Chris Wood left it until deep into stoppage time to enhance Leeds United’s play-off ambitions by volleying his 28th goal of an extraordinary campaign and postponing Newcastle United’s promotion party until at least Monday week.
Eight points ahead of third-placed Huddersfield Town, Rafael Benítez’s side have reached the border separating the Championship from the Premier League. Although unlikely to be turned back now, they must still clear a couple of important check-points before passing back into the top tier.
The prospect of an extended, slightly anxiety tinged, wait left the black and white majority of the Championship’s biggest crowd of the season – an impressive 52,301 – deeply disappointed at the end of an evening in which they had thought Jamaal Lascelles’s second-half header might have proved the prelude to an Easter Monday elevation at Ipswich.
Wood, admirably marked by Lascelles for most of the game, had other ideas, though, the New Zealand striker doing brilliantly to connect with Kemar Roofe’s measured 95th-minute cross before sending a textbook volley beyond Karl Darlow.
“I’m pleased with the performance but disappointed with the result,” said an unusually downbeat Benítez, who seemed unhappy about both those added minutes and the distracting presence of a late pitch invader at the end of arguably his side’s best performance of 2017.
Garry Monk acknowledged that an increasingly convincing Newcastle had threatened to run away with things after half-time and that he had Rob Green to thank for some fine saves. “The second half was very difficult for us. But I’m really proud of my players. Newcastle are a fantastic team. I’m sure they’ll be promoted.”
Leeds hope to follow them up via the play-offs but, although fourth, are only three points ahead of seventh-placed Fulham. Starting brightly, they very nearly took an early lead when Alfonso Pedraza watched his 20-yard shot rebound off the underside of the bar and bounce down virtually on the goalline. Although Roofe pounced on the loose ball, his close-range header was scooped to safety.
It proved the cue for the opening chorus of “Marching on Together” from the Leeds fans congregated high in the Leazes End. If the home supporters had little trouble in swiftly drowning them out, their team initially found similar dominance elusive. For a while Monk’s side looked bigger, stronger and sharper than their hosts, restricting Newcastle to half chances.
Although Matt Ritchie sent an ambitiously swerving, high-velocity, left-foot shot whizzing just over Rob Green’s bar, the Tynesiders’ pre-interval passing was insufficiently crisp and their thinking a fraction too ponderous.
Then, with half-time approaching, it was as if a switch had been flicked. Almost imperceptibly Newcastle began upping, and controlling, the tempo. Helpfully, Pablo Hernández’s slack touch permitted Yoan Gouffran to pinch possession, advance and direct a shot against the base of a post. It rebounded to Ritchie, only for the winger to watch his shot deflected away for a corner from which Green performed wonders to repel Chancel Mbemba’s viciously high-powered header.
Finally Newcastle – now forcing a series of corners – were imposing themselves on a contest in which Lascelles and Mbemba had ensured that no Leeds counterattack had concluded with Wood escaping their clutches.
Moreover Ritchie’s left foot had begun to hurt Monk’s previously ruggedly efficient defence and Green did well to keep out his curling free-kicks. Aleksandar Mitrovic, deputising for the hamstrung Dwight Gayle, had largely been contained in a sometimes wince-inducing contest with Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson but once that pair collected a booking apiece the power balance shifted.
Mitrovic capitalised on Luke Ayling’s error and his dink eluded Green, only for Jansson to clear the ball off the line. Galvanised, Newcastle – who might have had a penalty when Ayling impeded Mbemba – won yet another corner which, this time, Leeds could only partially clear. It left Mitrovic free to head the ball back across the box and Lascelles, straining with his head, to defy Green by squeezing it over the line.
Wood had barely registered a kick but, when Lascelles finally lost concentration, the striker made the most of his solitary, last-gasp opening.