Friday 03 February 2012
When Newcastle kicked off life back in the Barclays Premier League with a 6-0 thumping of Aston Villa in August 2010, the good times seemed to have finally returned to Tyneside.
Promotion from the Championship at the first attempt had put the feelgood factor back into the Magpies, and with the likes of Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and young striker Andy Carroll in the side, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
Quickly, however, Newcastle's season began to unravel. Manager Chris Hughton was sacked in December, Andy Carroll was sold on deadline day in January 2011, and, after finishing the season 12th, club captain Nolan left for West Ham, Barton following him out of the exit door for QPR in August.
"It's incredible that we're fifth. We're safe already, too. Now let's see what we can do"
- Alan Pardew
But under Alan Pardew, who was the surprise choice to replace Hughton more than a year ago, Newcastle have regrouped and reinvested - and now they are reinvigorating the area of the north-east to whom the club means so much.
Clever summer signings Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba slotted seamlessly into the side, providing creativity and goals, while Dutch keeper Tim Krul has been a revelation between the posts since claiming the shirt for his own from rival custodian Steve Harper.
An 11-match unbeaten start to the Barclays Premier League season set the tone for a campaign that has continued to blossom, even in the absence of the prolific Ba, who has missed their last three top-flight fixtures due to his involvement with Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations.
When Ba - who has scored 15 League goals in only 19 matches - returns for the home contest against Aston Villa on Sunday, he will be accompanied by someone he is well acquainted with but who is not yet a familiar face on Tyneside - Senegalese forward Papiss Demba Cisse.
The 26-year-old joined Newcastle for £9m from German side Freiburg during the transfer window but has yet to play for the club.
It is little wonder that Pardew, who has led Newcastle to fifth - only three points behind Chelsea and a Champions League berth - is so upbeat going into the final 15 matches of the campaign.
"Papiss and Demba are back and we have done brilliantly while they have been away," said Pardew, who has also managed West Ham and Charlton Athletic in the Barclays Premier League. "When the guys went everyone thought it would be difficult for us.
"But we have had two big, big victories without them against QPR and again at Blackburn. Those results have been about resolve, resilience and grit. We can now attack the second half of the season, we find ourselves fifth.
"I will treat the number nine shirt with respect and hope to give the fans something to be proud of"
- Papiss Demba Cisse
"It is incredible really. We are safe as well. That's a big barrier that we have overcome. We shouldn't get away from that, to get that under our belt first is great, now with the games we have left we have to see what we can do."
And when Villa come to town for the first time since their drubbing at the beginning of last season, all eyes will be on how much mayhem the Senegalese strikers can cause in the remaining months of the campaign.
If Ba guarantees goals in a black-and-white shirt, Cisse would seem to offer something similar - after all, he managed 37 in only 65 matches for struggling Freiburg, and has 10 in 17 for his country too.
Cisse has the added honour of being handed Newcastle's famous number nine shirt - a jersey that has been worn by such greats as Hughie Gallacher, Jackie Milburn, Malcolm MacDonald and Alan Shearer over the years, but had been vacant for a year since Carroll's departure.
"I am aware of the huge importance of the number nine shirt, and when I spoke with the manager he made it very clear how important this shirt is," says Cisse.
"I will treat it with respect and I hope to do my very best in this shirt. I want to pay back the confidence the club have shown in me, and give the supporters something to be proud of."
If Cisse is true to his word, the good times may only have just begun at the Toon.