Why Newcastle ARE the '˜best team' in the Championship
Hours before Newcastle United took the field at the Amex Stadium, the heavens opened on the South Coast.
A few fans were drenched as the walked on Brighton’s promenade.
Many more, sensibly, stayed inside the city’s pubs, well away from the choppy Channel.
But it was calm before kick-off time against Brighton and Hove Albion on Tuesday night. The skies had cleared, though there was a stiff breeze around the sold-out stadium.
Rafa Benitez, however, was anything but calm once the game kicked off.
United’s manager lashed referee Robert Madley – who awarded the home side a controversial early penalty after Glenn Murray tumbled in the box – and his players over the course over 94 frenetic minutes.
Several times Benitez, exasperated with what he was seeing, exploded before turning back towards his bench.
Jonjo Shelvey had talked of Newcastle as being the Championship’s “best team” in the build-up to the game. Yet they were second-best to start with.
Brighton played with pace and purpose. They had an intensity and intelligence about them, and United had to scrap and fight for everything at the Amex Stadium.
They might not be the best footballing team right now, but they are the best team in the Championship.
Late that night Ayoze Perez – who scored Newcastle’s 89th-minute winner – posted a photograph on Twitter of the celebrations, involving players and substitutes, which followed his goal.
Perez tweeted: “YES! WE ARE A TEAM! Thanks to all the fans!”
Newcastle are united in more than just name. They are the best team in the division, even if they don’t always play the best football.
They’re at the top by rights. They deserve to lead the division.
United got lucky with Mohamed Diame’s equaliser – he cancelled out Murray’s first-half penalty with a fluke goal in the 81st minute – but the team had made their own luck.
They’d been tenacious and tireless. Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie had typified their determination to take something back to the North East.
And the ball from Ritchie to Atsu for Perez’s goal was something else.
The storm in the dugout passed and Benitez was calm again when he arrived in the Amex Stadium’s media suite for his post-match Press conference.
It had felt like a momentous night. And that’s what the reporters there were writing.
The celebrations on and off the pitch had seemingly underlined the sense that this was a hugely-significant night.
With 10 minutes left on the clock, it had looked like Newcastle would trail Brighton by four points ahead of Saturday evening’s game against Huddersfield Town at the John Smith’s Stadium.
Instead, they lead the division by two points.
More importantly, they are eight points ahead of third-placed Huddersfield, who have a game in hand.
Benitez was asked if it had been a “big moment”.
But he disappointed the dozen or journalists who had been typing about the significance of the result before he was ushered on to the stage.
“It’s good to get three points, away on this pitch, against a very good team,” said Bentiez. “Still I have the same feeling – April will be crucial.”
There are seven games to be played that month. Newcastle can’t win promotion before then.
But it had been a big moment in a big season. And Benitez knew it ahead of a trip to Huddersfield this weekend.
The Terriers have been the best footballing team in recent weeks. And a draw against David Wagner’s side would be a very good result. United, potentially just 17 points away from promotion back to the Premier League, aren’t even under pressure to win against Reading at the Madejski Stadium three days later.
But Newcastle haven’t been so good at drawing games this season. They’ve generally won or lost. More of the former than the latter.
United are on course for a return to the Premier League, and it’s hard to see how they can be stopped.