Analysis: What a difference a year makes for Newcastle's travel sickness
It was a different story a year ago.
Newcastle United just couldn’t win away on their travels last season.
But 12 months ago, the club didn’t have Rafa Benitez at the helm.
A year ago, Steve McClaren was just days away from the sack at St James’s Park.
It’s been a different story this season.
Admittedly, Newcastle are in the Championship, but the division, as Aston Villa have found out, can be every bit as tough as the Premier League.
United themselves have been tough away from home.
And Benitez’s side gave another masterclass in counter-attacking against a very good Huddersfield Town side at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday.
The 3-1 win saw them take another three points to equal the club record of 13 away wins set by Kevin Keegan’s First Division-winning side of 1992-93.
It’s hard to see that record lasting too much longer.
Just four days earlier they had beaten second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.
At the Amex Stadium, they had benefitted from a lucky goal from Mohamed Diame.
Huddersfield manager David Wagner felt that United had been lucky at the John Smith’s Stadium, where Benitez’s side had taken the lead through a disputed penalty.
Wagner – who had had to watch the game from the stand because of a touchline ban – paid Newcastle a backhanded compliment in the Championship’s smallest media room.
“They deserve every single point that they have, even when some of them were maybe a little bit lucky,” said Wagner, who was also unhappy with United’s second goal, scored by Daryl Murphy.
What Wagner seemed to be saying was that Benitez’s team have made their own luck this season.
And they have done. All season.
Huddersfield are a good team. They press high, play with a good tempo and pass the ball well.
Benitez knew better than to play them at their own game. And he sent out a compact, organised team capable of soaking up pressure and hitting them on the break.
They followed his instructions to the letter.
Newcastle have often been at their best away from home this season.
You don’t win 13 away games through luck alone, and United haven’t had much luck with penalties this season.
They had been on the end of a harsh decision at the Amex Stadium.
When Matt Ritchie went down under a challenge from Elias Kachunga in the 11th minute, one home fan sat next to the Press box repeatedly said that referee Roger East “couldn’t wait to give it”.
A handball from Jonjo Shelvey in the build-up had been missed by East and his assistants.
Newcastle, however, have had fewer penalties than any of their promotion rivals this season.
The supporter also labelled United “bloody useless”.
They didn’t see much of the ball, but there are many different ways to win a football match.
What you do with the possession you have decides football matches, and Newcastle, again, were clinical.
Soon after Karl Darlow stopped a long-range effort from Philip Billing, Shelvey played a superb ball forward for Murphy, who found goalkeeper Danny Ward with his first touch.
Ward, however, didn’t get the ball under control and Murphy challenged him.
With Ward and his team-mates anticipating a pull-back, Murphy rolled the ball through Ward’s legs.
Clappers rained down from the stands as furious Huddersfield fans, feeling Murphy had fouled Ward, protested the goal.
Wagner’s side pulled a goal back from the penalty spot after the break following a challenge from Shelvey on Kachunga.
The home side started to leave gaps at the back as they pressed for an equaliser, and Benitez, wisely, sent on fit-again Dwight Gayle with 25 minutes left on the clock.
A confident Darlow dealt with the shots that came his way at the other end of the pitch, and it was a case of when, rather than if, Gayle would get a chance on the counter-attack.
Time and again this season, Gayle’s punished teams on the break.
And he did it again at the John Smith’s Stadium to take his goal tally for the season to 21.
Substitute goalkeeper Joel Coleman – who had gone up for a late corner – misjudged a ball forward and inadvertently headed it towards his goal.
Gayle nodded the ball down and shepherded it into the net. And that was that.
The result was all the more important because of Brighton’s result earlier in the day.
Chris Hughton’s side were beaten 3-0 by Nottingham Forest at the City Ground.
Newcastle lead Brighton by five points, while Huddersfield, with a game in hand, are a further six points adrift.
Next up are fifth-placed Reading at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow night.
It’s a game United can afford to lose.
But Benitez’s side are in a hurry.
Game by game, they are getting closer to their goal.
And Newcastle, on this form, could have one foot in the Premier League by the end of the month.