NINETY-FIVE points down, one more to go. After Newcastle recorded their 28th win of the season last night, the Championship title could hardly be any closer.
Kevin Nolan's first-half double set up a hard-fought victory at Reading, and while Danny Simpson's 70th-minute own goal made for a fraught finale, the Magpies will now travel to relegation-threatened Plymouth on Monday needing to claim only a draw to be guaranteed top spot at the end of the season.
In truth, they don't even need that, as their 13-goal advantage over second-placed West Brom means it will take an incredible turnaround to deny Chris Hughton's side, even if they were to lose all three of their remaining matches.
They are clearly determined to see things off in style however, and last night's gritty victory, which took their unbeaten run to 14 games, provided further confirmation of the gulf that separates them from the rest of the division.
The likes of Nolan, Danny Guthrie and Wayne Routledge possessed too much class for a Reading side that still harboured hopes of making the play-offs at kick-off and, as a result, the Tyneside faithful can now look forward to a trophy presentation during the final home game of the season in 11 days time. Bus or no bus, that will be some occasion.
Last night was a rather less evocative event, but Newcastle still deserve considerable credit for the professional manner in which they overcame resilient opponents to secure victory.
The opening 20 minutes were arguably as uncomfortable as anything they have faced all season, and with the in-form Jimmy Kebe targeting makeshift left-back Simpson, the Magpies' defenders never appeared comfortable.
Their unease was apparent as early as the 11th minute as a breakdown in communications between Fabricio Coloccini and Steve Harper allowed Long to nip in between the pair, only for the Reading striker to roll the ball across the face of an unguarded net from an acute angle.
When Harper fluffed his clearance shortly after following more defensive dallying from Coloccini, a goal did not look too far away. As has been the case so often this season, though, when it duly arrived midway through the first half, it was Newcastle confounding the run of play to break the deadlock.
The visitors had barely entered the Reading penalty area when Harper drilled a long kick upfield, but Shola Ameobi did superbly to hold the ball up with his back to goal, and Nolan timed his run on the striker's outside to perfection.
His subsequent shot was hardly the cleanest he has ever hit, but while Royals goalkeeper Adam Federici got a hand to it, he was unable to keep it out of the bottom corner of the net.
Suddenly, Newcastle were energised, and after Ameobi headed Jonas Gutierrez's right-wing cross past the upright, Routledge prodded narrowly past the opposite post after the increasingly-impressive Guthrie prised the Reading defence apart.
Guthrie looks to have improved considerably this season, and it will be interesting to see how his all-action style fares against the leading midfielders in the country next term.
He played an integral role in Newcastle's second goal three minutes before the break, rolling in Routledge as he galloped into space on the overlap.
The former QPR winger cut a driven cross across the face of the six-yard box, and Nolan was unmarked again as he volleyed home his second of the night from close range.
The strike made it five goals in four games for the one-time England hopeful, a player whose return to the Premier League will be eagerly anticipated following his rejuvenation.
Somehow, though, it is hard to imagine him scoring 18 times next season, as he now has in this.
He could hardly have come closer to making it 19 yesterday, with his back-post header from Routledge's 52nd-minute cross rebounding off the base of the left-hand upright.
Even then his second hattrick of the season was still in the offing, but as the ball spun back towards the goalmouth, defender Brynjar Gunnarsson cleared it off the line.
Gunnarsson calmness was commendable, and stood in direct contrast to the panic that afflicted the Newcastle defence as Reading pulled a goal back in the 70th minute.
Steve Harper saved Simon Church's header, and a rushed clearance from Jose Enrique was blocked in a crowded penalty area.
Even then, there was still an opportunity for Simpson to clear as the ball looped back towards the net, but with bodies all around him, the Magpies defender succeeded only in slicing into his own net.
Reading spent the final quarter-of-an-hour pushing for an equaliser, but Gutierrez came closest to scoring with a stoppage-time strike that flashed inches wide.
Matchfacts Goals: Nolan (20mins, 0-1; 42, 0-2), Simpson (own goal, 70, 1-2) Bookings: Nolan (8mins, dissent), Pearce (28, foul), Tabb (59, dissent), R Taylor (63, foul), Ameobi (78, persistent foul play) Referee: Fred Graham (Stevenage) 4 Attendance: 23,163 Entertainment:
READING (4-2-3-1): Federici 4; Griffin 5, Gunnarsson 5, Pearce 4, Bertrand 4; Tabb 5 (Church 60mins 5), Howard 4: Kebe 6, Sigurdsson 5, McAnuff 5 (Robson-Kanu 66mins 5); LONG 6 (Rasiak 80mins). Subs (not used): Hamer (gk), Cisse, Henry, Karacan.
NEWCASTLE (4-4-1-1): Harper 6; R Taylor 6, Coloccini 6, Williamson 7, Simpson 6 (Enrique 46mins 6); Routledge 7 (Barton 75mins), Smith 6, GUTHRIE 8 (Carroll 75mins), Gutierrez 6; Nolan 8; Ameobi 6. Subs (not used): Krul (gk), Pancrate, Lovenkrands, Best.
MAN OF THE MATCH DANNY Guthrie The club's best player in the last two months