Alan Pardew was asked if he could give his Newcastle players assurances about his own future yesterday -- that he would not be tempted to take the England position when Fabio Capello leaves at the end of the European Championships. He thought it was a joke.
It took a repeated assertion of where his lot is right now, 13 months after he walked into what was supposed to be a bear pit, to get any sort of a response.
"My future is very much here," he said. "I'm absolutely loving it. I haven't considered any other issue outside this football club and I won't. It's important for me that the players know I will be here trying to take this club forward."
Of more pressing concern on Tyneside is that those key players are alongside their manager when the transfer window closes at the end of this month.
Last January was, by Pardew's own admission, his most difficult period at the club. By the time the window shut, Andy Carroll, a player he repeatedly said he wanted to stay, had gone. It took a week for Pardew and the club to clear their heads and deal with the blow.
"When Andy left it was as disappointing a week as I have felt here," the manager admitted recently.
It is why there is a huge reluctance to avoid talking about the new spine that has taken Newcastle to within four points of a Champions League position.
Tim Krul has had a revelatory first full season as first-choice goalkeeper. Fabricio Coloccini continues to emerge as a centre-half of resolve and a captain who leads by example.
Cheick Tiote protects his back four like few in the Premier League and Yohan Cabaye's stunning free-kick against Manchester United on Wednesday was further proof that Newcastle picked up a bargain when they paid Lille £5m for his services last summer.
And then there is Demba Ba, the centre-forward who has scored 15 goals in his last 16 games following his transfer from West Ham. These are key figures who are catching the eye, and Pardew appreciates their role in the club's resurgence.
This is a month, though, having learned from bitter experience, in which he will say little about their qualities. "I'm trying to keep them," he vowed when asked to expand upon their strengths.
Moulding the dressing-room, and indeed the training ground, to his wishes has been a lengthy procedure that has involved high-profile departures. It has not been easy.
That said, Newcastle have stood tall against the top six this season (with the possible exception of Liverpool last week) and Wednesday's result was no accident. The technical aspects inside this complicated club are good and there is a growing confidence amongst the players and staff. Newcastle are proving the season's surprise package.
"I see a lot of good things on the pitch which I like to see," said Pardew. "I think we can change tactics, we have different strengths to the squad. I couldn't ask for any more from the players. They have been absolutely brilliant."
Now he must steel himself for the fight to hold on to some of them. Tiote in particular has been the focus of repeated speculation: his contract length is not a problem (he has signed a new six-and-a-half year deal) but his powerful performances naturally attract interest.
He will not play again for Newcastle this month, having flown off to the African Cup of Nations, but there is a growing sense of optimism inside St James' Park that he will return when the competition finishes. Perhaps significantly, Tiote is happy and settled.
Similarly for Krul and Cabaye, the timing looks all wrong for a move. Krul has waited patiently for his opportunity and Cabaye has truly bought into the team spirit that Pardew has engendered.
Any move for Ba would surely be rebuffed, and then there is Coloccini, who has 18 months left on his existing deal, with talks ongoing. If they prove successful, the message it sends out may be as important as the contract itself. (© Independent News Service)