WHEN Newcastle United crash-landed in the Championship in May, it was meant to be nights like this that illustrated just how far they had fallen.
The prospect of tiny Scunthorpe United – who have spent most of their existence bouncing about the lower reaches of the Football League – rolling up at St James’ Park on equal terms with one of British football’s traditional powerhouses was supposed to be a chastening experience for a club that had fallen on lean times.
As it turns out, it merely served as a reminder that Newcastle United belong on a higher plain than the one they currently inhabit.
This straightforward win – Newcastle’s sixth in succession at Fortress St James’ Park – has taken them to within five victories of returning to the division from which they were rudely evicted last year, and not one neutral observer could argue that they don’t deserve it.
Unerringly efficient in the fag end of 2009, United have found an extra gear since the turn of the year on their own turf and opposition teams have begun to sense it.
Scunthorpe arrived, like the rest of them, hoping to spring a surprise but in truth it soon became apparent that they were like rabbits caught in the headlights of the black and white juggernaut.
St James’ Park has rarely witnessed a win as routine as the embarrassingly one-sided contest that played out last night.
Hughton has often talked of repelling complacency in the dressing room but when opponents as ill-equipped to cope as Scunthorpe begin to turn up, that is a mighty task.
Give Newcastle their due, they went about their business with ruthless efficiency – Andrew Carroll in particularly looking razor sharp against an Iron side that were set up to frustrate, but rarely looked capable of repelling a United outfit that looks irresistible on their own patch.
With the returning Wayne Routledge prompting from the right and a confident Jonas Gutierrez prowling down the left, they were stretched from off and when United breached their resistance on 10 minutes there was only ever going to be one winner of this lop-sided collision. It is now a case of predicting when – not if – they return to the top flight. Given the way that a youthful Nottingham Forest are imploding, Newcastle’s confirmation in next season’s Premier League could arrive as early as April 5, when Sheffield United are the visitors.
If that sounds complacent, consider the evidence of last night hopeless mismatch.
United’s early passing was loose but their struggling opponents simply never looked like they had the armoury to punish any Newcastle complacency.
An early glimpse of Scunthorpe’s lack of conviction was offered on five minutes when United found themselves hopelessly over-committed as an in-swinging Danny Guthrie corner was cleared.
With only Danny Simpson inside his own half the visitors’ pushed on with a numerical advantage only for Paul Hayes to betray Scunthorpe’s nerves with a hopelessly miscued pass that was easily swept up by the retreating black and white shirts on the edge of the penalty area.
If that foray into Newcastle territory gave the massed travelling supporters a flicker of hope, it was soon to be brutally extinguished. United won another corner kick courtesy of Routledge’s trickery and this time Guthrie planted a precise cross onto Andy Carroll’s head for a simple opening goal.
From that point, it was a stroll down Easy Street for this rampant United outfit.
Kevin Nolan had a goal chalked off a couple of minutes after Carroll drew first blood as United applied heavy pressure to their rattled opponents. With confidence surging through black and white veins, Newcastle forwards lined up to extend the home side’s advantage. Peter Lovenkrands inexplicably smacked the ball against the underside of the crossbar from six yards out on 17 minutes before Carroll stung visiting keeper Joe Murphy’s palms with a dipping long-range drive a couple of minutes later.
The inevitable second arrived on 22 minutes courtesy of a moment of ingenuity from the menacing Routledge. Drawing the attentions of a throng of blue shirts, he dissected the Scunthorpe defence with a precise pass and in-form Lovenkrands swept the ball past the advancing Murphy.
It was the Dane’s 14th goal of a season that has followed a steep upward trajectory and he should have added at least another couple to his tally before the referee brought the 45 minute massacre to an end.
He tested Murphy’s reflexes before the half-hour mark before narrowly failing to connect with Routledge’s cross as Newcastle continued to bombard Scunthorpe’s penalty area.
The Iron were afforded a quarter of an hours respite before Newcastle picked up where they left off in the second half.
Barely moving out of second gear, United extended their advantage within ten minutes of the restart.
Again it was the ruthless Carroll who found himself on the end of a beautifully weighted Guthrie pass, taking a couple of tidy touches before dispatching past the helpless Murphy.
Gutierrez thought he had added a fourth on 71 minutes with a dreamy curling finish but again the linesman denied the St James’ Park faithful a chance to catch another glimpse of his famous Spiderman mask.
Understandably, United eased off the gas as the clock rolled towards 90 minutes and Scunthorpe had a couple of pot shots at Harper’s goal.
But the long-serving stopper remained ever professional, and saved well from Donal McDermott to earn him an impressive 18th clean sheet of the Championship season.
Things were so comfortable that the home fans even coaxed a wave from their understated manager, usually noted for his supreme focus.
It is credit he deserves for making the arduous trek back to the Premier League seem like a stroll in the park.