After an absence of 316 days, Newcastle United returned to the Premier League with almost indecent haste last night. That they have done so by utterly dominating the Championship, despite exiting the top flight in disarray less than 12 months ago, underlined the worrying gulf between the top two tiers of English football. That, however, is a debate for another day. Last night was simply party Tyne.
Chris Hughton had been predicted by many to take Newcastle out of this division at the first time of asking. In the opposite direction. Kevin Keegan's first words after guiding the club into the top flight 17 years ago were something along the lines of "bring on Manchester United". Hughton, who celebrated promotion with a cup of coffee before moving onto something a little stronger, preferred to play up the players' contributions. "I'm not the most emotional person," the manager said. "That we've secured it with six games to spare is testament to the players and the season they've had. It's what we've been building towards all year."
His opposite number, Kevin Blackwell, was rather more forthright in his assessment of Hughton's achievement. "If you've not got balls then you won't get out of this division. Newcastle have shown they've got balls. They deserve to be in the Premier League and it's a terrific achievement."
Their Easter resurrection sealed before they had even kicked a ball in anger thanks to Nottingham Forest's inability to beat Cardiff, the mood on Tyneside was one more of reflecting on a job well done, rather than that of mass hysteria, such has been the inevitability of their elevation since Christmas. With promotion assured, ambition has now shifted to securing the title, which can be clinched at Reading next week.
Sheffield United, despite having little to play for last night, proved worthy opponents, even having the temerity to take the lead through Richard Cresswell's first-half header from a James Harper corner.
Peter Lovenkrands levelled from the penalty spot a minute before the break after Chris Morgan held back Andy Carroll at a corner. "If that was a penalty, they're going to be giving hundreds next season," a disgruntled Blackwell insisted.
In the second half, Jonas Gutierrez struck the post after covering half the length of the pitch, before Kevin Nolan capped a stand-out personal campaign with a 72nd-minute winner, his 14th goal of the season, courtesy of a fine overhead volley from 10 yards. "Kevin's been a massive presence for us this season, both on and off the pitch," Hughton added. "It was fitting he should get the winner."
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Simpson, Coloccini, Williamson, Enrique; Routledge, Nolan, Guthrie, Gutierrez; Lovenkrands, Carroll. Substitutes not used: Barton, R Taylor, Best, Butt, Ameobi, Krul (gk), Kadar.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Simonsen; Nosworthy, Morgan, Seip, A Taylor; Williamson, Montgomery, Harper, Quinn; Cresswell, Henderson. Substitutes not used: Yeates, Bennett (gk), Bartley, Little, Geary, Fortune, Lowton.
Referee: A Hall (West Midlands).