OVER TO YOU ON ATSU, FANS TELL RAFA

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By An­drew Cof­fey

NEW­CAS­TLE man­ager Rafa Ben­itez re­fused to con­firm one way or the other whether he would be chas­ing a per­ma­nent deal in the sum­mer for Chris­tian Atsu after the Ghana­ian’s per­for­mance in a his­tory-mak­ing tri­umph over Cardiff left Mag­pies fans purring.

The 25-year-old, who is on a sea­son-long loan at St James’ Park from Premier League lead­ers Chelsea, opened the scor­ing at Cardiff City Sta­dium with a sub­lime free-kick on 55 min­utes.

That capped a sparkling dis­play out wide from the Ghana in­ter­na­tional, but de­spite New­cas­tle fans beg­ging Ben­itez to se­cure the sig­na­ture of Chelsea’s peren­nial loa­nee for next sea­son, he re­mained coy on his fu­ture.

“The fu­ture of a player doesn’t change with one ac­tion or goal,” said Ben­itez. “We know that he’s a good player. We have to de­cide. I’m re­ally pleased with him. We have to see where we are in terms of the squad and all th­ese things.”

It was “busi­ness as usual” on the pitch for the Mag­pies ac­cord­ing to Ben­itez, de­spite Thurs­day’s raid on St James’ Park by Rev­enue and Cus­toms of­fi­cers just days after the club se­cured an im­me­di­ate re­turn to the Premier League.

Ten min­utes after Atsu’s opener, Isaac Hay­den – who buzzed around the mid­field with bags of pur­pose all game – smashed home a won­der­ful long-range ef­fort to make it 2-0 and game over.

The vic­tory meant New­cas­tle’s class of 2017 en­ter the record books with 14 away wins and put pres­sure on ti­tle ri­vals Brighton’s game against Bris­tol City 24 hours later. The 14 road tri­umphs are the most in the club’s his­tory, sur­pass­ing Kevin Kee­gan’s record of 13 wins in the 1992/93 sea­son, and Ben­itez tipped his cap to a job well done by his charges in front of 4,000 trav­el­ling fans.

He said: “I am re­ally pleased be­cause the play­ers have done so well dur­ing the whole sea­son, es­pe­cially away.

“It was a pity not to break the record be­fore. To get it in the next game after the pro­mo­tion is quite pos­i­tive for any­body in a re­la­tion­ship with New­cas­tle. We have done our job.

“When you play away it’s al­ways good for your fans if you can win, but es­pe­cially when it’s a long, long trip and you break a record. The fans are de­lighted and they can go back happy.”

The lively away end had ref­eree Gra­ham Scott to thank in a first half of few chances, after he ruled out a header by Blue­birds cap­tain Sean Mor­ri­son for a foul on Ciaran Clark.

And fol­low­ing New­cas­tle’s dou­ble after the in­ter­val, both Bruno Ecuele Manga and Craig Noone were guilty of wast­ing good chances to give Neil Warnock’s side a life­line, leav­ing the Cardiff boss frus­trated.

“We had good chances and fin­ish­ing those is what you pay for. I’m try­ing to get more goals in the team, that’s what I’m look­ing for in the sum­mer,” he said.

“We were a bit un­lucky. I didn’t see any­thing wrong with Mor­ri­son’s header, it’s a very soft foul. If you look at the free-kick he gave for their first goal, it’s a noth­ing free-kick. We have to start ed­u­cat­ing play­ers what to do when you get a ref­eree like that.

“I thought (Gra­ham Scott) had a bad game. He was poor with his po­si­tion­ing and in­ter­pre­ta­tion.”

PIC­TURE: ProS­ports/ An­drew Lewis

MAK­ING A FIST OF IT: Chris­tian Atsu cel­e­brates after scor­ing from a free-kick, in­set

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