Newcastle United are back in the Premier League. Rafael Benítez’s team confirmed promotion with a victory that also leaves them with a slight chance of pipping Brighton to the Championship title.
Not that Benítez will be unduly concerned if Newcastle do not finish top of the table. Promotion was his only target and they achieved it through two goals from Ayoze Perez, another from Christian Atsu and a Matt Ritchie penalty.
The victory was not as comfortable as the scoreline suggests, typical of a season when Newcastle’s patchy home from has prevented them breaking clear of their chief pursuers, Huddersfield and Reading, who have failed to take advantage in recent weeks.
Perhaps Benítez’s team selections have have had something to do with their lack of consistency. He has been unpredictable all season and he came up with another surprise by recalling goalkeeper Rob Elliot in place of Karl Darlow.
Elliot’s last game for United was 13 months ago before he suffered a knee ligament injury while playing for the Republic of Ireland.
If Elliot’s inclusion was unexpected, It was no surprise that Aleksandar Mitrovic, a striker who divides Newcastle supporters over his value to the team, was involved because he enjoys facing Preston.
The Serbia international has scored only six times this season, but four of those goals have come against Simon Grayson’s team - two in the league at Deepdale and two in the EFL Cup at St James’ Park.
Newcastle won that cup-tie 6-0, but a repeat scoreline was never likely here against a team that briefly threatened a late surge into the play-offs before nine goals conceded in three successive defeats effectively ended their season.
They certainly resembled players eager for a summer break at the start. Within four minutes, their goalkeeper Chris Maxwell badly misjudged a through ball from Paul Dummett that bounced over him and left Mitrovic with an opportunity that the headed wide.
The striker was also narrowly wide before Newcastle broke through in the seventh minute as Matt Ritchie’s corner was headed on by Jamaal Lascelles and Perez capitalised from close range.
It was the perfect start for Newcastle, but they had already lost five home games this season and Benitez’s players exasperated him yet again by their failure to hold onto a lead. Daniel Johnson should have equalised in the 12th minute when he broke clear and fired against Elliot, but their goal was delayed only two minutes.
Not for the the first time this season, slack marking at the heart of United’s defence proved costly as Hugill was allowed to steer in a left-wing cross from Tom Barkhuizen for a goal that altered the mood within St James’ Park.
Preston effectively stifled Newcastle until seconds before the end of the half when Isaac Hayden’s incisive break from midfield enabled Mitrovic to deliver a first-time cross that presented Atsu with his fourth goal of the season.
Preston’s resistance ended though midway through the half after Gallacher handled a shot from Hayden on the line and was sent off. Ritchie slotted in the penalty for his 16th goal of the season and Perez added his second goal in the 67th minute after Jonjo Shelvey’s corner dropped at his feet.
And goalkeepers past and (still) present
— Tim Krul (@TimKrul) April 24, 2017
A post shared by Shay Given (@no1shaygiven) on Apr 24, 2017 at 1:58pm PDT
And here's a man with a heart as broad as the Tyne
— Jonas Gutierrez (@elgalgojonas) April 24, 2017
Meanwhile Sky plays out with the Eggman Eric Burdon singing We Gotta Get out of This Place with the Animals in 1965.
And so do Ant and Dec
GET IN!!!!! ⚽️
Howay The Lads!
— antanddec (@antanddec) April 24, 2017
— antanddec (@antanddec) April 24, 2017
Really proud. I have to congratulate also my staff, the fans, the city, all the people, involved. The players were fantastic, even in adversity they were pushing and pushing. Really pleased for them and the fans obviously.
We needed to score the third goal but in the end it doesn't matter how. We have been working so hard since the beginning of the season. It's really diffcult and I'm really pleased for everyone.
We had to win easily the division everyone said But we had to fight and we played very good football some of the time. From the last day of last season when we beat Tottenham 5- I wanted to show my loyalty and build a new team. It's not easy, it's hard work but we did really well.
[Are you happy to stay here] I will have to analyse a lot of things but I'm really pleased here.
Another happy Geordie
— Lynsey Hipgrave (@lynseyhipgrave1) April 24, 2017
Alan Shearer is impressed
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) April 24, 2017
Benitez poses with his staff
Before addressing the media. He old Sissoko and Wijnaldum to generate investment funds which he spent wisely and efficiently to get out of this league. He'll need more and more this summer.
The SJP DJ turns to Bobby Gillespie
It's time for Movin' On Up.
That was quick
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) April 24, 2017
They're playing the band Tommy Vance always called 'The Status Quo' pronouncing 'Status' as if he were Cicero. They're Rockin' All Over the World. Benitez is congratulating all his players but lingers particularly with Matt Ritchie who, despite what Daniel Mann said, is Newcastle's best player.
Senor Waistcoat himself walks on to the pitch to deserved applause. He is smiling, applauding and punching the air.
Newcastle are promoted to the Premier League at the first attempt (for the second time).
Great hold-up by Murphy in the box and a round-the-corner pass to the onrushing Gouffran who spears a shot that Maxwell smartly saves down to his right.
Newcastle knock the ball about, secure in the knowledge that as soon as the ref blows they're going up. And going crazy. That will be in two minutes.
Daryl Murphy turns on the 18-yard line and whacks a shot into Boyle's shins.
The Toon Army are singing the Rafa Benitez La Bamba song, remixed from its Anfield original. The Stamford Bridge version bombed.
Bad foul by Hayden on Barkhuizen, studs first into the calf. Preston take the free-kick on the left, parallel with the 18-yard line and as soon as it leaves Spurr's foot, the ref blows for a foul amid the penalty-box jostling and Newcastle are given a free-kick.
Mitrovic takes the second attempt and spoons it over from 19 yards. Perez is withdrawn and Murphy sent on.
Ritchie takes the free-kick while the referee is still organising the wall and dinks it past Maxwell. The goal is disallowed because he took it before the whistle and he is booked. Benitez isn't pleased at all.
Johnson dallies at the edge of the Preston box and has to foul Perez to stop him making him look like a mug when he whipped it away.
Preston free-kick for a foul on Huntington in the box as he went up to head a cross.
The crowd demands Dummett shoots. He does not, though he helps to work the ball over to Hayden who hooks a cross into the box that was too high for Mitrovic who piled into his marker anyway.
Shelvey is going off to be replaced by Jack Colback. "The most talented player in this division," says Daniel Mann on commentary. High praise indeed ... for Colback ...
St James' Park in full voice now. They are celebrating both their promotion and the (inevitable) relegation of Sunderland simultaneously to the tune of Yellow Submarine. On the field Shelvey and Hayden have all the time in the world to run down the clock.
Here's Gallagher saving ...
Daryl Horgan replaces McGeady for Preston. Off goes Atsu for Newcastle. On comes Gouffran.
More vicious whip from a Shelvey corner, hits Hugill in the six-yard box and smacks into the post from where it diverts off Perez's chest. He was an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire flush on the sternum. He's scored twice from a combined distance of 18 inches and off some of his flatter surfaces.
Newcastle 4-1 Preston (Perez)
Atsu earns a corner with a mazy run towards the box from the right.
Ritchie takes it left-footed and smacks it into the inside side-netting just inside the left post.
Newcastle 3-1 Preston (Ritchie)
Fantastic save by Gallagher at full length to parry the ball around the post when Maxwell was beaten. That's a red card for him.
Hugill watches Hayden's run to the far post and blocks his shot after the ball bobbles through the box. Corner taken by Shelvey from the left and Ritchie's shot is blocked after taking a touch to try to wotk a better opening.
Preston freekick on the right that Gallagher floats into Elliott's hands. Garbage. At the other end, from Elliott's punt, Maxwell almost trips himself up when surprised by a backpass but he recovers his footing and eventually leathers it clear.
Shout for handball by Browning at the far post when he wins a challenge with the tiny Atsu for Perez's looping right-wing cross. The referee is unconvinced.
Shelvey is booked for a stud-up challenge on Hugill. That was a daft foul. He had no hope of getting there and there was a touch of snideness about the execution. Gallagher takes the freekick and smacks it flush into Mitrovic's fizzer.
Browne hits Hayden with a sliding tackle in the inside-left channel to win the ball just in front of his area. Gallagher bounds on to the loose ball and shifts it up Barkhuizen who is a pigeon-catcher in full flight. He bends his run into the box from the left then tries to hit an outswinging cross to the back post with the outside of his right boot for Hugill but steers it over the centre-forward.
Newcastle are enjoying a spell of possession with Hayden's legs and Shelvey's feet at the fulcrum.
In comes the corner to the near post and a toe would have knocked it over the line with the viciousness of the whip. But again Preston scramble it clear.
The Gallowgate treats us to 'An N and and E and a wubble-you C'. We miss you, Matty lad.
Preston shift the ball from side to side prettily but the long ball up is swallowed up by Clark and Newcastle build up the left. Shelvey pings a pass up the inside-left channel for the workhorse Mitrovic's run. He turns and squares it towards Perez but before the man with the oil-slick hair can get on to it, Preston scramble it behind.
Dreadful play under no pressure from Gallagher, passing the ball across the 18-yard line. His heavy pass is badly controlled and gives Perez a shooting chance on the left from 15 yards. It's a sitter but somehow he lets Maxwell unnerve him and he scuds his low shot into the diving keeper.
A half-time announcement of the attendance: 50,212. Preston have a throw down by their corner flag as Newcastle move it towards the Gallowgate.
Forty-five minutes away from the Premier League
Metaphorically, that is. And here's the man who has put them in that position.
Strange game but the right scoreline for Newcastle so far. A victory is all they need and though they look nervy, no one there will remember anything other than the result if it goes their way.
A gift from McGeady and especially Johnson who lost the ball on the left of halfway and let Hayden whip the ball away and towards their box. He motored 30 yards then slipped the ball to his right to Mitrovic on the 18-yard line. The bullocking centre-forward squared it to Atsu who buried it from 15 yards.
Newcastle 2-1 Preston (Atsu)
The home players need the help of the crowd, laments Don Goodman. Difficult to be optimistically full-throated when you've got gnawing your nails to the quick.
Maxwell flies off his line to take another cross and stop Atsu and Mitrovic nicking in. He's certainly grown in confidence since those two pan-handed flaps. He looks dominant now.
Newcastle work it around from side to side 40 yards out until Ritchie essays a cross with his left foot from the right that loops beyond the back post. Decent ball but no one made the run.
The crowd is unhappy and razzes Anita for a clumsy pass into touch.
The corner spawns another a minute later. Both defended by Hugill at the far post with firm headers and then Mitrovic shoves Spurr to halt all attacking progress by Newcastle.
Rafa Benitez writes himself a note. Newcastle win the ball back and move it up the right but not at the pace the crowd demands until they win a corner when Hugill spurns hard-won possession with a risky touch.
McGeady tacks from the centre out to the left on a diagonal trot and rolls the ball out to Barkhuizen by the touchline. Lascelles scurries out to thump it away. Preston continue to ass it about when they win it back and the Gallowgate's nerves and frustration are palpable.
Dummett takes a throw on the left and tosses it towards the corner where Hayden turns Browne and clips in a loopy cross that Preston clear with a long ball. Barkhuizen chases, loses it and Newcastle come back with a Ritchie cross that is spooned down Maxwell's throat.
Shelvey has an admirable surplus of skill but he doesn't half stroll about when he should be defending even when he's in position.
Newcastle free-kick on the left angle of the box when Browning brings down Atsu. He goes in the book and Shelvey stands over the ball. He steps over it and allows Ritchie to square it to the penalty spot where Perez's shot is blocked from close range.
Perez earns a corner when Spurr blocks his cross. Shelvey steers the corner straight into Maxwell's hands and the keeper punts it 60 yards upfield for Barkhuizen's sprint. The bounce, Dummett and Anita combine to push him wide and though he manages to hook his leg round it before it skips out of play, the angle is too tight to trouble Elliott.
Jordan Hugill is causing all sorts of problems with his runs between Clark and Lascelles. Here is his goal:
Ritchie leaves Spurr flailing when he twists back from the touchline. The left-back slides headlong on to the grass as he loses his footing and bends in a whipped cross that Maxwell flaps at. Preston survive but Ritchie will be salivating at a keeper in Dracula mode.
Good cross from Ritchie towards Mitrovic running into the six-yard box. Maxwell manages to flick it off the striker's head and catch it at the second attempt. The referee awards him a free-kick for his intrepid juggling while Mitrovic was Nat Lofthouse-ing him.
Mitrovic asks for a penalty when he falls rather easily under challenge in the Preston box. Nothing doing and North End shift it forward rapidly to Barkhuizen up the left. Newcastle pay the price for the lack of a proper right-back when Barkhuizen runs circles around Anita and Shelvey to ping in a cross towards the penalty spot. Hugill makes a brillant run across Clark and knocks it in off his shin.
Newcastle 1-1 Preston (Hugill)
The ball rebounds behind for a corner that is put on to Huntington's head. He should score but makes a right Horlicks of it.
Newcastle are cut apart by Huntington's diagonal pass that frees Johnson into the space vacated by Shelvey and Hayden. He has a clear run in from the left of the box towards goal but drives his shot straight at the onrushing Elliott who read his unsophisticated body language fluently and guessed the right side.
Lascelles heads a McGeady cross clear and Preston mop up the attempted solo counter-attack by Ritchie up the right.
Newcastle earn a corner when Mitrovic turns on the proverbial half-shilling and his crisp shot is deflected wide. The corner comes in and Preston play 'After you, Claud', let the ball bounce through to the back post where Perez smashes it in from a yard after a flick from Clark.
Newcastle 1-0 Preston (Perez)
Long throw from Dummett is headed on by Mitrovic to Atsu but Gallagher and Browne double up to rob him and work the ball forward to Hugill who is too vigorous for Lascelles in the challenge. Free-kick
Ty Browning on his return shanks a clearance behind for a corner. Shelvey takes it short to Atsu who tries to spin Brown but doesn't and blocks it. Ritchie knocks a long up and under back into the box that Maxwell misguidedly lets bounce and gives an opportunity to Mitrovic to race behind him but the angle is too acute to head it in.
Matt Ritchie, fed by Mitrovic, crosses from the right, a loopy long outswinger that is just above the optimum height for Mitrovic to meet it flush on the brow.
We're off and Preston, in yellow, knock it long up the left for Barkhuizen. The atmosphere starts in its usual electric introductory tone at St James' Park.
Is the man in the Sky pundit box and feels very expectant. In the commentary box is Donald Ralph Goodman.
And those line-ups conveyed in the Roman alphabet
Newcastle United Elliot; Anita, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett; Ritchie, Shelvey, Hayden, Atsu; Perez; Mitrovic.
Substitutes Colback, Diame, Mbemba, Gouffran, Yedlin, Darlow, Murphy.
Preston North End Maxwell; Browning, Andrew Boyle, Huntington, Spurr; Barkhuizen, Gallagher, Browne, Johnson, McGeady' Hugill.
Substitutes Lindegaard, Vermijl, Horgan, Beckford, Pringle, May, Robinson.
Referee Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire)
Preston's starting XI
— Preston North End FC (@pnefc) April 24, 2017
— Preston North End FC (@pnefc) April 24, 2017
Here's Newcastle's line-up
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) April 24, 2017
Brought to you by one sponsor and namechecks another three ...
And welcome to coverage of Newcastle United's home Championship match against Preston North End. Victory tonight for Rafael Benítez's side would clinch promotion to the Premier League at the first attempt and consign Huddersfield's hopes of going up to the lottery of the play-offs. Newcastle have lost at St James' Park five times this season, defeated by Huddersfield, Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn and Fulham but you have to go back to 1964, six League visits ago, for Proud Preston's last victory there.
North End have lost their last three but Simon Grayson's side have been terrific given their budget this season and are very capable of exploiting any jitters tonight.