Newcastle plodding, stuttering and staggering along final stretch of marathon – but they just keep going

Matt Ritchie celebrates his winner for Newcastle against Wigan Athletic
Matt Ritchie celebrates his winner for Newcastle against Wigan Athletic

The Championship is a marathon, not a sprint.

And Newcastle United are still going. Strong.

Rafa Benitez gestures on the touchline

Rafa Benitez gestures on the touchline

Rafa Benitez’s side are out in front, just, with just seven matches to play.

Crucially, third-placed Huddersfield Town are running out of games.

The result at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday was just as significant as that at St James’s Park, where Newcastle beat Wigan Athletic 2-1.

Huddersfield’s injury-time defeat to Burton Albion – United’s next opponents – has left them 10 points behind the Championship leaders, though David Wagner’s side do have a game in hand.

St James’s Park was almost empty by the Jackson Irvine netted a 96th-minute goal for Burton, who visit the stadium on Wednesday night.

It meant a good day got better for Newcastle, who hadn’t won in three games when Wigan arrived on Tyneside.

Benitez acknowledged his team’s shortcomings after the match, which was decided by goals from Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie.

Second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion beat Blackburn Rovers 1-0 at the Amex Stadium.

“We have to take our chances,” said Benitez.

“We can improve on a lot of things, but we do a lot of things well.

“But when you see Huddersfield losing, or Brighton winning 1-0, it shows it is not easy.”

It’s not easy. The Championship’s a long, hard slog. It’s a marathon, and the finishing line is not yet in sight.

Points, not performances, are all-important.

United plodded, prodded and probed for the first half-hour without really troubling struggling Wigan, and Jonjo Shelvey, recalled to the starting XI along with Gayle, drifted in and out of the game.

But a breakthrough wasn’t long in coming.

Soon after Gayle had tested Matt Gilks, Mohamed Diame – who had labelled this season was the “poorest” of his career in the build-up to the game – broke forward and delivered a ball across the box for the striker, who was unmarked at the far post.

For the 22nd time this season, Gayle put the ball in the net.

That should have been that, but Wigan fought back after the break.

Michael Jacobs got past Jamaal Lascelles and dinked the ball over the advancing Karl Darlow after the break to equalise.

Graham Barrow’s side weren’t ready to settle for a point.

They went after a second goal, and boyhood Newcastle fan Dan Burn headed over during a spell of pressure from the visitors.

But a 57th-minute goal from Ritchie saw off Wigan. The winger reacted first after his initial shot came back off the post.

Ritchie, clipped by an opponent, went down in the box late in the game, but referee David Coote waved play on.

Benitez and his coaching staff were incensed, and the incident led to a heated confrontation between the two benches, who were kept apart by fourth official Robert Jones.

“It was heat of the moment,” said Barrow, Wigan’s interim manager.

“They thought it was a penalty. We thought he dived.”

It didn’t matter in the end. The game was won.

What mattered was the points, and United took them.

If, and it’s a big if given Newcastle’s home form, Benitez’s side can take three more from Burton, the club will still be short of what is needed mathmatically for automatic promotion.

But they won’t be far away.

In recent weeks, Benitez has talked a lot about the pressure on United’s rivals, and Huddersfield in particular.

He made some pointed remarks ahead of the club’s visit to the John Smith’s Stadium last month, where his team, memorably, won 3-1.

Newcastle, according to Benitez, have had to deal with pressure from day one this season. So too have Brighton, so close to going up last season.

But can Huddersfield, in a position few would have predicted at the start of the campaign, cope with it?

They have lost their last two games and are without a goal in 242 minutes.

The Championship title is for another day. Benitez is minding the gap with Huddersfield, who themselves are under pressure from Reading and Leeds United, in fourth and fifth place respectively.

They are getting squeezed.

United, we know, haven’t been at their best in recent weeks, but they’re still taking points and Gayle is still scoring goals.

That’s been the story of the season. There have been downs, especially at home, but the trajectory for the club has still been upwards.

Thirty-nine down, seven to go.

There’s a lot of football to be played – and Benitez has been talking about April and its seven games since the start of the campaign – but promotion could well be decided long before Newcastle play the last of this month’s fixtures.

United have stuttered and staggered at times this season, but they’ve kept on going.

So too have Brighton.

And Newcastle just need to kick for the final, arduous stretch.