Newcastle United secured an immediate return to the Premier League with a convincing home victory over Preston.
Christian Atsu put the Magpies 2-1 up at half-time after Jordan Hugill had cancelled out an Ayoze Perez opener.
On a tense evening at St James’ Park, Newcastle nerves were settled when Preston’s Paul Gallagher was sent off for handling on the line and Matt Ritchie scored the resulting penalty.
Perez got his second from close range to send Newcastle up with Brighton.
Rafael Benitez’s side had taken only one point from their previous three matches, but their late-season wobble was not punished by their closest rivals.
Defeats for Reading and Huddersfield on Saturday left Newcastle needing one more win to guarantee a top-two finish.
Nerves were evident among the players and the crowd, which was in excess of 50,000, until Ritchie converted his spot-kick to stretch Newcastle’s advantage against 10-man Preston with 25 minutes to play.
The hosts took advantage of poor Preston defending for all four goals, with Perez netting twice from corners and Atsu finishing a counter-attack in first-half stoppage time after North End had lost possession in midfield.
Vindication for Benitez
Benitez had made a huge impression on Newcastle supporters in his two-month stint at St James’ Park, despite being unable to save the Magpies from dropping out of the Premier League at the end of last season.
He was widely expected to leave a club destined for the Championship – he was, after all, a former Champions League winner with Liverpool and had been in charge of Spanish giants Real Madrid only two months before replacing Steve McClaren.
However, instead of activating the break clause allowing him to leave Newcastle in the event of relegation, the Spaniard chose to sign a three-year contract.
“The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence for me,” said Benitez in May 2016, upon signing his new deal.
“This is a huge club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United. The main thing for me is that I have assurances that we will have a strong team – a winning team.”
Benitez told BBC Newcastle after the match: “I have to congratulate the players, the staff, everyone here in the club and city.
“In the end it was a very difficult task because it’s a very difficult division and we had to keep going and pushing. There are a lot of things you cannot control but in the end we are where we wanted to be.
“This day is massive because everyone said at the beginning you have to go straight up. You know from experience it’s not easy for any team, especially when you go down and have to change half the squad.
“I think it’s a really important achievement for everyone involved because you have to keep strong mentally and keep going for so many months.”
Newcastle forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had a number of chances to add to the scoreline against Preston, said: “Trust me, this team is really special. That’s the reason why we made it in the end.
“I didn’t believe when they told me this league was so hard, but for me this league, physically, is harder than the Premier League.
“We still have a chance to win the league but the most important thing is next year we have Premier League football here.”
How promotion was won
Benitez was backed extensively in the transfer market and more than £50m was spent as one of the most expensive squads in Championship history was assembled.
Among the incomings were striker Dwight Gayle and winger Ritchie, who cost a combined £22m from Crystal Palace and Bournemouth respectively and have repaid their sizeable transfer fees with 34 league goals between them this term.
Newcastle recouped all of that outlay and more with the sales of high-profile players such as Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend to Premier League clubs.
As for those who stayed following relegation, they have also played their part in Newcastle’s success.
Jonjo Shelvey, an England international as recently as November 2015, has featured in every league match he has been available for this season and been one of the team’s main creative forces in midfield.
Comparisons to 2009-10
Newcastle secured promotion this term with two games to spare, but they will not match the achievements of the last Magpies side to go up from the second tier in 2009-10.
They had been relegated in 2009 with the club’s record goalscorer Alan Shearer in caretaker charge – and began 2009-10 with Chris Hughton as caretaker manager.
After a positive start to the season, Hughton was given his first permanent managerial role in October and he led Newcastle to the title with 102 points from their 46 games – 23 points more than third-placed Nottingham Forest.
There was little investment in new players but the majority of the squad from the previous season remained. Captain Kevin Nolan led by example, scoring 17 league goals from midfield, a tally matched by emerging striker Andy Carroll.
Although promotion to the top flight has once again been achieved at the first opportunity, the Championship title is likely to elude Newcastle this time around.
Leaders Brighton – now managed by Hughton – will be crowned champions if they win either of their final two league matches.