Recalled striker Ayoze Perez netted a goal in each half as Newcastle United secured an instant return to the Premier League with a resounding 4-1 win over 10-man Preston North End.
Rafael Benitez’s side – resounding pre-season favourites for the Championship title – have faltered of late, winning only two of their previous eight matches as Brighton and Hove Albion stole a march on them in booking a top-flight place.
In the absence of top scorer Dwight Gayle, who has been struggling with hamstring problem, Perez came to the fore at a capacity St James’ Park, while Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie were also on target after Jordan Hugill levelled for Preston.
Ritchie scored Newcastle’s third from the penalty spot in the 65th minute, after Paul Gallagher was sent off for deliberate handball, and the celebrations could begin in earnest from that point.
FULL TIME Newcastle United 4-1 Preston North End
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) April 24, 2017
Aleksandar Mitrovic saw a curling shot deflected agonisingly wide and Perez pounced when the resulting corner skidded across goal.
Rob Elliot – starting his first Newcastle game for 400 days – saved well with his legs when Daniel Johnson streamed clear on a slick Preston break but the visitors showed their teeth once more to level with 15 minutes played.
Again they broke sharply, with Tom Barkhuizen cutting in from the left and finding Hugill for the striker to volley his 12th of the season beyond Elliot.
Nerves were palpable until Isaac Hayden dispossessed Aiden McGeady on the stroke of half-time to feed Mitrovic, whose clever first-time pass set up Atsu to raise the roof.
Gallagher’s reaction on the goal-line was impressively instinctive, if entirely illegal, when Newcastle’s set-plays again caused problems in the 64th minute.
Ritchie converted from 12 yards confidently to put the champagne on ice and when Jonjo Shelvey’s corner cannoned back off the post shortly afterwards, Perez was the man on the spot.
It was mission accomplished for Benitez, whose men will not entirely have given up hope of overhauling the four-point gap between themselves and Brighton at the summit with two matches remaining.