The wait is over. Newcastle United are back.
Back in the Premier League. And back where they belong.
This season’s been ordinary at times. But returning to the top flight at the first attempt is an extraordinary achievement.
The experience of relegated teams in recent years bears that out.
It’s been a long, hard and testing eight months.
There have been blood, sweat and tears along the way.
The Championship is as challenging as it is unforgiving, yet United, written off after two games, plotted a path through the division.
There were downs as well as ups. But Newcastle are up, and that’s all that matters.
They could yet wrestle the Championship title away from leaders Brighton, but that was never the No 1 aim.
Ayoze Perez netted twice and Matt Ritchie and Christian Atsu also found the net on a chilly night at St James’s Park.
It was all about the result. And Newcastle got the three points they needed.
Atsu’s strike on the stroke of half-time changed the game. And there was no stopping them once Ritchie put them two goals ahead.
Benitez had recalled Rob Elliot to his starting XI in a surprise move.
Elliot replaced Karl Darlow, one of United’s more consistent players, between the posts.
It was Elliot’s first appearance since March last year, when he suffered cruciate ligament damage on Republic of Ireland duty.
It didn’t take United long to get a breakthrough.
Aleksandar Mitrovic had a shot deflected wide, and Matt Ritchie’s corner was nodded on by Jamaal Lascelles for Ciaran Clark, whose shot went in off Perez at the back post.
Elliot denied Daniel Johnson after Preston broke forward quickly in the 11th minute.
Simon Grayson’s side would have more success on their next counter-attack. Mitrovic lost possession in the opposition box and within seconds Jordan Hugill had scored off his shin at the other end of the pitch.
It was the story of the first half hour. Newcastle weren’t confident enough with the ball and were vulnerable to the counter-attack.
Time and again, balls over the top left them in trouble. And the flow of game troubled Benitez, who spent most of it stood on the edge of his technical area.
Preston, for the most part, had been the more effective team, and the 449 visiting fans were enjoying seeing their side move the ball around the pitch to the frustration of everyone else inside St James’s Park.
As the break approached, Newcastle started to find spaces themselves. But they lacked the pace and penetration of Dwight Gayle, sidelined with a hamstring problem.
It took a break forward from Isaac Hayden to unlock Preston. He took possession in his own half and played the ball to Mitrovic as he approached the opposition box.
Mitrovic cleverly squared for Atsu, who sidefooted the ball past Chris Maxwell.
The keeper denied Perez early in the second half, and Newcastle had more confidence and composure in possession. But as in the first half, they looked vulnerable to balls over the top.
Shelvey was out of sorts, and Benitez’s side lacked a spark.
St James’s Park, however, was jolted into life just past the hour mark. Perez had an acrobatic shot saved by Maxwell, and Paul Gallagher handled on the line.
Referee Andrew Madley pointed to the spot and sent off Gallagher.
Ritchie converted the penalty, and this time, there was no encroachment. The goal stood. Game over.
Perez quickly followed it with another goal two minutes to make it 4-1.
And that was that. Newcastle were up.
Minute by minute, the clock ticked down. Minute by minute, United were closer to confirmation of their Premier League return.
On the pitch, United passed and probed, but they couldn’t add to their goal tally. Preston spent the last period of the game camped in and around the box.
When Madley called time on the game, there was a roar as Benitez ran on to the pitch to celebrate with his players.
Benitez’s staff were waiting for him when he finally left the pitch.
The celebrations continued in the dressing room.
Newcastle have come a long, long way in the space of 12 months. They’re a team now. And they’re a winning team.
And that’s thanks to one man.
Benitez was asked if he would be at the club next season after the game.
United’s manager, smiling, answered “you never know – that’s football”.
It was mischievous, but Benitez has delivered what he promised.
Now it’s over to owner Mike Ashley to deliver Benitez the funds he needs to build on this season’s success.