Nolan award highlights Newcastle turnaround
It was late July and the atmosphere inside the Newcastle dressing-room was funereal after their 6-1 pre-season thrashing at League One Leyton Orient.
Shell-shocked players stared at their boots, their thoughts hidden and unspoken but nearly all the same - how had that happened and what can we do about it?
Fast forward to Sunday evening and Newcastle midfielder Kevin Nolan was named the Championship Player of the Year at the Football League Awards.
As the 27-year-old reflected on the first major award to come his way since he scooped an Academy Scholar of the Year gong a decade ago, his thoughts drifted back to that balmy if disastrous afternoon at Brisbane Road.
"That result played a big part in our season," said Nolan. "We were hurting and a lot of stuff rose to the surface. After that you were either in or you were not."
Nolan insisted that he felt he had a debt to pay to the club's supporters after their relegation from the Premier League the previous season and I would challenge anyone to suggest he has not done that.
The amiable Scouser has scored 13 goals from midfield so far this campaign and created countless others as his team have opened up a four-point lead over West Brom and, significantly, a nine-point advantage over third place Nottingham Forest.
Kevin Nolan scoring at St James' Park against Preston in Feburary
If the first few months of his Newcastle career after his £4m transfer from Bolton in January 2009 were notable only for their mediocrity then he has been reborn to be, in my opinion, the best player in a largely average Championship. I said as much in a blog I wrote in mid-December and I have seen nothing to persuade me to change my mind.
What Nolan will not do is accept any suggestion that Newcastle are home and dry. He might not have been on Tyneside for all that long but he is savvy enough to know that nothing can be taken for granted at a club that has proved to be a rich source of mirth for its many detractors.
West Brom midfielder Graham Dorrans and Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Lee Camp were the other shortlisted candidates.
In the five-year history of the awards no goalkeeper has been named Player of the Year in either the Championship, League One or League Two.
And despite endorsing the choice of Nolan, I would nonetheless have been pleased to see the excellent and committed Camp scoop the top prize.
Peter Whittingham, Paul McKenna, Charlie Adam, George Boyd and Steve Harper were some of the other names that I considered when I thought about the award, although I am sure countless others are worthy of mention.
Strikers and attacking midfielders always seem to figure extensively and that was the case in League One as Leeds forward Jermaine Beckford saw off Southampton's prolific Rickie Lambert and Norwich's creative Wes Hoolahan for the top prize.
I often wonder if any judge can possess the knowledge and expertise to make an accurate and considered analysis when dealing with so many different clubs. The numbers of goals scored by a striker is easy to find out but the contribution made by a deep-sitting midfielder such as Forest's McKenna is a lot more difficult to assess.
The other fundamental problem is that the judging takes place in January. So much can change between then and the end of the season that it renders any judgment flawed. Than again, a ceremony such as the Football League Awards could not be held in the summer because all the key personnel would be taking a hard-earned holiday.
Beckford was not at the ceremony but manager Simon Grayson collected the award on his behalf and outlined his fervent hope that the striker will hit top form to help stuttering Leeds get over the line and seal an automatic promotion place that looked an absolute certainly a month or so ago.
It was on several different levels that I was pleased to see Rochdale's Craig Dawson take the League Two honour.
In part this is because he is a defender and thus in another position that is far too infrequently recognised with this type of honour but also because Rochdale are heading for their first promotion since The Beatles were still a going concern and deserve some time in the spotlight.
Then there is the fact that 19-year-old Dawson was playing for Radcliffe Borough last season and is therefore a cracking example of why young players should not give up on their dreams of playing professionally.
Youth development is something that I feel very strongly about and so it was a great honour to be a judge for the Apprentice of the Year awards.
Cardiff City defender Adam Matthews was the stand-out candidate in the Championship. If you don't know a lot about him now you will in the summer when he joins a top Premier League club (probably).
The League One award was won by Norwich's Tom Adeyemi. One can only look with envy at this young man's prospects - a talented footballer and superbly gifted academically, he is both likeable and personable.
Cheltenham's Kyle Haynes won the League Two award. I would suggest that he might need to do a little work on his interview technique, having answered three of host Mark Clemmit's questions with the solitary word 'Yes'.
But if Sunday evening's awards ceremony at Grosvenor House in London was about celebrating everything that is great about the Football League, then some of the real heroes are those who rarely grab the headlines.
Bradford's Zesh Rehman took the PFA Player in the Community award for the incredible amount of work he has done to take his club into their local area, while Brighton won the Football League Trust Best Community Project for their Making a Difference disability scheme.
Reading, Huddersfield and Shrewsbury won the Family Club of the Year in their respective divisions.
There are so many people at football clubs who work tirelessly to build and nurture links with the local community and ensure that supporters enjoy a safe and enjoyable matchday experience.
They are the lifeblood of a football club and are the type of people that ensure a club is so much more than the form of the first team. They so richly deserve their recognition.