Reading 1 Newcastle United 2
IN the regal setting of Royal Berkshire, Newcastle United as good as claimed the crown of Championship kings.
Setting the scene perfectly for a St James’ Park coronation in 11 days time, king-maker Kevin Nolan moved United to within a point of the title with a brilliantly executed brace to rout the Royals.
Scoring classily with right and left boot to bookmark an often edgy first half performance, Nolan ensured another impressively efficient away day yielded the maximum points return.
As Reading’s supporters never tired of reminding Newcastle’s near 4,000 support, they won’t quite edge past the Royals’ second tier record of 106 points but they have matched the dominance Steve Coppell’s side illustrated in winning the title that year.
This was yet more evidence of why they are deservedly at the top of the pile. Against spirited opponents in a winning groove, United’s hard graft and offensive savvy was enough to nick three points.
Just one more at Plymouth – and it may not require that if Middlesbrough can do their North East neighbours a favour at West Brom over the weekend – and the players will be able to lift the trophy at St James’ Park. It would be a fitting end to a long, hard slog of a season. They have been made to work for it and were again put through their paces by a team transformed since Brian McDermott assumed control.
For a good 20 minutes United found themselves under siege. Jobi McAnuff signaled his intentions with a long-range howitzer before the prickly Shane Long – a persistent menace – squeezed in between Fabricio Coloccini and Steve Harper before angling a shot wide.
It caught a revamped United, who reverted to Hughton’s favoured 4-4-1-1 formation, off guard and they looked nervous defending Reading’s forays into the final third.
Even that famously robust defence began making mistakes – first the ever-reliable Harper opting to punch unconvincingly under pressure from Long before Coloccini ran out of options while trying to carry the ball away from the tireless Irish strike in his own penalty area.
It looked as if United’s 13-game unbeaten run was in serious peril but once again, they were dug out of a hole by the ruthless precision of midfield talisman Nolan. United’s 17-goal man has made a habit of riding to the rescue when momentum is railing against his side and he repeated the trick with a goal of glorious simplicity on the 20 minute mark.