IT is the longest journey in the Football League, but an impressively efficient Newcastle United made short work of Plymouth Argyle to clinch the Championship title.
By the time United’s title winners have dragged their tired limbs and sore heads the 400-odd miles back to Newcastle some time this afternoon, they will have spent 16 hours traversing the country by train and coach. That they have been forced on to land is ironic because they have occupied a different plane to the rest of the Championship all season – and will finish deserved champions.
Last night it was as routine as any of United’s 11 travelling victories have been this season thanks to goals from the two players whose form in the second half of the campaign has done much to make their title win look routine.
Andy Carroll, recalled after sitting out the Reading win, got the title party started with a beautifully weighted header for his 18th goal of a memorable first full season in the senior team. He has weighed in with 14 since the turn of the year, many of them at crucial times.
January capture Wayne Routledge scored the second, only his third in a United shirt but his contribution has been equally important. Supplying pace and creativity to a team that was ruthlessly efficient but not always particularly pleasant to watch, he has helped transform United.
Much will be expected of that pair next season. Both young and exciting players, they have the talent to make an impact in the Premier League and, as they illustrated last night, they have certainly outgrown the second tier.
A word for United’s supporters, too. Some 2,400 made it to Home Park in the most difficult of circumstances to see history play out, and they had earned their moment.
Thanks to Sky’s crassly insensitive rescheduling and the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, most had taken time off work and paid through the noses for petrol and hotel rooms simply to be there. But every volcanic ash cloud has its silver lining, and for the hordes who made the journey it came in seeing United clinch their first piece of silverware since 1993.
Given that they represent the hardest of hardcore, many of them, no doubt, would have been on the terraces at Villa Park on that calamitous day last May when United lost their Premier League status. They will have enjoyed their day in the sun, and not just because of the glorious weather and the generous welcome extended by their Cornish hosts.
Plymouth made themselves a few new friends in the North East by parading a banner congratulating Newcastle on behalf of their loyal ‘Green Army’ of supporters, a gesture that prompted warm applause from the massed ranks of travelling supporters.
Their respect even extended to playing Queen’s We Are the Champions and Blaydon Races for the away team at the end – a marvellous gesture considering it was a result which consigned them to League One. But while the denizens of Home Park were proving genial hosts, there was little friendly about the way they began.
With less than a minute on the clock United found themselves indebted to Steve Harper for keeping the scores level; United’s long-serving ‘keeper parrying Jamie Mackie’s low drive after Fitz Hall’s lazy back pass was picked up and crossed into the box by Damien Johnson.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the presence of the respected former United coach John Carver on their coaching staff, Argyle were well-organised and spirited, and they caused a few problems in the early stages.
The wonderfully named Bondz N’Gala sent a header flying over the crossbar from an Alan Judge corner. United, however, reacted as they have all season, by moving through the gears. Slowly but surely they upped the pressure on Argyle and, when they had forced a corner on 20 minutes, it reaped rewards.
Danny Guthrie, excellent all night, delivered a swirling flag kick deep into the penalty box and Andy Carroll beat Reda Johnson to direct a cushioned header into the corner of David Stockdale’s net.
Plymouth’s support were sickened and so too was Kevin Nolan, who surprisingly threw up on the pitch as his team-mates celebrated – a sight caught in glorious high definition for Sky’s Monday night viewers.
That was nothing more than a minor distraction, though, and within eight minutes they had doubled their lead with a goal that belonged in the Premier League.
Joey Barton exchanged passes with Guthrie before dissecting the Plymouth back four with a sublime measured pass for Wayne Routledge. The wing tyro’s turn of pace took him clear of Onismor Bhasera and he rounded goalkeeper Stockdale before stroking the ball into the back of the net from a tight angle.
By then, Newcastle were hitting their stride and exerting a champion’s influence. Mackie stung the palms of Harper with a fiercely-struck volley but United were in almost complete control, as Jose Enrique illustrated by skilfully slipping past Alan Judge on the edge of his own penalty area. Plymouth were outclassed but they were determined not be out-fought, continuing to make United work hard for their openings. Just before half-time they went close when Bradley Wright-Phillips sent a dipping shot inches over Harper’s crossbar.
Alan Judge went even closer after the restart, smacking the bar with a dipping shot. Plymouth needed something to drop, but it was Argyle’s heads which dropped as the half wore on.
United, meanwhile, were making it all look so effortless. Substitute Leon Best’s curling shot spun off the crossbar, then Barton saw his close range side-foot shot well saved by Stockdale after Routledge had weaved more magic down the left.