Miles Starforth’s analysis: Newcastle United 1 Burton Albion 0

Matt Ritchie celebrates scoring Newcastle's winner against Burton Albion
Matt Ritchie celebrates scoring Newcastle's winner against Burton Albion

Just when you think you’ve seen it all in the Championship, something else happens.

And just when you think you’ve seen the worst refereeing performance in the division, another one comes along.

The standard of refereeing in English football’s second tier has long bothered Rafa Benitez.

Remember THAT game at the City Ground in December?

Maybe Benitez thought he’d seen it all before Burton Albion’s visit to St James’s Park last night

If he had, he hadn’t reckoned with Keith Stroud.

And this game will long be remembered for Stroud’s inexplicable decision to chalk off a first-half penalty from Matt Ritchie and not order a retake – and not the winger’s second-half winner.

Stroud’s call, which came as Ritchie celebrated his spot-kick, baffled everyone inside the stadium.

And fans left the ground confused, angry but ultimately happy after Ritchie edged the club closer to the Premier League.

Within an hour of the final whistle, Professional Game Match Officials Limited issued an apology on behalf of Stroud.

Fortunately, Stroud’s blunder didn’t cost the club two important points.

Burton manager Nigel Clough said: “I was pleased it wasn’t the deciding issue. You don’t want controversial decisions to decide matches.”

Benitez bit his tongue in his post-match Press conference.

The result saw Newcastle go two points clear of Brighton and Hove Albion at the top of the Championship.

Crucially, United remain 10 points clear of third-placed Huddersfield Town, who beat Norwich City 3-0 at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Benitez’s teamsheet for Burton has a surprise name on it.

Defender Chancel Mbemba was included for the first time since November, while there was no place in the team, or on the bench, for fit-again midfielder Isaac Hayden or Jack Colback.

Benitez instead fielded Mohamed Diame alongside Jonjo Shelvey in midfield, while Ayoze Perez played in the No 10 role behind Dwight Gayle.

United’s manager had, again, appealed for patience from fans ahead of the game.

Burton were beaten 2-1 by Newcastle in December, but Clough’s side had given Benitez’s side a difficult afternoon on the tight Pirelli Stadium pitch.

And Benitez, clearly, expected the visitors to get men behind the ball.

Newcastle, however, found gaps from the first whistle and quickly set about the visitors, backed by almost 700 fans, on the larger surface at St James’s Park.

They played with pace and purpose in the opening minutes, and Shelvey, surprisingly given a lot of space by Burton, was able to dictate the play.

Dwight Gayle had an early penalty appeal waved away, while John Brayford blocked a goal-bound shot from Perez.

At the other end of the pitch, Jackson Irvine – who had scored Burton’s 96th-minute winner over Huddersfield four days earlier – should have done better with a volley which flew over Karl Darlow’s goal.

As the half wore on, the more play swung from end to end.

Clough, angered by a series of decisions, had a lot to say to Stroud, assistant Matthew McGrath and fourth official Tony Harrington during the half.

But Benitez, his coaching team and the players had a lot more to say to him later in the half after one of the most bizarre refereeing incidents witnessed at the stadium.

Gayle went down in the box under a challenge from Tom Flanagan and Stroud pointed to the spot.

Ritchie stepped up and converted the penalty, only for Stroud to award a free-kick to Burton in the box as Ritchie celebrated, because of encroachment from Gayle.

There were lengthy protests as Stroud consulted Harrington on the touchline.

United’s fans, meanwhile, couldn’t believe what they had just seen.

Ritchie, Benitez and his staff were furious, and assistant Mikel Antia, clipboard in hand, strode out to speak to Stroud when he blew the half-time whistle as supporters booed the official off the pitch.

Newcastle somehow composed themselves in the dressing room during the interval.

And United started applying some pressure on Burton as the hour-mark approached.

Perez shot wide and Ritchie forced a save from Jon McLaughlin as fans in the Strawberry corner make themselves heard.

Newcastle patiently built attack after attack as Burton retreated deeper and deeper into their half.

And, finally, they got the breakthrough they deserved in the 68th minute when Ritchie curled a superb shot into the top right-hand corner.

The strike lifted the roof at St James’s Park.

This time, there was no taking the goal away from Ritchie.

Can any team now take a Premier League return away from United?