Newcastle United took another step towards a Premier League return last night thanks to Matt Ritchie’s glorious second half strike, which was enough to see off Burton Albion in a game that will be remembered for one of the most bizarre refereeing decisions you are ever likely to see.
Rafa Benitez fielded an attacking line up, with three changes from Saturday’s victory over Wigan, seeing Gouffran, Colback and Hanley drop out the side for the incoming Atsu, Perez and Mbemba – the first appearance of 2017 for the forgotten Congolese centre-back.
There were no complaints from me as I saw the team announced. It was a welcomed sight to see such an attacking line up. I was also buoyed to finally see Benitez start Mo Diame in his most natural position, seeing him drop back into central midfield, replacing Jack Colback alongside Jonjo Shelvey.
We came out of the blocks quickly and were immediately on the front foot, with it quickly becoming apparent that Burton were happy to surrender possession and get men behind the ball.
Newcastle, to their credit, began moving the ball well, with the forward thinking partnership of Shelvey and Diame spreading the play nicely, as Dummett and Atsu combined well down the left in the early stages. Rafa’s men were dominating the ball and looked by far and away the better side, however were just missing that piece of quality in the final third.
The first incident arrived in the 6th minute, as Dwight Gayle turned John Brayford in the box, only to be scythed down by the Burton defender. It looked a stone wall penalty from where I was sitting and Benitez was incensed. Keith Stroud and his officials remained unmoved, however.
Burton were seeing very little of the play, however, a long ball into our box wasn’t fully dealt with, seeing the loose ball fall perfectly for Jackson Irvine, who lashed a right foot volley just over Karl Darlow’s crossbar. It was a rare attack form the visitors but a reminder that they were very much in the game.
The big moment, for all the wrong reasons, arrived on the half hour mark. Dwight Gayle was adjudged to have been bundled over in the box as he latched onto a through ball. For what it’s worth, I found this one to be less of a penalty than the challenge earlier in the game. Nonetheless, up stepped Matt Ritchie, who converted from the spot for his 11th of the season. Or so we thought.
Referee, Keith Stroud blew his whistle and indicated that a free kick would, in fact, be awarded to Burton. No sooner had my goal celebrations ended, I, like all fans was left utterly bamboozled, with the United players and coaching staff pleading with the officials for an explanation on this mind-boggling decision. This dragged on several minutes, with chaos descending around St. James’ Park, to the point where an Ipad emerged from the NUFC dugout to illustrate further to the 4th official just how big of a mess-up the referee was about to make.
As the picture below shows, Gayle was guilty of encroachment, entering the box as Ritchie struck the spot kick. The rules dictate that the penalty should therefore have been re-taken, however, Stroud took it upon himself to award a free kick to Burton, disallowing the goal in one of the most barmy refereeing decisions I have ever witnessed.
Chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ soon followed as the game finally restarted. Newcastle never quite re-settled in the moments that followed, but if the disallowed goal did one thing, it certainly raised the volume levels inside the stadium
As if the officiating wasn’t bad enough already, the fourth official’s board then indicated just 3 minutes of stoppage time – seeming way off the mark, given the post-penalty antics took well over 3 minutes alone.
The half time whistle was met with a chorus of boos, directed towards the man of the moment, Kevin Stroud, as he left the field. Fans and players were left with the bit between their teeth, however, eager to see justice done in the 2nd half.
Newcastle began the second half buoyed on by the wounded crowd, desperate to see justice done.
We continued to see waves of possession fail to materialise into any clear cut chances, until a superbly waited Christian Atsu through ball set Ayoze Perez in on goal. The Spaniard’s first touch was excellent, however the finish was narrowly wide. It was a golden opportunity and one that the patchy Perez would have hoped to have buried.
As the second half went on Burton appeared to be tire, as I began to wonder if their exploits from Saturday’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield were starting to tell.
Half chances continued to come and go, but just as the game begun to fall a little flat, our big moment arrived..
With just over 20 minutes remaining, Matt Ritchie picked the ball up on the left-hand-side and after cutting in on his right, curled a delightful 20 yard strike around the helpless Burton goalkeeper & into the top right hand corner of the net. Relief spilled out around the ground, with a feeling that justice had been done. Thankfully, this one did stand!
It was yet another moment of brilliance from Ritchie, who continues to work wonders at St. James’ Park.
Straight from kick off, however, a long ball hoisted into Newcastle’s defensive third was latched onto by Lucas Akins, with Matt Ritchie then adjudged to have tripped the Burton winger. It looked incredibly soft and provided Burton with a rare opportunity in a dangerous area. The free-kick was curled across the box and met by Ben Turner, who looked odds on to equalise, only for the out-rushing Karl Darlow to deny their goal bound effort. It was a big moment in the game, seeing Darlow, not for the first time, make a vital stop when called in from the cold.
As the game entered the final stages, certain players looked leggy, with the team appearing to need an injection of energy or presence to help see us through. One criticism I would therefore have of Rafa was the time taken to make such changes. Burton rarely threatened but it was clear that Atsu’s race was run well before he was eventually subbed, seeing Ameobi replace him in the 89th minute.
The full time whistle sounded to confirm another narrow but precious victory for the Magpies, lifting the curse of back-to-back home league wins, with victorys over Wigan on Saturday and Burton last night being the first time Newcastle have done so since 2013.
News of Huddersfield’s 3-0 victory against Norwich fell on relatively deaf ears, with a feeling amongst the crowd that Newcastle are not about to let this one slip, sitting 10 points ahead of the Terriers (effectively 11 points given goal difference) and within touching distance of a return to the top flight.
Darlow 7 – Crucial save to deny Burton from equalising soon after Ritchie’s opener.
Anita 6 – Solid if not unspectacular from the Dutchman who was rarely tested defensively.
Lascelles 6.5 – Won most of his battles in a more assured display, with Burton’s long balls playing to his strengths.
Mbemba 7 – Read the game well on his return to the side. Calm and composed in possession. Almost had a mix up with Darlow late on, with communication appearing to be something he must work on.
Dummett 7.5 – Carried a threat going forward in the early stages, linking up with Atsu particularly well in the first half. More assured in possession than in previous weeks and some dangerous balls into the box.
Diame 7.5 – Much improved from the Senegalese midfielder, who looked far more comfortable and confident in a deeper, central midfield role alongside Shelvey. Worked hard and spread the play nicely.
Shelvey 7 – Pulled the strings for most parts of the game, given license to roam as Burton sat deep.
Ritchie 8 – Man of the match yet again; a typically busy performance from the winger, capped off with an outstanding strike to seal all three points. Also worth noting he technically scored two..
Perez 5 – A few clever touches but struggled to make a real impact on the game. Robbed of possession too often with his attacks often coming to nothing. Missed big chance in second half too.
Atsu 5 – It was the ideal game for the Ghanaian to impress, however the pacey winger often flattered to deceive with poor final product. He looks to be a confidence player and it wasn’t his night last night.
Gayle 7 – Tireless running and some nice touches in and around the box. Starting to look sharper again, just needs to be given the service he craves.
With our next two games posing tough tests, with a trip to Sheffield Wednesday (Saturday) followed by a visit of Leeds United (Good Friday), there are challenges to overcome before any celebrations can begin, but results over the past week suggest Newcastle are fully focused on the task-in-hand and will continue to do so until the job is complete.