Shocks, dramatic exits and an episode with Butcher; no I’m afraid not an episode of Eastenders but a season with Newport County AFC.
Similar to the infamous Albert Square it’s been a busy time at Rodney Parade that concluded with the Exiles’ defeat to AFC Wimbledon last weekend. In their third season in League Two County finished in 22nd position and aim to improve next season.
The back of last season saw the arrival of England legend Terry Butcher as manager – the man famous for his blood-covered face in England’s brutal 1989 World Cup qualifying match in Sweden. Butcher didn’t take long to draw blood himself in the squad, as he let a staggering fifteen players exit the Welsh club. The likes of regular first team starters Robbie Willmott, Max Porter and Andy Sandell were let go. Meanwhile undoubtedly the spine of the team (Lenny Pidgeley, Darren Jones, Lee Minshull and Aaron O’Connor) were detached – the first signs of a worrying start for Butcher.
Butcher built his starting squad mostly from the Conference; in defence Danny Holmes joined from previously relegated Tranmere Rovers and Scott Barrow from Macclesfield. Midfield saw Gateshead’s Alex Rodman join alongside foreign addition Medy Elito. His starting strikers consisted of Grimsby Town’s play-off final scorer Lenell John-Lewis and Halifax poacher Scott Boden. Other signings saw Seth Nana Twumasi, Rhys Taylor, Matt Taylor and Nathan Ralph join, but all went on to leave before the end of the season.
Alongside the new additions the former Inverness manager started Acadamy youngsters Kieran Parselle, Tom Owen-Evans and Aaron Collins; all of which wanting to step in the footsteps of Regan Poole who had already established himself as a first team player even before his eighteenth birthday.
In their first trip on the road the Exiles traveled to Cambridge, in what was an even game County failed to show the clinical edge in a 3-0 defeat at the Abbey Stadium. After a valiant effort against Championship’s Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup they returned to Rodney Parade aiming to build on a much-improved performance at Molinuex as they hosted Stevenage.
Trailing at half-time County turned things around with Scott Boden and teenager Aaron Collins scoring twice, but just as the Exiles looked to secure a win Boro’s Mark Hughes headed in an equaliser for Teddy Sheringham’s side. The side would go on to struggle, losing all of their remaining league games in the opening month against Hartlepool, Leyton Orient and Plymouth.
Financial matters were placed under speculation, with Euro Millions winning chairman Les Scadding announcing his planned departure the summer, it made the club look for a potential owner. July saw the Supporters Trust plan their move to take over the club, whilst August then saw the Trust announce the target to raise which reached £225,000 before October.
September saw the Trust figures edge closer to the target, and Les Scadding had announced any money gained from transfers would go towards the figure. Hot prospect Regan Poole was a sought out prospect, the teenager had caught the eye of Bristol City and Fulham before a trial at Liverpool in the summer. Yet the eighteen-year-old defender was to be purchased by Manchester United – a dream move and a huge boost for the academy. The trust now needed just shy of £200,000 for the takeover.
Meanwhile on the pitch things weren’t improving for Terry Butcher’s men. County suffered a shocking 0-3 home defeat to York before a last minute defeat to Morecambe; the defeat left them sunk at the bottom of the table. Butcher secured a draw at Dagenham before his first victory against Carlisle. But the former Inverness manager was heavily under pressure despite County’s win at Brunton Park, on Tuesday night County made a bigger step towards the drop when facing fellow strugglers Crawley. In what was a utterly horrendous performance – they were stuffed 0-3 by Mark Yates’ outfit.
October saw the Trust finally reach their target and successfully took over the club; Newport County AFC had now become a supporter’s owned club. A historic day for all those members and the trust didn’t take long before they made their first major move, sacking boss Terry Butcher. Butcher left after picking up five points from his opening ten, and a change had to be made to stop the club’s continuing slump into the Conference.
The club brought in John Sheridan, an well-travelled manager with experience at a number of Football League clubs. Sheridan’s first game in charge saw an uplifted side draw against Exeter City, before two more defeats to Mansfield and Portsmouth. But Sheridan’s work was to unravel the following week, County travelled to Wycombe and a much-improved performance saw the club secure their second win of the season. They followed the win by one of the club’s season’s highlights, a 1-4 thrashing over Severnside derby rivals Bristol Rovers.
A run of four draws led towards their first home win of the season against Luton Town, lifting them safely away from the relegation zone. Luton became known as the ‘McBurnie’ game, the nineteen-year-old came on making his debut from the bench just after an hour, before the Swansea City striker bagged a hat-trick for the Exiles. Not a bad way to introduce yourself…
December was a mixed month, with defeats against Notts County, Barnet and Plymouth and a draw against AFC Wimbledon. But County had made history, Scott Boden had fired the Exiles into the FA Cup Third Round, the first time in the club’s history. Meanwhile Rodney Parade’s pitch had begun to become problematic, the stadium also used by two rugby teams was being hit hard by the battering winter rain in South Wales and the club were forced to postpone a number of games over the period.
County’s pitch issues meant it took over two weeks for the Welsh club to play their first match in the New Year. However when Oldham Athletic sacked David Dunn, the County’s boss Sheridan was approached by his former club where he spent over six years as a player and three years as a manager. But Oldham approached the former Irish international without informing Newport, and a day later Sheridan agreed a deal to sign for the Lancashire side. Leaving assistant Warren Feeney to continue on the legacy and keep up County.
Feeney’s opener was an important one, against relegation rivals York. Aaron Collins’ early strike enough to take all three points. County then played their big cup tie, Blackburn Rovers. The former Premier League champions led early on, before Mark Byrne fired a perfect leveller in the top right corner. Rovers went down to ten men, but clinical striker Jordan Rhodes headed out County’s FA Cup dream.
In the league County’s form was improving, a draw against Dagenham followed a loss to Leyton Orient; Kevin Nolan’s side awarded a late penalty that Feeney later described as “one of the worst decisions I’ve seen”.
They may not have had luck in London, but Feeney’s men were improving and playing better as a team. A visit to Morecambe allowed the Exiles to finally break their poor run against Jim Bentley’s side; after five defeats Newport secured a 1-2 win at The Globe. Striker Scott Boden had begun to prove his clinical edge in front of the home fans, the former Halifax man scoring in all of Newport’s run of three successive 1-0 wins at Rodney Parade in February sandwiched between a draw at Exeter and defeat in Crawley.
Youngster Aaron Collins continued to impress as County’s strike force. His performances weren’t going under the radar, Wolverhampton Wanderers agreed a deal to sign Collins. He became the second academy graduate to be signed in the season. Meanwhile County continued to cash their cheques when Conor Washington completed his move to QPR, Newport’s sell-on clause taking in over half a million pounds; a huge sum of money for one of the League’s smallest clubs.
Newport were edging clear of relegation, a place that seemed a long way off back in October but the job was by no means complete and the side still had plenty of problems. Inconsistency, the biggest issue; after a dreadful performance against Barnet mid-week out of nowhere County travelled to Portsmouth’s Fratton Park defeating the former FA Cup winners in a 0-3 trouncing! A funny week that pushed County even closer to safety.
The historic and memorable win at Portsmouth may have allowed County to turn off the pace and their form slipped down at the end of the year. Following a draw against Hartlepool, County went on their worst run since 2006 enduring six successive defeats. Performances against the likes of Cambridge and Stevenage looked effortless and half-hearted; worrying signs for the future. Feeney himself commenting on his plans to bring in a ‘new squad’ for next season.
After a stronger performance against Oxford United in April, County went on to secure their Football League status against Luton after loan signing Souleymane Coulibably headed in a late equaliser at Kenilworth Road, before losing to Notts County and closing out the season with another defeat at the hands of AFC Wimbledon. County finished the season as winless from 11.
So is it a season to forget for Newport fans? Not necessarily. In what has been a year of mostly defeats County will start next season afresh, Butcher signed ‘risky’ players whose ability in the higher leagues were questionable.
Scott Boden, Scott Barrow and Alex Rodman made the step-up from the Conference and become leading figures in the season. But Feeney’s style of signings will be different, the Northern Irishman has planned to bring in players with ‘League One and League Two pedigree’. Whether he can with a tight budget will be difficult, so it is hard to judge how the Exiles will do next season. But surely it can’t be as much as a rollercoaster? Then again that’s football!