Turning 31 on Sunday, Rob Elliot got the perfect early birthday present.

Third last match of the season with promotion at stake, Rafa Benitez made arguably his most surprising selection decision in a whole season of team choices that have regularly surprised…baffled supporters.

Karl Darlow has been one of Newcastle’s best players this season but that didn’t stop the United boss making the big call against Preston.

Rob Elliot saying that as he ran towards the Gallowgate end before kick-off he was thinking ‘Blimey – I can’t believe this is happening’.

It has been a long 13 months since his last taste of first team football and just when you thought Darlow may have done enough to be overwhelming favourite to start next season as number one, Rafa throws a curve ball.

Rob Elliot started in Rafa’s very first game in charge, a 1-0 defeat at Leicester, then stayed in for the 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland.

That derby game proving to be his last bit of club football for over a year, as he then went off and got injured on international duty – ruling him out of both the relegation run-in and any possibly inclusion in Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad.

Elliot believes that this last 13 or so months can be the ‘start of something special’ for everybody connected to the football club.

Lets hope he is right.

Rob Elliot speaking to the official club website:

“This genuinely feels like the start of something special.

“You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself but I think the club, if I’m being honest, it’s the first time since I’ve been here that everything’s in line.

“Everyone knows what we’re going for and everything has been done this year to put everything in place for us to be successful – and that’s what we’ve done.

“We’ve ticked the first box and we’ve done brilliantly.

“The fans have been magnificent, they have stuck by us and we have sold out every single away game. The last 20 minutes tonight, the atmosphere was unbelievable.

“They know as well as we do that we’re hopefully at the start of something special, though we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves – but, that’s what the likes of Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle, Clarky (Ciaran Clark) and Jonjo (Shelvey) have come for.

“That is what we’re starting to do, hopefully getting us back to having those brilliant nights at the highest level.

 “I remember jogging out towards the Gallowgate End thinking…‘Blimey – I can’t believe this is happening!’

“It’s been more than a year (13 months) since my last game and you’re thinking, ‘I just want to make sure I don’t let the lads down because they’ve been unbelievable.’.

“To get the opportunity, after such a tough time, not only getting back from injury but sitting there waiting for my opportunity, it was just good to take it.

“But I can’t sing Karl’s (Darlow) praises enough – I have had probably the best goalkeeper in the league in front of me and he’s been unbelievable all season. The manager rotates his squad and he’s given me a game – it’s nice to actually contribute, though it’s a very, very small contribution, it’s still something.

“Sitting in A and E for seven hours, you think you’re never going to play football again, let alone feel better.

“It’s absolutely amazing to come back on a night like this, with all of the stuff that’s in front of us it’s brilliant.

 “It’s what we set out to do nine or ten months ago and we have got there.

“We have been under a lot of pressure but the lads have coped with it unbelievably well, it hasn’t been smooth sailing but it was never going to be.

“The manager has kept everyone calm, we’ve dealt with it one game at a time, and every single lad in the dressing room has given something to the cause.

“I have never been in a dressing room that gets on so well and everyone can look around, look each other in the eye, be really proud of what they’ve done.

“With the manager and the lads together, we’re only going to improve – we have a very young team but they have this experience behind them now…this toughness, hopefully that will kick them on for next year.”