Newcastle made light work of a struggling Scunthorpe United side to move four points clear at the top of the Championship. The final scoreline may have been only 3-0 but it could have been much more given the apparent chasm between the two sides. The game also gave Newcastle the chance to avenge their 2-1 loss to Scunthorpe earlier on in the season. Since that almost embarrassing defeat way back in October the Magpies have suffered just one defeat in 23 league games. Wednesday night saw Newcastle achieve another landmark as they recorded their 18th clean sheet of the season, drawing them level with the club record achieved by Kevin Keegan’s class of 1992-93.
The way things are looking this season Chris Hughton’s men look like achieving the same feat of 1992-93 by securing promotion to the Premier League. They now hold a 12 point gap over third placed Nottingham Forest as well as a game in hand on them. With only 10 games now left in the season for Newcastle maximum points from half of those games will be enough to secure automatic promotion. Their mid-week 3-0 romp over relegation candidates Scunthorpe was as easy as any match they have played so far this season. Newcastle created chance after chance in the first half and were then able to take their foot of the pedal for the second half. They know that next season things are going to be a lot tougher but for now it is all about enjoying the comfort of being one of the top dogs in the league. Strikers Andy Carroll and Peter Lovenkrands were once again on target as they both moved to 14 goals for the season. Manager Hughton faces a tough decision in the summer over whether this pair has what it takes to score regularly in the top flight. If he believes that they do not then he will need to invest what is likely to be a limited transfer budget on a proven Premier League marksman.
Chris Hughton is not counting his chickens just yet when it comes to the issue of Newcastle returning to the top flight. He wants his side to stay focused on the task in hand until it is mathematically proven that Newcastle are up. He said: “It’s a healthy lead, “It’s a wonderful position that we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in. We always knew the most important gap would be the one between first and third position, and that’s the one we’re concentrating on. We’ve worked hard to be able to open up that gap. But the most important thing is that we keep winning matches because we haven’t achieved anything yet. I’m delighted with the application tonight, we’re a side that’s playing very well at home.”
For now however, Newcastle face two fixtures on the road in quick succession. On Saturday they face manager-less Bristol City, they then face Doncaster Rovers just three days later. While there will not be so much pressure on those two games compared to earlier on in the season they could well play a deciding factor in the destination of the league winner’s trophy. Bristol City currently lie 15th in the table but they will have one eye on the relegation places after a recent, poor run of form. Their abysmal showings led to manager Gary Johnson leaving by mutual consent on Thursday, meaning that assistant Keith Millen will take charge for the televised clash. Ahead of the game the Magpies have doubts over trio Wayne Routledge, Danny Simpson and Peter Lovenkrands. Alan Smith and Shola Ameobi should both remain on the sidelines while midfielder Joey Barton is unlikely to be involved this early.
Barton continued his recovery from a foot injury by playing 75 minutes for the Newcastle reserves in mid-week. The controversial Scouser played 75 minutes against Hartlepool United’s second string with his biggest contribution being a missed penalty. Barton faces a tough challenge to get into the first team even with Nicky Butt and Smith struggling for fitness. Kevin Nolan and Danny Guthrie have linked up well in recent weeks so Barton is likely to be on the bench for many of the remaining matches. However Barton has lost little of his confidence in his ability. He said: “It will be tough getting back into the team but I am looking forward to it.” He added: “At one stage I was in the top echelon of midfielders in this country. There’s certainly none of my ability lost, I actually feel a better player now.” So far Barton has disappointed in a black and white shirt but his experience and ability may be important next season.