NEWCASTLE UNITED 1 - 0 BURTON ALBIONMatt Ritchie's 68th minute goal provided a moment of magic to end Burton Albion's hopes of taking a point from their game away at Championship leaders Newcastle United.
The Magpies returned to the top of the table with the three points but Albion put in an immensely positive and brave performance, full of grit, desire and resolve in the north east to fill them with hope for the rest of the season starting with another big game against Aston Villa on Saturday.
Had Newcastle not taken all the points courtesy of Ritchie's finish St James' Park would have probably ended in uproar as referee Keith Stroud became the centre of attention in the first half, firstly awarding the home side a penalty before ruling out Ritchie's strike from the spot and bizarrely awarding Albion an indirect free kick. Mystery surrounded what decision the Hampshire official had given but Albion were not arguing especially as it took over four minutes to sort the whole incident out and only three added minutes were forthcoming at the end of the first half! It had seemed a harsh penalty in the first instance so from that perspective justice seemed to have been done.
Albion were not without chances against their lofy opponents, Jackson Irvine perhaps guilty of missing the best chance with a volley over the bar from inside the box that failed to test Karl Darlow.
Following the dramatic victory at Huddersfield on Saturday that put Albion four points clear of the Championship bottom three manager Nigel Clough freshened his side up with three changes for the much anticipated trip to St James' Park. All three substitutes that came on at Huddersfield started the game against Rafa Benitez's promotion favourites. Goalscorer Jackson Irvine came back into the midfield three for Michael Kightly whilst Lucas Akins also started, playing in the right wing back berth as John Brayford moved into the centre of defence with Kyle McFadzean dropping to the bench after picking up a knock. Luke Varney also provided fresh legs up front as Cauley Woodrow took a well earned rest.
Playing down the slope towards the Gallowgate End in the first half Newcastle were quickly out of the traps and a barnstorming run from left back Paul Dummett picked out the run of Matt Ritchie inside the box but his shot was deflected, crucially, by Tom Flanagan at the expense of an early corner. The home side also had vociferous shouts for a oenalty when Dwight Gayle went over just inside the box, referee Stroud excellently positioned to wave away home shouts.
Albion were struggling to get out of their own half and Ayoze Perez quickly seized upon a chance to shoot inside the box volleying a shot straight against Brayford diving across to provide the block.
High pressing from Irvine forced a mistake at the back from Newcastle that allowed Varney to run forwards with purpose on 14 minutes. Finding Lasse Vigen Christensen in support he gave the Danish midfielder the opportunity to stride twoards the edge of the penalty area. Resisting the temptation to get a shot in he tried to pick out Varney looking for the return ball but an offside flag halted Albion in their trakcs.
An excellent chance came Albion's way shortly afterwards and it was Irvine cursing his miss from 14 yards. A long free kick from Brayford was headed on by the Aussie with Varney's challenge forcing Dummett to head the ball straight back to the Burton top scorer. He had plenty of time to set himself but sent his volley over the crossbar.
Albion continued to look bright when they could get it into attacking area with just the final ball lacking. Newcastle were looking dangerous each time they got into the final third and a dangerous ball across the box from Ayoze Perez had to be cleared behind for a corner by Akins although the pressure from Ritchie looked to be a foul which referee Stroud ignored. Moments later and it was Akins adjudged to have fouled just outside the box giving the home side a dangerous looking free kick. It looked to be a good angle for Ritchie to whip in a left footer but instead it was Gayle who sent a shot high and wide.
On the half hour mark the ground went into pandemonium as the Magpies were awarded a penalty. Gayle latched onto a through ball but appeared to trip over his own feet under pressure from Flanagan. Ritchie took responsibility for the spot kick and comprehensively beat McLaughlin who dived to his right as the ball flew into the opposite corner of the net. Cue uproar as Mr Stroud decided to rule out the goal and award the Brewers a free kick for a foul by Gayle on the edge of the box as the players rushed in for any rebounds. A prolonged discussion between the referee and his fellow officials ensued with both Rafa Benitez and players from both sides eager to have their say. Stroud though was not for changing his decision and after several minutes McLaughlin finally resumed play by taking the free kick to howls of derision from the home support.
A lighting quick counter led by Christian Atsu had Gayle racing into the box once more but McLaughlin was strong at his near post to keep him out.
Albion almost added insult to the home sides woes when Varney found space to get a shot in from the edge of the box but his effort was never seriously troubling Karl Darlow as it went wide of the post. Sordell also looped a header easily into the arms of the Newcastle keeper under his crossbar.
Amazingly, despite all the furore around the penalty and the length of time taken to sort it all out only three minutes were added on at the end of the first half and Albion had a couple of corners that they failed to capitalise one although Newcastle finished the half on top and on the attack.
Half time: Newcastle United 0-0 Burton Albion
The second half got off to a quieter start than the first half ended although another chorus of boos greeted the match officials as they returned to the pitch. Sordell continued his promising performance with a shot on the turn that flew well wide and Irvine put Darlow under pressure to claim a teasing cross under his crossbar as Albion continued to look threatening.
As the hour mark approached Newcastle spurned one of their clearest openings yet. Atsu threaded a pass through the Burton back line for Perez to seize upon but he slid his shot wide. In truth he should have at least hit the target. It spurred the hosts into another spell of pressure and McLaughlin was soon diving full length to superbly hold on to a rasping shot from Ritchie that looked set for the top corner. Jonjo Shelvey was next to have a go, set up by Gayle his 20 yard effort just arced away from the target with McLaughlin powerless going to his left.
The pressure was certainly building and when Gayle once again went to ground, firing a rebound over the bar following a good save from McLaughlin a Mo Diame piledriver. Referee Stroud pointed for a goal kick but many inside the ground thought that he was pointing to the penalty spot.
If Newcastle were starting to get a bit jittery as the second half reached its midway point it didnt last long as RITCHIE came up with a moment of class to break the deadlock. Picking the ball up and driving infield he skirted around a challenge from Mousinho before curling a right footed effort beyond the reach of McLaughlin, this time rippling the inside of the net.
A nasty looking collision between Ben Turner and Brayford left the latter requiring lengthy treatment and a large bandage around the head when he finally got to his feet again.
Having already brought on Michael Kightly for Christensen a second Burton change saw Lloyd Dyer replace Akins with Flanagan switching to the right to enable the left footer to slot in on his natural side.
A little over five minutes remained when Albion sent on Cauley Woodrow with nothing to lose and everything to gain. The Fulham youngster barely had chance to make an impact as Newcastle did everything they could to run the clock down with late substitutions. One of those subs, Sammi Ameobi launched a late run, deep into stoppage time, down the right hand side and set up Shelvey inside the box but the midfielder missed his chance to put a gloss on the scoreline firing over from 15 yards. It was the last chance for both sides and Albion must now prepare for their last six games. This game may have ended pointless for Albion but there were huge positives to take into the remainder of the season.