so we do believe we'll get goals. There's enough creativity in the side, both flanks are flying so I'm confident we'll have enough to get the right results.
It's been a sad week for Newcastle as a football club and as a city with the passing of Sir Bobby Robson. What did he mean to you as someone who knew him well?
He gave me my debut against Real Mallorca. I was a 16-year-old leaving school and I was in the Academy at the time. He put me straight in the reserves and to train with the first team every day was unbelievably nerve wracking. But it gave me so much confidence, when things weren't going right he'd put his arm around you and make you feel ten feet tall. He had that special quality about him. He knew how to treat his players.
He had so much respect from everybody, even players like Laurent Robert and Craig Bellamy. He knew how to control them and for someone to do that, I'm telling you, took some doing. Since then there hasn't been that stability in recent years and for Sir Bobby to give me that chance to play in the first team, to bring me from school, I had so much respect for him. I was absolutely devastated. It was sad to see him at the England versus Germany game but he'd been through a lot and I think he's in the best place now.
Steven Taylor will appear in EA SPORTS FIFA 10, out on all formats from Friday 2nd October. For further information, please visit www.easports.co.uk/fifa
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