Miles Starforth's match analysis: Sheffield Wednesday 2 Newcastle United 1
Dwight Gayle limped out of Hillsborough.
But can Newcastle United limp over the Championship finishing line without him?
Gayle didn’t want to talk when he left the stadium after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.
Neither did most of his team-mates.
Gayle was understandably upset, having lasted just 29 minutes.
The striker, the club’s leading scorer with 22 goals, had only just returned from a hamstring problem.
Will we see him again this season?
Rafa Benitez wasn’t so sure when he addressed journalists in Hillsborough’s tiny post-match media room.
Benitez was disappointed. Very disappointed.
United’s manager had watched his team make mistake after mistake on a glorious afternoon in the Steel City.
Newcastle, however, could have done with a bit more steel in their performance.
Gary Hooper seized on a weak clearance from Paul Dummett to strike the crossbar, while Steven Fletcher inexplicably shot wide.
Barry Bannon was fortunate to stay on the field after catching Matt Ritchie with a reckless challenge.
An error from Chancel Mbemba – who lost the ball at the byline – led to another chance for Fletcher, who was denied by Karl Darlow before Gayle went down injured.
Gayle was replaced by Daryl Murphy, who had to come deep for the ball.
Somehow, they had got into the interval with the score goalless, and Jonjo Shelvey had almost given them an undeserved lead with an audacious shot from the halfway line seconds before the break.
That would have been harsh on Wednesday, who had created chance after chance with a little help from Newcastle in the first half.
“I think that we didn’t do what we had to do, we made so many mistakes, and we gave them chances at the beginning,” admitted Benitez.
“Even with the mistakes, we could have scored a late goal and go into the dressing room 1-0 up, that we didn’t deserve.”
Newcastle – who had been buoyed by news of third-placed Huddersfield Town’s defeat before kick-off time – were better in the second half.
They created a series of chances, but they remained vulnerable.
And a needlessly-conceded free-kick led to Wednesday’s first goal.
Yoan Gouffran fouled Jack Hunt yards from a frustrated Benitez, and Ross Wallace swung the ball in and Tom Lees rose above the visiting defence to head home past Darlow.
Lees had been surrounded by four United defenders.
Yet he easily won his header.
It got worse. Fletcher was able to beat captain Jamaal Lascelles and head in a long throw-in.
It was a soft, soft goal.
“We started the second half much better,” said Benitez.
“We had chances, and we were on top of them.
“But then we made a silly foul and we conceded a goal and then it was all up hill, we have to keep going, but then we continued making some mistakes and didn’t manage the game.
“We conceded another goal, and when we had the chances the keeper was making the difference.”
Newcastle rallied late in the game.
Substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic unsettled Wednesday, and Shelvey scored after a shot from the striker was parried by Keiren Westwood.
But it was too little, too late. And the damage had been done earlier in the half.
Benitez didn’t gloss over what he had the club’s 3,100 fans had seen.
United had, for the most part, been awful.
Every team can have a bad game. But this was a bad time to have a bad game.
And Newcastle can’t afford a repeat performance in their final five league games.
Crucially, United’s fate is firmly in their own hands.
They are 10 points ahead of Huddersfield, who have a game in hand.
Newcastle need a maximum of nine points from their remaining fixtures to secure automatic promotion.
One final push is needed.
Benitez hopes to have right-back DeAndre Yedlin back soon, but the player that he really needs back is Ciaran Clark, who is sidelined with a knee problem.
United have missed Clark’s composure and competitiveness alongside Lascelles in recent weeks.
Mbemba was poor against Wednesday. So too was Lascelles.
Midfielder Isaac Hayden has also been missed over the past two months.
The journey back to Tyneside from Sheffield would have been a long one for Benitez’s players, who took the coach home.
They had The Masters on the TV, but that won’t have taken their minds off what had happened at Hillsborough as they made their way up the A1.
Benitez’s message was a simple one ahead of Friday night’s home game against Leeds United.
“What we have to do is be sure that we wake up, that we are ready for the next game,” he said..
“We have five games to play, we are in a good position and I told the players that I was disappointed, but at the same time that they must keep their heads up.”
Maybe this was a wake-up call the team needed.