Newport and the search for renaissance

Flying the flag for football in Wales…

WALES were one of the darlings of Euro 2016, and rightly so, for their performances put more celebrated nations to shame. But whether the success of Chris Coleman’s team marked the start of something significant and sustainable remains to be seen – at the moment, they are in a three-way battle in their 2018 World Cup qualifying group with the Republic of Ireland and Serbia.

At club level, it is unlikely to make much of a difference. The Welsh Premier League, for example, has seen attendances decline by 3% in 2016-17. The New Saints, who have enjoyed significant publicity owing to their record-breaking run of wins, play in front of less than 300 people and their crowds have fallen by almost 30%. The best supported club in the domestic league is CP Dinas Bangor with an average that touches 500. The overall league average is 317.

p1100554At a higher level, all the major Welsh clubs are declining at the turnstile, not to mention on the pitch. Swansea City, as well as going through managers at a rate comparable to the legendary hire-them, fire-them president Jesus Gil, are struggling for their Premier League lives, but crowds have also fallen slightly in the process. There’s been a similar drop at Cardiff in percentage terms and the Bluebirds are only a few places above the relegation zone. As for Newport County, they are pinned to the bottom of League Two and are favourites to return to non-league football. Crowds at Rodney Parade have gone down by almost 5%. But it’s not all bad news for the County – they recently announced a profit for 2015-16 season of £ 340,000 which was boosted by the sale of Regan Poole to Manchester United and Aaron Collins to Wolverhampton Wanderers, but was nevertheless a big improvement on 2014-15 when the club lost £677,000.

Newport’s own economy was built on manufacturing. Steel was one of main employers and just 40 miles away, there’s Port Talbot, the steel plant that has dominated the news in recent months.  It is an area that has suffered a very high level of youth unemployment and one that has had more than its share of hardship. That said, according to recent figures, unemployment in Wales is lower than the UK overall.

A year ago, there was talk of Newport, Bristol and Cardiff becoming a “Great Western Powerhouse”, but similar ambitions have been tabled involving other cities in Britain but still the overwhelming emphasis is on London. “Mention recovery to people in Newport and people will laugh at you,” said a recent report in the Guardian when discussing the British economy. Needless to say, 56% of Newport folk wanted to leave the European Union.

Football in Newport has mirrored the economic ups-and-downs of the city. This, of course, is the second coming of Newport as a Football League club. In the 1980s, Newport County reached the last eight of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, losing to East Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena. But in 1987, they were relegated from the old third division and a year later, they dropped out of the Football League. Crowds had slumped to below 2,000 and bankruptcy followed in February 1989 with Newport failing to complete their first Conference season. By 1993, Somerton Park, the club’s home from 1912, had been demolished and a new housing estate built in its place.

Newport had enough about them to reform, however, and in 1989, Newport AFC set up home some 80 miles away in the picturesque Cotswold town of Moreton-in-Marsh. It was a strange move, but also an encouraging story for any club that found themselves in dire trouble. In fact, it was probably the first of the so-called “phoenix clubs”.

The light at the end of the footbridge

Newport reclaimed the County part of their original name in 1999 and in 2013, won promotion  to the Football League. They’ve finished 14th, 9th and 22nd in the three years preceding 2016-17. Crowds have dropped each year and they are currently 26% lower than when the club re-entered the Football League. The 2015-16 ended with no wins in the last 11 games and the current campaign started in a manner suggesting another tough time for the Exiles.

Manager Warren Feeney was sacked in September 2016 after eight months in charge. Graham Westley was appointed a couple of weeks later but Newport’s season seemed to go from bad to worse. Westley is an intelligent manager, schooled in the art of marketing speak. When he was in non-league football at Farnborough, he was behind the club using corporate visual identity and branding to good effect – “the club with the right attitude” and similar slogans. He’s had three spells with Stevenage and short stints with Preston North End, Rushden and Peterborough United. Looking at Newport’s position, it would be hard to talk the task up.

But he’s trying, claiming “ours is a high risk strategy, but it is a fool who keeps doing the same thing with the same people and expecting different results”. Translated, that means plenty of new faces to try and turnaround Newport’s season. The fans have been patient, even if they now voting with their feet.

Game of the People visited Newport on January 14 for the club’s game with Colchester United. You walk though the standard town centre to a newly developed area on the banks of the River Usk. There’s a lot of property gone up along this stretch, although you suspect that a lot has to do with the university. From the town, you walk across a dramatic footbridge that allows you to see the size of a river that has, apparently, played an important role in the history of Wales.

There were not many people walking across the footbridge to Rodney Parade, retail therapy was clearly winning the day in Newport. Eight consecutive league defeats may have had something to do with that. Westley, who admitted that, “I suspected there must be deep issues when I arrived and having been here for 19 games, I can see most of them,” told the local press that such a run of successive defeats was embarrassing and humiliating.

p1100591He looked upbeat enough, applauding the fans behind the dugout along with his assistant and acolyte Dino Maamria. The crowd responded well, so the management team must be doing something right.

Rodney Parade, the ground Newport share with the local rugby club, was sparsely filled. Around 300 Colchester fans travelled to Wales, despite the bitterly cold weather. Colchester had been riding high and clearly fancied themselves as play-off contenders. On paper, this looked to be an easy away win.

Newport had signed a cluster of new players in the days leading up to the game, including defender Mickey Demetriou, Huddersfield striker Flo Bojaj and Swansea youngster Alex Samuel. Nine players had arrived at Rodney Parade since New Year’s Day.

Newport started well against Colchester and certainly didn’t look like a team low on confidence. Sid Nelson, one of the recent acquisitions, looked very skilful and effective at the back. It was a surprise to find the 21 year-old at this low level after seeing his early games for Millwall. But he’s on loan and committed to the cause of keeping Newport up. “I will give it 110%,” he said after arriving in Wales.

The local favourite is David Pipe, who recently returned to the club from Eastleigh. He’s a wise old head  but very popular with the supporters. “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every *******, David Pipe, David Pipe.” Although he looked a little rusty at times, the 33 year-old has a great attitude and is the just the sort of character you want in the trenches when you’re battling relegation. No wonder Westley said his return to Rodney Parade was a “no brainer”.

p1100592Newport took the lead in the 23rd minute when Josh Sheehan sent a low shot just inside Sam Walker’s right hand post. In the 35th minute, Colchester’s Kurtis Guthrie rolled over the leg of Darren Jones for a somewhat tame penalty. Colchester skipper Chris Porter netted from the spot. “Cheating bastards, you bloody cheating bastards,” screamed the Newport man next to me. “Where are you from ref, Essex?” Michael Salisbury hails from Preston, a long way from the Essex garrison town.

The ground, which had been fairly noisy for the first half hour or so, became quiet, a sign of sagging confidence on and off the field. But that’s who the game finished 1-1, nothing seismic, but when you’ve just lost eight on the bounce, anything that stops the rot has to be seen as progress. Westley talked of “turning points”, and he might be right. Much will depend on the next few weeks as new players bed-in and others arrive. Newport have 21 games to go, starting with a trip to Barnet on January 21 and a home game with Hartlepool seven days later. Although they grabbed a point, their plight just got worse – they are now six points from avoiding relegation. You can’t help but wish them well.

That was Newport then…our next game will be at Carl Zeiss Jena. Let’s see how they have fared since meeting their Welsh opponents in 1981!

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