Separation Sunday: The Anatomy of Newport County
To the casual observer, Newport County appear to be in a good position. Having only re-emerged from Non-League in 2013, league football is gracing this corner of South Wales for the first time since 1988 – a year before the current club formed. County’s 9th placed finish in League Two last season saw The Exiles miss out on the play-offs by only six points, and comfortably improve on the previous campaign’s finish of 14th place.
The past six months however, have been an off-field ordeal which has delivered blow after blow to the optimism which had surrounded the club’s evocative Rodney Parade ground. In February 2015, Justin Edinburgh – the charismatic manager responsible for much of the club’s recent success – left for the (relatively) bright lights of Gillingham. Two months later, County’s combative talisman Chris Zebroski was handed a lengthy jail sentence for a slew of offences, and the club had little option but to terminate the troubled forward’s deal.
The following week, it seemed that the headlines and on-field form might be slowly getting back on track, as County tore into Russ Wilcox’s hapless York City, winning 2-0 at Bootham Crescent, in a game where a four or five goal margin wouldn’t have flattered temporary gaffer Jimmy Dack and his County side.
But after a welcome end to a difficult period, last month’s resignation of Lottery winner and County chairman Les Scadding – who had bankrolled the club since August 2012 – added financial instability to the already troubled climate of a lost star on the field and a highly-rated young manager in the dugout. However, developments in recent days suggest a supporters trust takeover, á la Exeter City, looks likely. In theory it’s a positive development, but steady hands will be needed to guide the ship out of trouble.
With all this instability surrounding the club, it was no surprise that County’s form took a dip in the closing months of the season. The side picked up just a solitary point from their final four home games, and won just three league games from the end of February. A home defeat to Dagenham and Redbridge just 24 hours after Zebroski’s incarceration was the nadir, and incumbent boss Terry Butcher will have to turn the squad’s diminishing morale around quickly.
Whilst Dack always seemed unlikely to be the Exiles manager heading into 2015-16, the choice of his successor has raised eyebrows across England and left mouths agape in certain parts of Edinburgh (the city!). Butcher may have been renowned for his steely determination and strength as a player, but his last managerial experience was awash with tactical mishaps and reports of an alienated dressing room.
Butcher presided over a genuinely shocking debacle at Hibs, where he somehow relegated a talented and stable squad, taking them from mid-table to a humiliating drop in just under 7 months at Easter Road. If Butcher wants to repay the immense faith placed in him by the County board, his treatment of the squad at Rodney Parade will have to adapt and improve his man-management. Especially because, despite all the issues listed above, Newport County have retained a core of genuinely excellent League Two players.Last summer, County brought many little-known names into the fold, and gelled them into a cohesive, fairly attractive side within the first few weeks of the season proper. This was a side who showed a penchant for winning games in style, but also had the physical and mental strength to grind out results against some of the division’s more robust and/or defensive outfits.
The skilful Yan Klukowski and reliable Mark Byrne were both brought in from Conference Premier clubs, whilst the defensive rock that is Kevin Feely was desperate to prove himself after a paucity of gametime at Charlton Athletic. At the time of writing, all three remain at the club – it’s now up to Butcher to get as much out of them as Justin Edinburgh did.
The result of last season’s blend of talent, grit and sporadic flair was a number of standout displays from The Port, especially in the sanctuary of Rodney Parade. Indeed, for much of the season, the club looked likely to experience play-off football and possibly even challenge for automatic promotion.
County demolished AFC Wimbledon 4-1 as inspired loan signing Joe Pigott stole the show. Aaron O’Connor provided a memorable hat-trick as they defeated now-promoted Bury 3-1 at Gigg Lane. A fiercely resolute team performance won a tight, scrappy fixture at Cheltenham 1-0, as Zebroski grabbed a timely winner.
Those positives, though, are tinged with the frustrating realisation that all three players mentioned have gone, as has Justin Edinburgh, the man who oversaw all three victories. This is a club which has and will continue to have the ability to attract talented players.
The struggle is identifying those players and moulding them into a viable and vibrant team. Whether Terry Butcher can do the latter remains to be seen, though the very early signs suggest that the new man in the Rodney Parade hotseat has no trouble enticing the best talents in Non-League – a skill on which Edinburgh built much of the club’s success.
So, what does the coming campaign have in hold? It feels like a brave new world for County, facing League Two football for the first season without Edinburgh at the helm, and with the make-up of the boardroom in a state of flux. The buys so far – including imposing F.C. Halifax Town forward Scott Boden – appear shrewd, but the arrival of so many new faces means some period of transition is likely.
A mid-table finish seems likely for County this season, and my estimate is somewhere between 12th-14th. This is a squad with too much talent and nous to be dragged into a relegation battle, but without O’Connor and Zebroski, seemingly lacks the firepower for a realistic promotion push. Still, it’s all to play for, and Terry Butcher will be determined to build a legacy and reputation of polar opposites to his tenure at Hibs.