SORRY I ROB-BED GLORY!

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEWS - By Chris Dunlavy

NEW­CAS­TLE keeper Rob El­liot has in­sisted there are no hard feel­ings be­tween him and Karl Dar­low – de­spite swip­ing his ri­val’s mo­ment of glory.

El­liot, 31, rup­tured his knee lig­a­ments on in­ter­na­tional duty with the Repub­lic of Ire­land last March, miss­ing both Euro 2016 and the ma­jor­ity of this sea­son.

Dar­low duly cap­i­talised on his ab­sence, dis­plac­ing sum­mer sign­ing Matz Sels as New­cas­tle’s No.1 and play­ing 34 con­sec­u­tive games to pro­pel the Mag­pies to the Cham­pi­onship sum­mit.

But the 26-year-old was sur­pris­ingly dropped for the pro­mo­tion-clinch­ing clash with Pre­ston last month, mean­ing El­liot – on his first start for over a year – was on the pitch to take the ac­claim.

Now El­liot could again be the man in the lime­light, with New­cas­tle need­ing a bet­ter re­sult than Brighton to win a sec­ond Cham­pi­onship ti­tle in seven years.

“Karl’s a top bloke and he’s been great about it,” said El­liot, who has been given the nod to start in to­day’s fi­nale at home to out-of-form Barnsley.

“He’s a re­ally good mate. We’re al­ways play­ing golf and mess­ing around. When I was in­jured and com­ing back, it was bril­liant to have him around – just to lift you sometimes when you are down.

“It’s not easy, es­pe­cially when you are com­ing back and you are hav­ing to wait and not play. It’s been bril­liant to see him do so well this sea­son.

Bril­liant

“He’s been the best keeper in the league this year by a mile. He has worked so hard. Last sea­son, when I was play­ing and he was on the bench, he backed me all the way.

“It’s been the same this year. It’s great that I’ve got the op­por­tu­nity to do the same thing – that I could be there and sup­port him and help him through the games like he did for me. It’s good that we have that re­la­tion­ship. At the end of the day, it’s the man­ager that makes the de­ci­sion, it’s noth­ing to do with us. We’re com­pet­ing for the same shirt but it doesn’t mean we can’t be mates.”

El­liot and Dar­low isn’t the only sta­ble re­la­tion­ship on Ty­ne­side this sea­son. Rafa Ben­itez has worked hard to re­build the con­nec­tion be­tween fans and play­ers that was sev­ered by the lack­lus­tre per­for­mances that ul­ti­mately led to rel­e­ga­tion from the top flight.

The Spa­niard has made it his pri­or­ity to sign play­ers – like Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle – for whom play­ing at New­cas­tle is a priv­i­lege, not a step­ping stone. Ti­tle or not, the Mag­pies are re­turn­ing to the Premier League a health­ier and more har­mo­nious unit.

Sta­bil­ity

“The at­mos­phere this year has been so much bet­ter,” added El­liot, who joined New­cas­tle from Charl­ton in 2011. “Sell­ing out the away end ev­ery match has just been amaz­ing.

“Hope­fully it will just keep grow­ing and the con­nec­tion be­tween the fans, the play­ers and the man­ager will keep tak­ing us for­ward.

“Go­ing into next year we will have some tough games at home, so hope­fully we can get that edge back with the at­mos­phere at the ground and that can help us get over the line a few times. When we are do­ing well, there is no bet­ter place to be.

“I think you’d be naïve to stay you are not look­ing just to stay up. You’ve got to look at that first be­fore you even think about where you want to fin­ish. Get to 40 points as quick as you pos­si­bly can and then see where you fin­ish. Hope­fully it will just be a good sea­son all round for the club. We need to get some sta­bil­ity back, make sure we are in the Premier League again and go from there.”

With best buds El­liot and Dar­low again vy­ing for the No.1 spot? “Hope­fully,” he added, “but you can’t re­ally look into it too much be­cause you don’t know what the man­ager has planned.

“You could see Pepe Reina walk through the door and then it’s like, ‘Ah, OK, what’s go­ing on here?’ You can never take any­thing for granted at this club.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

TOON DAR-LING: New­cas­tle’s Karl Dar­low saves from Sh­effield Wed­nes­day’s Fer­nando Forestieri and, in­set, Rob El­liot

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