Matt Ritchie secures win over Derby to send Newcastle top of the table
Matt Ritchie’s deflected goal lifted Newcastle United back to the top of the Championship but, with Derby County’s Tom Ince missing an extraordinary late sitter and Darren Bent seeing a last-gasp header cleared off the line, Steve McClaren’s return to Tyneside very nearly proved unexpectedly rewarding.
It meant that a difficult week, in which Rafael Benítez made his displeasure at not being allowed to sign a single player in January plain, ended on a note of relief.
“We had to fight against a good team to get three points,” said Newcastle’s manager whose side had stumbled to a disappointing midweek draw against QPR here. “But the positive thing was the communication with the fans. The supporters realised they could make the difference and the players responded by running a little bit more.”
Horrified by the realisation Benítez could easily walk out should Mike Ashley, the club’s owner, fail to offer him control of summer recruitment, the Gallowgate End bombarded the Spaniard with non-stop declarations of devotion. During the brief interludes when they tired of merely chanting his name, choruses of “If you love Rafa stand up” rained down from the stands. “I can’t complain about that,” he said, smiling. “I’m happy if they keep singing my name, but the players are more important.”
The atmosphere dictated that, almost 11 months after being sacked by Ashley, St James’ Park must have seemed a lonely place for McClaren who was largely ignored by his former public.
Considering his nine months in charge precipitated Newcastle’s relegation last spring, the former England manager must have been braced for a hostile reception but, instead, the home fans – many of whom realise he was badly let down by Ashley – were too fixated on Benítez to take much notice of him.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Derby’s manager. “We stood off Newcastle in the first half but we had a right go in the second, we got them very nervous and we deserved a draw.”
Ritchie’s 27th-minute goal proved decisive, his speculative curling shot taking a hefty deflection off Bradley Johnson before looping over the wrong-footed Scott Carson.
Yet although Carson subsequently performed wonders to keep the initially impressive Mo Diamé’s low shot out, Benítez’s side were never wholly convincing against opponents pushing strongly for a play-off place. It required a last-ditch interception from Ciaran Clark to prevent Bent from scoring after the striker pounced on a slapdash pass and accelerated seamlessly into the area.
At the outset of the second half, Aleksandar Mitrovic screwed a shot wide when he really should have extended the lead but, gradually, Johnson began interrupting Newcastle’s midfield flow and Benítez’s technical area body language turned slightly tense.
Sensing his former team could no longer control the tempo – or keep their shape – McClaren introduced the pacy Abdoul Camara and, suddenly, the Derby fans high in the Leazes End rediscovered their voices – along with a modicum of hope.
If a thoroughly mortified Ince had avoided shooting wide from point-blank range when one on one with Karl Darlow, and DeAndre Yedlin had not scooped Bent’s header off the line, their side would have departed with a point.
McClaren though became horribly familiar with “if onlys” during his Tyneside tenure. “It was always going to be a difficult afternoon and I’ve come away with nothing,” he said, ruefully. “We move on.”
But not until he had dropped into his former office. “I’ll have a glass of wine with Rafa,” he said. “And we’ll have a very interesting – and very private – conversation.”
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