IN the regal setting of Royal Berkshire, Newcastle United as good as claimed the crown of Championship kings.
Setting the scene perfectly for a St James’ Park coronation in 11 days time, king-maker Kevin Nolan moved United to within a point of the title with a brilliantly executed brace to rout the Royals.
Scoring classily with right and left boot to bookmark an often edgy first half performance, Nolan ensured another impressively efficient away day yielded the maximum points return.
As Reading’s supporters never tired of reminding Newcastle’s near 4,000 support, they won’t quite edge past the Royals’ second tier record of 106 points but they have matched the dominance Steve Coppell’s side illustrated in winning the title that year.
This was yet more evidence of why they are deservedly at the top of the pile. Against spirited opponents in a winning groove, United’s hard graft and offensive savvy was enough to nick three points.
Just one more at Plymouth – and it may not require that if Middlesbrough can do their North East neighbours a favour at West Brom over the weekend – and the players will be able to lift the trophy at St James’ Park. It would be a fitting end to a long, hard slog of a season. They have been made to work for it and were again put through their paces by a team transformed since Brian McDermott assumed control.
For a good 20 minutes United found themselves under siege. Jobi McAnuff signaled his intentions with a long-range howitzer before the prickly Shane Long – a persistent menace – squeezed in between Fabricio Coloccini and Steve Harper before angling a shot wide.
It caught a revamped United, who reverted to Hughton’s favoured 4-4-1-1 formation, off guard and they looked nervous defending Reading’s forays into the final third.
Even that famously robust defence began making mistakes – first the ever-reliable Harper opting to punch unconvincingly under pressure from Long before Coloccini ran out of options while trying to carry the ball away from the tireless Irish strike in his own penalty area.
It looked as if United’s 13-game unbeaten run was in serious peril but once again, they were dug out of a hole by the ruthless precision of midfield talisman Nolan. United’s 17-goal man has made a habit of riding to the rescue when momentum is railing against his side and he repeated the trick with a goal of glorious simplicity on the 20 minute mark.
Harper’s meaty punt from the edge of the box was brought down brilliantly by Shola Ameobi, who supplied the ammunition for Nolan to fire a low drive under the body of Adam Federici.
The delighted midfielder had reclaimed his top league goal-scorer tag from the benched Andy Carroll – and set about reminding the Newcastle kit man Ray Thompson with a friendly shove on the touchline as part of a jocular celebration.
Few in a healthy home crowd at the Madjeski Stadium joined in the laughter. Their side had been on top but fortune had swung emphatically back towards the visitors and now it was United’s turn to attack with lustre.
Wayne Routledge was turning in another live-wire display on the right of midfield and he was just inches away from doubling the advantage following neat work by Danny Guthrie. The former Liverpool man has been the creative fulcrum for Newcastle since the turn of the year and his intelligent ball was sliced just inches wide of Federici’s goal by United’s fleet-footed winger.
United were beginning to move through the gears and a second duly arrived. Guthrie and Routledge were again heavily involved, the former flicking an incisive pass to the former before the advancing Nolan swept the ball past Reading’s unfortunate American goalkeeper.
This was Nolan at his best, and a timely blast for those critics who have been far too quick to write him off as a potential Premier League performer next season. Operating off an impressively robust Ameobi, he was picking off the final Reading man with unerring regularity and making the most of the merest of chances.
United began the second period in the ascendancy. Nolan should have completed his hat-trick seven minutes after re-start when, after more good work by Routledge on the right, he stooped low to connect with a well-flighted cross. The massed ranks of Newcastle support behind the goal sensed a third goal but to Nolan’s disbelief the ball rebounded off the post and defender Alex Pearce was able to hack clear.
Newcastle seemed to be moving forward seamlessly but a dreadful slice of misfortune helped peg them back.
Reading were building pressure in the penalty area and Harper had to pull off a fine reflex save from a Simon Church header to preserve Newcastle’s two-goal lead. But as blue and white bodies strained every sinew to try and force the ball over the line, a United player did it for them as substitute Jose Enrique smacked a goal-line clearance against Danny Simpson’s back. The ball could have ended up anywhere in the ground but it looped over a helpless Harper’s despairing arm and into the net to give Reading a foothold in the contest.
Hughton sensed a shift in momentum and reverted to 4-4-2 as Reading sought to kick on. But the home side were winded by a serious injury to defender Bryn Gunnarsson, who was stretchered off after falling awkwardly in the area. With McDermott having used all his substitutes, Reading were forced to play out the final minutes with ten men.
There were groans in the away end when the fourth official flashed for seven minutes of stoppage time but United were able to navigate them safely. Indeed it was Newcastle who went closest, Nolan firing over the bar wildly after being put clean through and Gutierrez forcing Federici into a smart stop at his near post.