Nolan jerks Newcastle back to life at the top

Newcastle United 1 Preston North End 0

One of the few advantages of the paralysis that gripped Newcastle United at the start of the season was that, almost involuntarily, they clung on to their better players; men who could shake the club out of its torpor and help them climb back to the top of the Championship. Men like Kevin Nolan.

When he came to a stricken St James' Park in the January transfer window, it was to join a dressing room with scarely a relegation clause in their contracts between them. And yet he and they have flourished in the second tier. When the midfielder spun in the box and shot past Andy Lonergan it was Nolan's eighth league goal of the season, most of which have come away from Tyneside.

It left the Newcastle manager, Chris Hughton, clear about the reasons for his team's success so far: "We've been able to keep clean sheets – that was our ninth of the season – and we have a goalscorer in Kevin Nolan."

Newcastle is not a city short on entertainment, even on a Monday night, and the thousands who had braved the rains that have been sweeping Cumbria to reach Deepdale were reduced to tossing a beach ball towards the pitch in an attempt to liven up proceedings. Nevertheless, their side's fourth straight victory took Newcastle two points clear of West Bromwich Albion.

For Alan Irvine, the second anniversary of his appointment as Preston manager was scarred not just by the result but the loss of Youl Mawene, who was taken to hospital with suspected ruptured ligaments after a collision with his goalkeeper.

The two best chances of the night fell to Neil Mellor in either half. Both shots had power but lacked Nolan's finesse. The first was saved by Steve Harper, the second hit the side-netting.

Newcastle lacked aggression, although Alan Smith, naturally, was a great exception, who may have been fortunate to remain on the pitch after leading with his elbow against Chris Sedgwick and then launching into a typically reckless and whole-hearted challenge after the interval.

Preston North End (4-4-2): Longeran; Jones, Mawene (Chilvers, 45), Collins, Davidson (Nolan, 74); Sedgwick (Parkin, 80), Chaplow, Tonge, Parry; Brown, Mellor. Substitutes not used: Henderson (g) Shumulikoski, Carter, Elliott.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Simpson (Kadar, 65), Coloccini, Taylor, Jose Enrique; Guthrie (Lovenkrands, 90), Nolan, Smith, Gutierrez; Carroll (Ranger, 62), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Krul (g), Geremi, Pancrate, Donaldson.

Referee: S Matheson (Cheshire).

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