IT has been a dauntingly fascinating experience Newcastle United will have no desire to repeat in a hurry. Their stay in the Coca-Cola Championship has been brilliantly brief, their absence will hopefully be reassuringly long.
It is the nature of professional sport that as soon as you respond to one challenge or answer one set of questions, others are instantly thrown at you.
Promotion back to the Premier League was an achievement rightly celebrated last night, but it is not a party which can be allowed to last all summer.
The Newcastle United which returns to the top flight feels completely different to the one which departed it last May, although there is little time to bask in the glory of success.
Promotion was the main objective at the start of the season, the title will be the chief one between now and May.
As the hangovers begin to clear this morning, many will already have started to turn their attention to what happens next in a division which chewed them up and spat them out.
Too good for the second tier, but are they good enough to hold their own again in the Premier League?
No side has been promoted to the Premier League with more games to spare – six – than Newcastle have achieved, a statistic, more than any other, which signifies their dominance of a division which wanted to embrace them, strangle them and keep them for far longer than just one solitary campaign.
The Championship’s loss is very much to Newcastle’s gain, but this wonderfully united squad, for all of its hard work, dedication and expertise, will need to be overhauled.
These players are assured of their place in the club’s history, but nobody’s long-term future is certain given the size and ambition of a club which has done well to get back on its feet so quickly.
Promotion was assured before a ball had even been kicked last night as Nottingham Forest failed to beat Cardiff City at home, which ensured there was all the fun of the fair against Sheffield United without anyone feeling nauseous on the ride.
It was also precisely the sort of occasion which can generate bad habits, and Newcastle’s passing lacked its usual crispness as individual sloppiness combined in a lacklustre first-half display which had Chris Hughton screaming his disgust from the touchline.
Newcastle did create chances, it is just they also allowed the visitors to see far more of the ball than opposition sides have been used to on their trips to St James’ Park this season.
Sheffield United should have taken the lead through Richard Cresswell, but the big striker hooked the ball over the top from eight yards.
Cresswell made amends moments later when Fabricio Coloccini failed to get off the ground and allowed the former Stoke man to plant a header past Steve Harper. Uncharacteristically bad defending from the Magpies, and the Argentinian in particular, was matched by poor finishing at the other end, Danny Guthrie stabbing a good chance wide after just nine minutes before Wayne Routledge missed an ever better one, lifting his shot over the bar after he had been sent clear by Kevin Nolan.
José Enríque’s mis-hit cross almost crept under the bar, but Newcastle’s pressure did not bring an equaliser, Jonás Gutiérrez beating three defenders only to cross straight to a fourth as Routledge, Peter Løvenkrands and Andy Carroll all went close.
Newcastle’s momentum was growing, despite a few scary moments at the back, and they were finally level in the final minute of the half as Lovenkrands – who had earlier been denied by a brilliant save by Steve Simonsen – converted from 12 yards after Chris Morgan had bear-hugged Carroll at a corner. Again, however, Newcastle began the second half slowly as they failed to start the new period with the same gusto they had shown at the end of the first and the Blades looked comfortable as they tried to preserve parity.
The Magpies – who are estimated to boost their revenue by as much as £60m following promotion – failed to fire properly and it took them almost 15 minutes to fashion a half chance when Løvenkrands’ first-time shot flew narrowly over the bar in front of the Gallowgate.
The Dane – whose penalty had taken him to 15 for the season – had a far better one just past the hour mark but, having sprung the defensive line to run on to Enrique’s through ball, he fired wastefully wide.
Gutiérrez came closer. Skinning full-back Nyron Nosworthy – on loan from Sunderland – he cut inside on to his right foot and curled a low shot past Simonsen – only for the ball to come back off the post.
Sheffield responded almost immediately, James Harper dragging a decent opening wide, but Newcastle would not be denied forever, Nolan shifting his sizeable frame with rare agility as he scissor-kicked in a flick-on from Lovenkrands for his 15th of an excellent season. Again, sheer bloody belligerence had ground their rivals’ resistance down.
Guthrie was denied a third by another good stop from South Shields-born Simonsen dashing from his line before Shola Ameobi had an effort ruled out for offside in stoppage time.
Our fears were unfounded, our hope has been restored, our optimism revived. Newcastle United are back where they belong – and they have made it look easy getting there even when it has been anything but.