Kevin Nolan, reluctanly, left Newcastle United. But the club never left him.
And now, seven years after his departure, Nolan is drawing on his two and a half years at St James’s Park as he looks to take Notts County into League One.
That Nolan, a leader on and off the field during his playing career, is now in management won’t surprise anyone who watched him play.
And it “just felt right” to be back in black and white with the other Magpies, the world’s oldest club.
“A lot of people have always seen me as that leader character, and when I got this opportunity, I don’t think I could turn it down,” said Nolan, now 35.
“With it being black and white, it made it even better. It just felt right. Even the kit’s Puma. I had such fantastic times and memories (at Newcastle), it gives you that confidence. I love being a manager.
People judge you. It takes a proper player to play at St James’s Park and succeed, because you can’t kid the fans. You’ve got to adapt to them and what their culture is, or you sink. You’ll sink or swim.Kevin Nolan
“Sometimes it’s challenging, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“I played for three clubs which I hold dear in my heart. To have this opportunity to start building again is brilliant. I just hope that I’m still speaking to you in 15 or 20 years time.”
Notts County – who had been in relegation trouble last season when Nolan took over – take on Coventry City at Meadow Lane tomorrow night in the second leg of the League Two play-off semi-final. The tie is level at 1-1.
“No matter what, I’ll be proud of what we have done,” said Nolan. “We’re so far away from where this club has been over the past few years. Our goal difference has never been in plus for how many years. We conceded 70-odd goals a season for the last two or three seasons.
“Hopefully, we can continue to get better and do the right things. It’s a club which doesn’t deserve to be in the lower echelons of the divisions. It’s fantastic when it’s rocking.”
St James’s Park rocked Nolan’s two full seasons on Tyneside, though his first half season was rocky.
A painful relegation was followed by a joyous promotion. Captain Nolan – who scored 18 Championship goals – was the beating heart of Chris Hughton’s team and dressing room.
The following season he scored a memorable hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Sunderland. Newcastle finished a creditable 12th in the 2010-11 campaign.
The end at United, when it came, was “abrupt and ugly”.
Nolan was in Dubai on holiday with his family in the summer of 2011, though his children were spending more time with Steve Harper, his team-mate.
That was because Nolan was spending so much time on the phone trying to sort out a new deal at the club.
“That way it was, it was very abrupt and ugly,” said Nolan. “I’d been offered a deal, and then it was taken off the table. You could see the route Newcastle were going down, and the opportunity presented itself to play for another fantastic club (West Ham United).
“A lot of promises were made at Newcastle. Everyone who knows me and the way I am, the most important thing for me is honesty. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that in the end. In the end it was best for Newcastle and me.
“I’d been there two and a half years and been very influential in those two and a half years. I thought it was the right time.
“I sat there with my wife in a hotel in Dubai with Steve Harper and his wife with our kids. Harps was playing dad to my kids as well as his because I was on the phone that much trying to sort out and trying to get something sorted so I could stay there, but unfortunately it wasn’t there and they didn’t see it ever being like that. I knew my time was up.
“It was a sad time, but time to go and prove people wrong again. I don’t feel I was ever doubted by Newcastle fans, but people started going ‘oh, he won’t be able to do it again next year’. I’ve proven over my career that I could.”
Nolan had ankle surgery late in the 2010-11 season, and when he joined his team-mates for a lap of appreciation after the final game of the season, he didn’t know if he would still be at the club the following campaign.
As it turned out, his next appearance would be as a West Ham player. Typically, he scored.
“I’d got my ankle operated on, and that’s when I found out, basically, that they weren’t going to offer me the deal,” he said. “I was on crutches for two weeks and in a boot for four weeks, because it was the third op I’d had on my ankle.
“We decided to do it early so that I could return to training on July 1. Obviously, I had a great reception at the end of the season when you have the walk around.
“I dropped back to the Championship for a year and felt the love as soon as I walked back into St James’s Park that day with West Ham when I scored and we won 1-0. You feel at home. I felt everyone was just brilliant.
“I loved scoring, it felt weird. It was strange. Then you sort of get used to the fact that I’m a West Ham player and I’m giving everything for them. I had such a fantastic few seasons for them afterwards. St James’s Park will always have that memory of a home.
“I had it with Bolton when I at Newcastle. I’m sure I’ll have the same sort of feeling with West Ham. They were three fantastic clubs. I was able to give my all and people appreciated it.”
Nolan’s United career, with its ups, downs and everything inbetween, shaped him as a future manager.
At St James’s Park, in Nolan’s view, you “sink or swim”. There’s no inbetween.
“When you’re at Newcastle, it’s an intense environment,” said Nolan.
“I remember that day when we went down and going back Liverpool and speaking to my dad and stuff and wanting to prove that I could handle Newcastle.
“People judge you. It takes a proper player to play at St James’s Park and succeed, because you can’t kid the fans. You’ve got to adapt to them and what their culture is, or you sink. You’ll sink or swim.
“I don’t think there’s anyone there who’ll get away with it and sort of doggy paddle their way through Newcastle. You’ll either swim or you’ll sink. I’ve seen a lot of good players there sink. I just love the whole place, the feeling.
“It was what I wanted to bring here. When the fans are on board, all the people and staff and everything, you feel invincible. That’s why we had such a fantastic season in the Championship and the Premier League.
“We could’ve finished a lot higher, but there were things off the field disrupted that. That’s why I try and protect the players from anything that’s going off the field and just give them the clear vision of what their focus is is everything we do on the grass.
“Everything else will follow if you do it right. Everyone wants to be part of something that’s successful.”
Whatever happens in the play-offs, this season will have been a successful one for Notts County.
“The objectives were year one, to stay up, and year two to try and make sure we had a good solid season,” said Nolan. “Year three was to try and push for play-offs and get to a position to get out of the league. We had a plan, but we’re way ahead of schedule.
“Now we’ve got to enjoy it – that’s what I say to the lads. We’ve done so well all year round, and the expectation of fans is now totally different to even in November, never mind in July when we came back. That sort of changes everything.”
Nolan’s first managerial job had been at Leyton Orient. He joined in January 2016 and was relieved of his managerial duties in April with the team two points off the League Two play offs.
The club was relegated the following season.
“It made me have the hunger to go out and prove that I can do it and be successful,” said Nolan. “I thought I did really well as my starting out point and where it was. I thought we were in a great position – two points off the play-offs with five or six games to go – and I thought we were making good progress to have that final push and get in there.
“Unfortunately, I had an owner there who was one of a kind. I can’t really explain him. He was somebody who thought he knew football better than everybody in the world. He just didn’t. Ultimately, that’s why you find Orient where they are.
“It never put me off. I was more determined to get back in and find a club and go on a journey together.”