The game that changed everything for Rafa Benitez and Newcastle in the Championship

Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez.
Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez.

It was a long road.

Promotion was won away from home this season.

And Newcastle United fans have covered more than 4,800 miles on their travels.

That’s a staggering distance.

The club’s form away from St James’s Park has also been staggering.

Rafa Benitez’s side won for a club-record 14th and final time on their travels on Friday night when they beat Cardiff City 2-0.

There were more than 4,200 supporters at the Cardiff City for what was a televised game.

That was staggering too.

The class of 2016-17 beat a post-war record set by Kevin Keegan’s promotion-winning team of 1992-93.

Back then, United swept almost all before them.

They played their way out of what was then known as the First Division.

The Championship is very different now. It’s noticeably tougher, quicker and more physical than it was when Chris Hughton led the club to the Premier League in 2010.

You want space? You’ll have to fight for it.

You want time on the ball? Good luck with that.

Relegated Sunderland will discover just how much the division has changed over the past decade next season.

It came as a shock to Newcastle at Craven Cottage on the opening weekend of the season in August.

They were a yard off the pace. And the intensity of the Fulham fixture seemed to surprise those players who had never experienced English football’s second tier.

Even Benitez looked slightly troubled in the post-match press conference after his team’s 1-0 defeat.

The most significant away game, for me, came against Bristol City later that month.

It changed everything.

By then, they were off the mark in the Championship – they had beaten Reading 4-1 in midweek – and the mood on Tyneside have brightened.

On a blustery and overcast day at Ashton Gate, we saw what Newcastle were to be about away from home this season.

City had more of the ball, but United – who took a first-half lead through a Dwight Gayle goal – defended deep and in numbers.

Ball after ball was delivered into Newcastle’s box, but Lee Johnson’s side never looked like scoring.

They had 17 shots that afternoon, but just two were on target.

It was uncomfortable to watch at times, but they doggedly held on.

Gayle had scored after Mohamed Diame found him with a lofted pass.

It was a class counter-attacking goal.

And that’s what Newcastle did time and again away from home, the exception being the 6-0 win over Queens Park Rangers at a balmy Loftus Road in September.

United – who won just twice away from home last season – were compact and competitive without the ball.

In possession, they were inventive and incisive thanks to the likes of Diame and Jonjo Shelvey, who were able to quickly find Gayle and others in space.

Benitez had an idea of how to win away from home this season, and Newcastle’s players followed his instructions.

Yes, United have been sloppy at times away from home. And yes, it’s not been pretty at times.

But whatever happens at St James’s Park on Sunday – Newcastle could still win the title – this season will be best-remembered for those 14 memorable awaydays.