Newcastle United will probably still be able to toast promotion in a few days, but they let the glass slip through their fingers against Leeds United as Chris Wood’s equaliser, deep into injury time, denied them victory.
Having taken the lead through Jamal Lascelles and been utterly dominant in the second half, the Newcastle captain then allowed Wood far too much room inside the area and the Leeds striker pounced in the 95th minute, converting Kemar Roofe’s cross with a superbly controlled volley.
The fact this was as well as Newcastle have played this year offered little comfort to manager Rafa Benitez, who may well feel the Leeds supporter, who held up play in stoppage time by running on to the pitch, before goading Newcastle supporters as he was led away, contributed to the loss in concentration from his defence.
The drunken lout, who was shoved away by Pontus Jansson, appeared to try to leap into the Gallowgate End as he was escorted around the side of the pitch, with several home supporters swinging – and thankfully – missing with punches in response.
Benitez preferred to focus his anger on the officials, though, questioning the amount of stoppage time played.
“I’m so upset because I have seen so many games this season where there are things I do not understand,” said Benitez. “Why where there five minutes? There was nothing unusual, no unusual stoppages. I do not understand why they go against us.
“I prefer to focus on the performance of the team. We played well, the passion, the quality, it is just a shame about the result. I cannot be happy after that.”
Newcastle are stumbling rather than gliding towards a Premier League return. There is still a chance they could fall flat on their faces. They remain eight points clear of Huddersfield, but have slipped four points behind leaders Brighton, who should be crowned champions
This was a reminder that Newcastle is a club that constantly finds a way to make things hard for themselves. For Leeds, though, there was joy, a gleeful reaction to stamping on the party balloons on Tyneside. Garry Monk’s side remain on course for the play-offs.
“We must have a granite chin,” said Monk. “When you get an equaliser like that, it felt better in our dressing room than theirs after the game.
“We expected to find it difficult here against a team that will be promoted and we did. They got their tails up, our goalkeeper was outstanding, but it shows the group we have and why we’ve been in the top six all season.”
Doubts always creep in at this stage of the season and when you are a club with Newcastle’s history of grasping failure rather than trophies, the fear tends to be more acute.
It is as if the closer the Magpies have got to promotion, the harder it has been to play well, but this was different. After a nervous start, in which Leeds hit the bar through Alfonso Pedraza, Newcastle were superb, getting to grips with the opposition and the occasion.
They increased the pressure like a python squeezing its prey. Leeds were barely able to breath. Matt Ritchie was denied by a good save from Rob Green, who also denied Jonjo Shelvey. Yoan Grouffan stabbed a shot against the post, with Ritchie’s follow up deflected over the bar.
From the resulting corner, Green made another good save to tip over Chancel Mbemba’s header. From the next one, Ayoze Perez had an effort cleared off the line.
Newcastle were dominant but Leeds would not submit, even after Newcastle took the lead. Gouffran swung in a cross, Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had been a bustling, physical nuisance, won the ball at the far post and Lascelles got enough on a glancing header to get it over the line.
Newcastle needed a second goal to relax, Perez almost provided it, only for Green to once again keep it out. Benitez’s side looked as though they had everything under control, but Wood proved otherwise.