Newcastle: No champagne packed for Peterborough

(Repeats feature first moved at 0002 GMT)

By John Mehaffey

NEWCASTLE, England, March 31 (Reuters) - Newcastle United fans are a stoic bunch, as their stalwart support for a soccer club bereft of a domestic trophy for 55 years would indicate.

To the supporters' delight, the north-east England side are poised for a quick return to the Premier League, a promotion which could be confirmed this weekend if they win at Peterborough and third-placed Nottingham Forest lose at Bristol City.

Manager Chris Hughton, though, made it clear he would not give any hostages to fortune when he said the champagne crates would not be packed for the trip to Peterborough after his team's 2-0 win over Forest on Monday.

Hughton's caution is understandable. Nothing in Newcastle's history over the last half-century gives any grounds for complacency.

One man's name comes up repeatedly in conversations on Tyneside with members of possibly the most loyal fan base in the country.

The term Messiah is at best overblown and at worst tasteless in connection with a sports team. It is still invariably associated with the name of Kevin Keegan, whose almost reckless devotion to the attacking game brought Newcastle within sight of the promised land in the 1995-6 season.

Keegan as a player in the 1980s had helped to take Newcastle back to the top tier. Now, as manager, he had performed the same feat and at the start of 1996, with typical bravado, he had pledged to win the Premier League and both domestic Cups.

SOAP OPERA

Both Cup dreams vanished in the January chill but by Jan. 20, Newcastle were a scarcely believable 12 points ahead of Liverpool at the head of the Premier League and playing glorious football.

The tale of their subsequent implosion was to become a weekly soap opera, with Keegan's finger-pointing outburst at Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson -- "I'd love it, if we beat them, love it!" -- now part of English folklore.

Ged Clarke records the local reaction in his 2005 book "Newcastle United. Fifty years of hurt."

"The 1995-6 season was the ultimate Newcastle United roller-coaster ride. Our only other near misses in the previous 40 years had been two Cup finals in which all the hopes and dreams of the faithful rested on 90 minutes of football, each time ending in a day of massive disappointment," he wrote.

"But this was different. This time we clearly were one of the best two teams in the country -- and for a long time the best...Of the 50 seasons that have passed since Newcastle United last lifted one of the major domestic prizes, this was the one that hurt the most."

Hughton is no Keegan and his approach all season has been to play down expectations. There is, also, a darker side to the club's success this season.

This month former England Under-21 captain Steven Taylor's jaw was broken in an altercation with team mate Andy Carroll.

ASSAULT CHARGES

Carroll, playing with black gloves covering both hands, played in the following league match against Doncaster, scoring the only goal of the match and his 16th of the season.

Newcastle have closed ranks, refusing to comment on the incident which comes at a bad time for Carroll who is due to appear in court next month on assault charges after an incident in a Newcastle nightclub.

Hughton has been criticised for continuing to select the striker, who started against Nottingham Forest before being substituted by Shola Ameobi. The Newcastle manager remains unapologetic.

"I don't really have to go into specifics," he told reporters. "For every team I pick, I pick what I feel is the best team to win a football match for me. Around that there are issues of fitness, form, individuals, players coming back. Those are the things that I take into account.

"My job is to manage this football club and this group of lads. Around that will always come decisions. I have to make decisions every week on whichever team I pick. Sometimes you get things right, sometimes you get things wrong and I will continue to make decisions I believe are right."

Carroll and Taylor are home-grown players and the club is likely to open contract talks with both at the end of the season despite the controversy. For now, though, Newcastle's goal remains the drive to return to the Premier League in the latest upswing of the Newcastle roller-coaster ride.

(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)