So Newcastle 4 Preston 1 – Oh, the relief.
Despite a couple of run outs remaining, this match had potential to be the climax of a season that has desperately needed to end for weeks now.
In contrast to the adventure of 09/10, this season has been a grinding sufferance of patchy performances, imbecilic officiating and steadfast efficiency interspersed with petty sniping about transfer resources and parachute payments, as Rafa’s United edged their way back to the Premier League. Tonight it could all end.
Victory over Preston would see it a mathematical certainty we’d end up over that pesky line. Any old win would do but after the shaky displays of recent weeks, it would be nice to go up with a bit of style.
An early goal would always have been key to this and fortunately for the nerves it was duly delivered. The recalled Mitrovic carved out a shooting opportunity that was deflected narrowly behind as United seized the early initiative. From the resulting corner Ritchie found Lascelles at the front post and his flick on was bundled over the line by a combination of Clark and Perez, the latter clearly getting the final touch.
The sound of the celebration that followed was proper old school, raise the roof atmosphere, the kind that sticks in the mind for years to come.
The set-up was there to put this to bed and reiterate the beating Preston took here in the league cup, but unfortunately the rest of the first half petered out into mediocrity, as the visitors were allowed back into the game.
First a defence splitting pass from Gallagher released Johnson only for the surprisingly recalled Elliot to come haring off his line to make an excellent block.
Moments later it was all square, as a Newcastle attack broke down and we fell victim once again to the counter attack that has cost us on so many occasions this year. It was a quality move by North End, spraying the ball around until Hugill directed it past Elliot for heightened levels of anxiety – but still helped along by some sleepy defending by Anita and Lascelles.
The crowd unrest started to show through a bit as United seemed rattled out of their stride. Luckily the visitors contrived to hand a timely gift that would set things very much on course.
Hayden put in a strong performance throughout in the defensive midfield role, typified by his powerful intervention when two Preston players got in a midfield muddle. A bulldozing run through the middle saw him pick out Mitrovic to his right, who in turn squared unselfishly for Atsu to restore the lead on the stroke of half time. The noise was exquisite and the relief palpable.
Every single person in the ground knew that Newcastle needed a third goal or everything was liable to go horribly, irretrievably wrong.
The far improved second half showing made everyone feel better but it wasn’t until the 65th minute, when finally the realisation set in that it was all going to be alright. The goalie could only parry Perez acrobatic effort from a corner, Hayden was on hand to tap in, only for Gallagher to dive and claw the ball away in an inexplicable act possibly fuelled by the knowledge he was allowed to cheat with his hands here years ago while playing for Blackburn.
The handball was so blatant that the red card/penalty combo was inevitable, and surely enough to put the game and the promotion to bed. It was like you could hear the stadium’s heartbeat in the seconds of silence as Ritchie took his run up, followed by the audible thump as he leathered it in as venomously as every other spot-kick he’s stepped up to this season.
Fortunately, no infringements were spotted and the whole ground breathed out, safe in the knowledge that even Newcastle United couldn’t cock this up now. Probably.
It took only two minutes before any lingered doubt was obliterated. Again, the surprising degree of corner success paid off as Shelvey’s wicked inswinger was misjudged horribly by the Preston defence, with the post saving Hugill from an embarrassing own goal and instead presenting the following-up Perez with another scruffy tap in.
Promotion secured with over twenty minutes to go.
I’m sure at this point Rafa kept in mind that the slim chance of taking the Championship title from Brighton remains alive, so some conservation may have been necessary for Cardiff as all three subs were used and the tempo was taken down to cruising pace. The cheers at the final whistle were more of a collective sigh at two years of frustration hopefully evaporating.
Of course, the game has begun already. One year ago, we were told, Rafa wouldn’t stay, then that he couldn’t adapt to Championship level. Since then we have been told we would
fail in the second tier, or that we have been operating at a grossly unfair advantage (now evolved into us being a disgrace for only coming second from the masses of internet bores out there).
The story now has sprung from a non-committal quote of Rafa’s in a post-match interview, where he indicated we’d have to see how things panned out as regards the future.
This is a clear reference to the fact that large transfer funds are required to turn this promotion-winning team into a Premier League contender, and if Mike Ashley decides to play silly buggers, Rafa will be reconsidering his position in a doomed project.
This is an understandable stance in response to a hideous fear we all have. The snipers, naysayers and dirty relegatees are all passing this off as no money, Rafa on his way blah blah zzzzz. As it is, we are in the tense position of seeing how things pan out once business gets under way, with the truth likely to slowly emerge either way as the signings come through the door (or don’t).
If Rafa is clearly getting his way and resculpts an exciting and ambitious side, the doom-mongers will likely bring forward another definite reason they are confidently assured of why things will implode at NUFC. Being NUFC, that implosion will doubtless come at some point.
That’s Newcastle United and that’s life. There are struggles, there are lows, but there are also highs. It’s at moments like this that you just need to enjoy where you are in the here and now.
When I headed through the buzzing throng of the crowd to throw back a few celebratory beers in the town, it was a moment of happiness that no armchair, Twitter-spewing troll could spoil.
I choose to believe in a better, Rafa filled future, where this year of necessary slog provided the first vital step towards great times.
I urge everyone to enjoy the last couple of games, enjoy the summer and get fully fired up for August, when we take our place once again back where we belong.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 4 Preston 1
Newcastle: Perez 7, 67 Atsu 45, Ritchie 65
Preston: Hugill 14 (Gallagher red card 64)
Possession was Preston 32% Newcastle 68%
Total shots were Preston 6 Newcastle 22
Shots on target were Preston 2 Newcastle 7
Corners were Preston 1 Newcastle 16
Referee: Anthony Madley
Elliot, Anita, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett, Ritchie, Shelvey (Colback 76), Hayden, Atsu (Gouffran 68), Perez (Murphy 83), Mitrovic
Darlow, Yedlin, Mbemba, Diame
Crowd: 50,212 (Preston 500)
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf
(Read what Alan Shearer had to say after the final whistle HERE)
(To read instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to win over Preston and promotion go HERE)
(To view our interactive Newcastle v Preston player ratings and to add your own go HERE)
(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])