NEWCASTLE United planted one foot in the Premier League last night, appropriately falling back on the resilience and steel that has served them so well this season to clear the final obstacle preventing an immediate return to the top flight.
At a febrile, rain-sodden St James’ Park, United defeated a doughty Nottingham Forest to move as little as 90 minutes away from returning to English football’s top table.
It is a deserved promotion. United’s performance was brushed with class in the excellent Shola Ameobi and Jose Enrique strikes that settled the game but it was their resilience that helped drain the belief of a decent Forest side, who proved resolute rivals.
It has been like this all season – a mix of endeavour and invention that has proved too much for even the most accomplished second-tier opponents. Billy Davies traipsed into his post-match Press conference with a weary look that has become the trademark of opposition managers – and it betrayed a recognition that Newcastle are heading up at the first time of asking.
It may come as early as Saturday, if victory over Peterborough coincides with a winded Forest losing at Bristol City. Even if that eminently believable outcome doesn’t come to pass, it is only a matter of time before Newcastle are crowned champions. For a long time, it looked as if it would not arrive.
United have been having it all their own way of late at St James’ Park but it became obvious from the outset that Forest – astutely set up by the wily Davies – were not cut from the same cloth as the Championship fodder served up to Newcastle recently.
Drawing on the same feisty spirit that fuels their Scottish manager, youthful Forest were never going to be as easily undone as the procession of makeweights that have traipsed through the doors at St James’ Park recently.
Davies had said beforehand that he would be happy with a point, and his side’s remit was simple – frustrate the wingers who had helped United notch an incredible 21 goals in their last five games. And for most of an attritional first period Forest succeeded, suffocating the space afforded to flying wide men Jonas Gutierrez and Wayne Routledge.
Opportunities were few and far between but those that did catch the eye came from the home side. With 12 minutes on the clock United finally found space in a congested midfield to work the ball to Routledge, and his first-time cross dipped dangerously behind Forest’s final man for Carroll to test Lee Camp’s reflexes with an acrobatic volley.
United’s bruising top scorer, so irrepressible of late, always looked the most likely to fashion an advantage for the home side so there was genuine alarm when he collapsed in a crumpled heap after an aerial challenge with Chris Gunter. But after a lengthy spell of treatment on his stricken ankle, the rangy forward was able to resume battle.
Perhaps Carroll was still feeling the after-effects of that clash when he was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to nudge United in front a few seconds later. James Perch – a former Newcastle target performing cleverly at right-back – executed a perfectly timed sliding tackle on Peter Lovenkrands in the six-yard box but the ball rolled invitingly into the path of Carroll a few yards out.
He glided past Wes Morgan and shaped to pull the trigger but fatally hesitated when presented with a clear sight of goal, allowing Forest to get more red shirts behind the ball. The visitors’ ambitions were limited to counter-attacks but when they were presented with opportunities, they looked menacing. Forest’s highly-rated Radoslaw Majeski moved with intent into the box on the half-hour mark and it was only a well-timed intervention from Mike Williamson that stopped him from zeroing in on Steve Harper’s goal.
United finished in the ascendancy, but a smart Enrique drive zipped across the rain-sodden turf without a finishing touch from the out-stretched boot of Lovenkrands.
Having built a platform in the first half, Davies sensed a crucial 45 minutes for his side’s promotion ambitions. As resolute as they had been in the first period, a point was no good to Forest and Davies loosened the shackles in the early stages of the second half. Newcastle wobbled but ultimately stood firm.
Within seconds of the re-start Chris Cohen galloped past Danny Simpson and delivered a precise ball to an unmarked Nathan Tyson but the striker suffered stage fright, looping his header harmlessly into the arms of Harper. Newcastle looked uneasy, and the fears of the home crowd grew when a subdued Carroll, not fully able to shake off an ankle knock, was withdrawn for Shola Ameobi.
While United’s biggest threat had disappeared, Forest’s attacking influence was growing. But Newcastle were able to fall back on fine performances from Williamson and Jose Enrique, who provided timely blocks to prevent Forest from consolidating their ascendancy. Williamson, in particular, timed a tackle on Dexter Blackstock to perfection as Davies’ men began to grow ambitious.
United, as ever, had prepared the perfect riposte. Ameobi was having trouble getting into the game but when Kevin Nolan prodded a pass into his path, the striker turned two Forest defenders, took a couple of smart touches and smacked a low drive beyond Camp.
It was a strike of brilliant simplicity – Ameobi’s ninth in 14 games to remind Newcastle fans that Carroll isn’t the only homegrown forward capable of scoring important goals.
Newcastle grew in threat, the impressive Routledge finding space as a desperate Forest pushed forward. The flying winger tested Camp with a thunderous drive before setting up Nolan, who was again defied by the Forest keeper.
Davies’ men looked spent – and Newcastle added a quite sublime second in stoppage time. Again it was Ameobi in the thick of things, setting up Enrique to finish with a clever back-heel.
He was booked for removing his shirt in the aftermath, but there was to be no raining on United’s promotion parade.