Newcastle have come a long way since THAT visit to the Amex Stadium '“ thanks to Rafa Benitez
One of the biggest came at the Amex Stadium, where Newcastle United head on Sunday for a Premier League fixture.
Think back to late February and a chilly, windy night on the South Coast.
It was first against second in the league.
Brighton and Hove Albion were first, and United were a point behind them.
The home side, looking to extend their lead to four points, led for 67 minutes thanks to a disputed penalty from Glenn Murray.
Yoan Gouffran, surprisingly fielded up front by Rafa Benitez, had been wasteful.
It wasn’t looking good with 10 minutes left on the clock.
Ten minutes later, Newcastle were back at the top of the league thanks to a bizarre goal from Mohamed Diame and an 89th-minute strike from substitute Ayoze Perez.
The celebrations at the final whistle, on and off the field underlined the significance of the result.
Brighton manager Chris Hughton said: “Was it a sickener? Yes, and I don’t think it was a result we deserved.”
United went on to beat Huddersfield Town away four days later and take a point from a visit to Reading.
Those three results, and especially the first at Brighton, set them up for the run-in.
There wasn’t much between Newcastle and Brighton and last season.
The Championship title was decided in the final few seconds of the season.
Thanks to a late, late goal from Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, the trophy went to Tyneside.
But the real prize, unquestionably, was promotion to the Premier League.
And both clubs deserved to go up.
Promotion for Brighton, out of the top flight since 1983, was a kind of a big deal.
Backed by ambitious chairman Tony Bloom, the club went for it in the summer.
United didn’t go for it, to the frustration of Benitez, the club’s manager.
Brighton had a net spend of around £40million.
Newcastle, we know, had a lower net spend following a series of summer departures.
Benitez was forced to take gambles on some unfashionable and unfamiliar players.
So too was Chris Hughton, to a certain extent, though he bought well in midfielder Pascal Gross, signed from Ingolstadt for £3million.
Other signings, including defender Markus Suttner and midfielder Davy Propper, are still adjusting to English football.
Neither club was in a position to buy established Premier League players.
Newcastle are still short in a couple of positions, and the same goes for Brighton, who needed another striker to compete with Glenn Murray and Tomer Hemed.
Still, United look better equipped for the Premier League.
Newcastle have won three of their opening five games and sit fourth in the Premier League table.
Brighton – who this week converted Tim Krul’s loan into a permanent move – are 16th with four points.
United have sold out their 2,500-seat allocation for the game, and fans will make the 350-mile journey to the Amex Stadium from Tyneside in high spirits.
Benitez is building a competitive Premier League team.
The 57-year-old made a telling remark last month before the transfer window closed.
“I’m signing the players that I can, not the players that I want,” he said.
Benitez had to take chances on players like Javier Manquillo and Joselu.
Manquillo, signed from Atletico Madrid, hadn’t impressed during loans at Sunderland Liverpool, while Joselu, a £5million signing from Stoke City, had struggled in his first season in the Premier League.
Yet both have impressed so far this season.
Benitez didn’t get the players that he wanted, but his team is starting to play the way that he wants.
Slowly, Benitez is moulding and shaping them.
And that togetherness and spirit, exemplified by that late comeback at the Amex Stadium six months ago, is still there. It should count for a lot in the Premier League.
The players aren’t getting carried away by their start –and Benitez certainly isn’t.
Brighton will also improve over the coming weeks and months, and Sunday’s game will be an interesting yardstick to measure just how far last season’s two outstanding Championship teams have come.