Newcastle United captain Michael Owen's return from injury will provide the impetus to save the struggling Premier League club from relegation, according to caretaker manager Chris Hughton.
Owen, 29, has missed the last five matches after suffering an ankle ligament injury during Newcastle's defeat at Manchester City on January 28.
In the England striker's absence, Newcastle, whose manager Joe Kinnear is recovering from triple heart bypass surgery, have been unable to pull clear of the relegation zone and they travel to Hull on Saturday just one point above the bottom three. However, Owen is back for the KC Stadium clash this week and Hughton is confident the former Liverpool and Real Madrid star can play a crucial role in firing Newcastle to safety.
"At a time like now when we know we are going into the last phase of the season, you want as many of your big players around the squad as possible, and Michael is certainly one of those," Hughton said on Wednesday. "As our captain, Michael is arguably the biggest of the lot of them. His presence around the squad is always a plus but to actually have him available to play really is a boost for us going into the Hull game.
"For numerous teams between now and the end of the season, their ability to score goals will be crucial to where they end up. Michael isn't just one of the best strikers in the Premier League, he is one of the best strikers around anywhere. You have to look at his record. These have been tough times for Michael regarding injuries but the one thing that remains consistent is that, when he plays, he scores goals. That's testimony to the type of player he is."
Newcastle have won only one of the five games for which Owen has been out of action and taken just five points in the process. Hughton knows Owen's goals are Newcastle's best hope of scrambling enough points from their remaining 10 games to stay up, but he called on the rest of the squad to share the burden.
"Anyone would rather have Michael Owen in the squad than not in the squad," he said. "We want him, most definitely, because of what he brings to the team. But what will bring us the edge over our rivals is the team's performance on the day.
"For everything Michael is, he's one of just 11 players, he can't win games on his own. We have to perform well. If Michael is going to score goals, he needs someone to provide those goals for him. If we give him the ammunition, though, he is one of the best at putting them away."