Matt finish sends Newcastle top of the Championship as Ritchie denies Derby
Newcastle returned to the top of the Sky Bet Championship table as Matt Ritchie's deflected first-half strike secured a 1-0 win over Derby.
Rams boss Steve McClaren endured a frustrating return to St James' Park, having been dismissed as Newcastle head coach last March, with Ritchie's fourth goal in the last three games proving decisive.
The win took Newcastle back above Brighton, who have a game in hand, and leaves Rafael Benitez's side six points clear of the play-off places.
The Magpies merited their victory thanks to a dominant first-half display, although they were forced to survive some nervous moments in the closing stages, with DeAndre Yedlin heading Darren Bent's goal-bound header off the line in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
Newcastle had lacked tempo and impetus for much of Wednesday's 2-2 draw with QPR, but with Mo Diame's return in place of Ayoze Perez helping to add a physicality and directness to their midfield play, they were much sharper from the off this time.
Diame set up Isaac Hayden for an early side-footed effort that was saved by Scott Carson, and was also on target himself with a 20-yard strike as Newcastle dominated the opening 45 minutes.
The Senegal international was badly missed during his international hiatus at the African Nations Cup, and he was involved as the hosts claimed the lead shortly before the half-hour mark.
Diame fed Aleksandar Mitrovic in the area, the striker rolled the ball back into the path of Ritchie, and the Scotland international beat Carson with a shot that took a hefty deflection off Bradley Johnson.
The deflection meant Carson was not to blame, and the former England goalkeeper prevented Newcastle from moving further ahead when he saved Diame's fierce first-time strike after Yedlin had torn down the right to deliver a dangerous cross.
Derby's first-half threat was minimal, although Karl Darlow had to be alert when Johnny Russell turned dangerously in the area to get a shot away.
The visitors went into the game having lost just twice since the end of October, but they should have been two goals behind within the opening three minutes of the second half.
Ritchie nodded Paul Dummett's cross back across the area, but after turning neatly, Mitrovic dragged a 10-yard shot wide of the target.
The miss meant Newcastle were forced to endure a nervy second half, but while Derby enjoyed much more possession after the interval, they struggled to find a way through a well-drilled Magpies defence.
Grant Hanley impressed as he deputised for the injured Jamaal Lascelles, while Yedlin combined his rampaging attacking runs with stout defensive work at the opposite end of the field.
Derby were waiting for one golden chance, but when it came with nine minutes left, they were unable to convert it. Tom Ince was unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box as he met Abdoul Camara's cross, but with the goal at his mercy he somehow side-footed wide.
The Rams also went close deep into stoppage time, but while Bent got up well to meet Ince's corner at the back post, Yedlin headed the ball to safety as he back-pedalled towards the goal line.