LAST December, Newcastle United goalkeeper Karl Darlow went through one of the toughest experiences of his career. Handed his Magpies debut at West Brom following an injury to Rob Elliot, Darlow freely admits he was “terrible” as his side slipped to a 1-0 defeat.

Darlow was at fault for the goal, allowing Darren Fletcher’s weak header to squirm through his grasp, and looked hesitant throughout as he struggled to deal with crosses into the box.

Heading back to Tyneside, he worried his one and only chance in Newcastle’s first team might have been and gone. Twelve months on, however, and it is safe to say those fears have abated.

Recalled when Elliot suffered another injury towards the end of last season, Darlow produced a series of much-improved performances despite Newcastle slipping out of the Premier League. He started the current campaign deputising for Matz Sels, but was promoted back into the team for September’s home win over Norwich and has not looked back since.

Composed, consistent and comfortable stopping shots, he has been a key figure in Newcastle’s rise to the top of the Championship table ahead of this evening’s game with Sheffield Wednesday. Earlier this month, he saved two penalties in the same game at Nottingham Forest, and even now, he looks back on his tortuous time at the Hawthorns and is grateful for how far he has come.

“I guess it has been quite a journey,” said Darlow, who is attracting attention from the Welsh FA as he is eligible to play for Wales as well as England thanks to his grandfather, Ken Leek, who played for Wales at the 1958 World Cup finals.

“That afternoon at West Brom was tough. I did not have a good game – in fact, I was terrible, and I am well aware of that. I just knew that from there, I had something to prove.

“But I always thought my ability would get me through. It was one of them where you just go back to the training ground and wait for your next chance, which for me came sooner rather than later at Norwich away.

“I then had a good run in the team at the back end of last season, and I always knew that given a run of games, I would be fine. So it was just a case of getting that run and building each and every week. I had done it before, and knew I had the qualities to get through.

“It’s sink or swim when you go through something like that really. You either get on with it and put it in the past, or you get yourself down by thinking, ‘Oh God, I have to go back out there again’. For me, after that West Brom game, all I wanted to do was get out there and play to prove to everyone I was good enough to play and be at this football club.”

Darlow has certainly done that, and since returning to the starting line-up in September, he has kept six clean sheets to help Newcastle cement their place at the top of the table.

Last weekend’s win at Burton kept the Magpies a point clear of second-placed Brighton, who host QPR tomorrow, but perhaps the more significant gap is the nine-point chasm that separates Newcastle from third-placed Reading.

That is a huge cushion with today’s game representing the halfway point of the campaign, and represents a stark turnaround from last season, when Newcastle could barely win a game prior to Rafael Benitez’s arrival.

Benitez’s appointment might have come too late to save the Magpies’ top-flight status, but it sparked a change in mood and performance that carried over into the current campaign.

“Newcastle fans have been on a bit of a rollercoaster,” said Darlow. “We were playing poor football (last season), but then we showed a bit of character towards the end. It gave the fans a bit of a boost, especially when the manager came in with his reputation.

“We showed we had a bit of fight and desire when the manager came in, and we played a lot better football. Then at the start of this season we didn’t start well with a couple of defeats, but we got going and to be nine points clear (of the play-offs) at this stage is massive.”

Ultimately, finishing in the top two is all that really matters this season, but having been at the top of the pile since mid-October, Newcastle’s players are already targeting a Championship winners’ medal.

Brighton have done exceptionally well to keep pace over the course of the last two months, but the depth of Newcastle’s squad, plus the possibility of them investing further in January, means they are worthy favourites to claim the title.

“Brighton have been unbelievable keeping up with us,” said Darlow. “It’s good competition between us and them because we look for their results and know we have to win to stay ahead of them.

“It is good, and it is better to have someone close to you because it keeps you concentrated. We want to get promoted, but we also want to win the league.”