Newcastle United bounced back from a difficult week off the pitch to secure a vital victory over former boss Steve McClaren’s Derby County and return to the top of the Championship table.
Matt Ritchie's deflected first-half effort secured a pivotal three points for the Magpies as the Toon supporters showed their support for boss Rafael Benitez throughout the game.
Benitez made three changes to the side that drew with QPR in midweek. Captain Jamaal Lascelles was dropped to the bench in place of Grant Hanley. The Toon boss also gave his side a new-look attack as Mohammed Diame was handed his first start since returning from the African Cup of Nations ahead of Ayoze Perez. Aleksander Mitrovic was given the chance to redeem himself for missing a penalty at Oxford United last weekend.
Support towards to Benitez
The opening four minutes of play was halted when Johnny Russell required treatment for a head injury, though he was fit to continue. The stoppage saw the Magpies supporters broadcast their support towards their boss Benitez. The ex-Real Madrid's name was sung all around St James' Park as Benitez acknowledged supporters with a quick wave.
Benitez’ future on Tyneside after this summer has been put under some doubt unless owner Mike Ashley gives the 56-year-old the reassurances he wants in the summer.
However, Benitez revealed in his pre-match press conference yesterday that he will not walk away from St James’ Park as he vows for everyone to pull together and guide the Toon Army back to the top flight.
The Geordie supporters showed that they stand by Benitez as they fight for a Premier League return.
Chances at both ends - opening 25 minutes
The Magpies were showing good signs from the off. Isaac Hayden hit a good chance straight at Scott Carson to give his side an early lead before Diame showed excellent strength to hold off Bradley Johnson in the centre park to site a goal, but Carson was unmoved by Diame's effort.
Derby, who were looking for their seventh away win of the season, did create first-half opportunities, though their first effort came from an error from Ritchie. The winger bizarrely passed the ball along his own box, leaving Ciaran Clark to heroically slide in and put ex-Sunderland player Darren Bent off at the crucial moment. Karl Darlow would then get down low to save a shot from Russell.
Ritchie gives the Magpies the lead - which they take to half-time
In the 27th minute, St James' Park had lift-off as Ritchie hammered a shot from outside the area, which hit Johnson on its way over Carson for a vital lead.
As their side led on the scoreline, the Toon supporters once again sang for Benitez "stand up if you love Rafa" echoed around St James' shortly before Diame was close to shooting the Toon Army into a two-goal advantage on 33 minutes. The Senegalese international connected well with Yedlin's pull back to see his stinging shot parried away by Carson.
Opportunities were limited for the remainder of the first-half for both sides. Newcastle kept the ball well, and in comparison to Wednesday, looked calm. The new-look attack of Mitrovic and Diame was blossoming with neat interchange between the pair when their defence needed to clear.
Beginning of the second-half - huge Mitrovic chance
Mitrovic's hold-up play is no fewer to anyone else in the Championship, it's his finishing that has been the issue in a difficult season so far for the Serbian. In the 48th minute, after a cross from Paul Dummett found its way to in the area, instead of taking time to compose himself, Mitrovic took the shot first time on the turn and disappointedly fired the ball past the post to squander an opportunity that should have made the game 2-0 to Newcastle.
Hayden then had to be replaced due to injury as Benitez dropped Diame deep with Perez taking up the number 10 position behind Mitrovic.
Derby slowly building - McClaren uses all options from bench
Although chances were limited at both ends, a sense of anxiety grew around St James' as Derby slowly grew into the tie. McClaren would have been happy with his Rams side after Mitrovic's miss as the Rams used the period after that to build momentum as flair winger Adoul Camera was introduced to try and threaten DeAndre Yedlin down the left-hand side.
The ex-Newcastle boss then started to throw all he had at Newcastle as another pace merchant in winger Ikechi Anya as central midfielder Johnson departed.
Ince misses sitter as the Rams create a tense finish
With 10 minutes left a play, a ball was lofted into the area - eluding United's defence. If Derby wanted any player on the end of a huge opportunity, it would be Tom Ince. As St James' stood standstill - waiting for the net to bulge, Ince slotted the ball wide of Darlow's goal to the relieve of the Newcastle supporters.
Balls were flying onto the United backline. Yedlin dramatically cleared an effort off the line in the dying stages of the game as Benitez and co held out for three points.